Histrionics. Accusations. Staging walk outs from interviews. Intra-party scuffles. Friends turning foes. Ideologies that change overnight. And 24×7 war of words on Twitter. There has never been a dull day in Delhi since 12 January, when the Election Commission (EC) announced the date of polling in the Capital. The voting for the Delhi Assembly will be held on 7 February. And the run-up to it has reached a crescendo.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the tone for the election two days before the EC’s announcement, when he addressed the supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi on 10 January. He referred to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal as an anarchist. “If you like creating anarchy, go to the jungles and join the Naxals,” Modi taunted him.
Kejriwal bought the bait, but waited until dates for the election were announced. He took on Modi on 13 January, a day after the ec announced the election schedule. Reacting to Modi’s barbs, Kejriwal advised the prime minister to abstain from using accusatory language. “The prime minister launched an attack on me at a rally. He said that Arvind Kejriwal is a Naxal. Am I a Naxal? Do I need to go to a forest?” the aap leader asked at a rally in north Delhi’s Wazirpur Assembly constituency. “This does not suit the prime minister. Should the BJP do this (resort to such attacks)?”
While Kejriwal took on Modi, the aap machinery put all its energy and resources into targeting the BJP’s Delhi unit. The day he took on Modi, Kejriwal accused BJP state president Satish Upadhyay of being involved with a company that supplies electricity meters to power distribution companies in Delhi. He alleged that firms owned by Upadhyay installed and replaced meters for the power distribution companies. The allegation left the BJP red-faced not only because the price of electricity and faulty electricity meters was becoming a major poll issue but Upadhyay was until then seen as a strong contender for the cm’s post.
Although Upadhayay hit back at Kejriwal for “running a factory of lies” and responded with a defamation notice, the BJP sensed that it lacked a credible face within its ranks who could be pitted against Kejriwal.
Within a day, on 14 January, the BJP’s strategists swung into action. Late at night, the party decided to induct Kejriwal’s friend-turned-foe Kiran Bedi into its fold. It was formalised the next morning. By 19 January, BJP president Amit Shah had declared her the party’s chief ministerial candidate. Some political pundits described it as a masterstroke
Paradropping Bedi has not gone down well with a section of the BJP, which sees her as the proverbial outsider with a none-too-impressive track record, first as a police officer and later as a colleague of Kejriwal in Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement. The day after Bedi was projected as the cm candidate, Bhojpuri actor and BJP mp Manoj Tiwari reacted, saying, “Delhi needs a leader, not Commisa thanedaar (constable). I didn’t like the way she spoke to BJP workers a few days ago. She should be humble. She has been brought on as a BJP worker. She is not the chief ministerial candidate,” It is learned that even senior party leader Arun Jaitley was not very keen in bringing Bedi on board.
Shah had earlier announced that the party would go to the polls without declaring its cm candidate as it had done in the recently concluded elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir. With Kejriwal upping the ante against the BJP, within days of the election date being announced, Shah realised that not announcing a chief ministerial candidate would hurt the party’s interests in the state. Bedi is his trumpcard.
In rejecting the candidature of several senior leaders who were eyeing Delhi’s top chair, Shah broke the party’s convention by projecting an outsider as its cm face. “We have different strategies for different states,” he said in his defence. “The BJP had contested the polls in Rajasthan by projecting Vasundhara Raje as the CM. In Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Chouhan was projected,” he added, although AAP was quick to suggest that the BJP was shying away from turning the election into a Modi vs Kejriwal contest.
While Shah is clearly keeping his cards close to his chest, projecting Bedi as the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate has brought out the rift within the party. On 20 January, Upadhyay’s supporters staged a protest outside the state BJP office on Pandit Pant Marg, unhappy over him being denied a ticket. Later in the day, Upadhyay sought to pacify them by saying that he was not interested in contesting the polls at all. “I never demanded a ticket and am not upset over not being named as the cm candidate. It was my personal decision to not contest the election,” he said. The same day, posters of Bedi were vandalised outside the BJP headquarters.
While the BJP is busy fighting fires in its backyard, AAP has taken the war of words to the social media. Once the news of Bedi and Shazia Ilmi joining the BJP started trending on social media platforms, aap supporters started retweeting old tweets of the two leaders, which were directed at the BJP and Narendra Modi. AAP ’s social media campaign against Bedi and Ilmi is run by Kumar Vishwas, one of the founder-members of the party.
Vishwas posted more than half-a-dozen old tweets by Bedi, in which she had aired her views on the Congress, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For instance, “One day, Namo will have to respond with clarity about riot massacre,” she had tweeted on 16 March 2013.
In a subtle attack on Ilmi, Kejriwal retweeted one of her old tweets, dated 21 November 2013, which read, “Hypocrisy, thy name is BJP”. The tweet by Ilmi, who was in AAP at the time, criticises the BJP and the Congress over their funding.
Replying to AAP’s strategy of retweeting old tweets, Shazia says, “Our old tweets are being retweeted. I used to believe in Kejriwal as a leader. There were reasons behind my parting ways with the party. Now, I am seeing a new light in Modi”.
The battle of words on Twitter snowballed to such an extent that Bedi blocked Kejriwal on the platform. To which Kejriwal tweeted “@thekiranbedi Kiranji, i used to follow u on twitter. Now, u have blocked me on twitter. Kindly unblock me.” Bedi made it pretty clear that’s not going to happen. “I blocked him 15 months ago when he called himself an anarchist. He was spreading negativity. Didn’t want my four million followers to see negativity… it was a polluting account.”
A week after the election date was announced, Kejriwal and aap sought to take the battle to the BJP camp by daring Bedi to a presidential-style televised debate. While it was speculated that Bedi could stand against Kejriwal, the BJP has fielded her from the Krishna Nagar Assembly seat, a traditional BJP stronghold. The seat was vacated by Dr Harsh Vardhan, who is now an mp.
The Delhi Assembly election is turning into a two-cornered fight with the Congress nowhere in sight. While Ajay Maken, the face of the Congress’ campaign, has said he is ready for a public debate with Kejriwal, Delhi’s mufflerman has his guns trained on the BJP.
With inputs from Varun Bidhuri