A few days ago, the BJP’s potential chief ministerial candidate for Delhi, Manoj Tiwari, offered “five times” of everything that Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP government has given to the capital city: subsidised electricity, subsidised water, subsidised healthcare.… Tiwari’s mathematics came to absurd numbers and the BJP quickly trashed his promise to voters as his personal opinion. Instead, Union home minister Amit Shah put the electricity to another use. “Press the (EVM) button with such rage that the current is felt in Shaheen Bagh,” Shah thundered at a poll rally. Another BJP leader, Union minister Anurag Thakur, went a step further, asking voters “What should be done to the traitors…” A boisterous crowd replied, “Shoot them, shoot them”. It was not lost on anybody that the “traitors” are the anti-CAA protesters in Shaheen Bagh, which has emerged as the flashpoint of the resistance against the new citizenship law.
Delhi will vote to elect a new government in a few weeks from now. By all accounts this should have been just another state election when ‘local issues’ are the dominant themes—clean water, affordable housing, good schools etc. But Dilli is not just another election. Not at least for the all-conquering BJP. The kid gloves are off. And the long knives are out. Nationalism and patriotism are the twin-planks on which BJP is building its campaign, identifying “traitors” and those who speak the language of Pakistan. Shah is hoping the people of Delhi will back the nationalist party INStead of what he refers to as the “tukde tukde gang”, a slur on anyone whom the BJP identifies as enemies of the state.
Shaheen Bagh is directly in the line of fire of BJP leaders. If Thakur’s comments were not enough, his party colleague lawmaker Parvesh Verma identified the protesters as potential rapists. “It is a shocking low with a sitting Union minister (Thakur) giving open incitement to violence. It shows the desperation of the BJP with regards to the Delhi polls. It’s clear by now that they have no agenda of development, no vision. They don’t even have a leader and a CM candidate,” says Jasmine Shah, vice chairperson of the Dialogue and Development Commission, Delhi.
With home minister Amit Shah leading the BJP’s campaign, the polls have turned into a Shah-versus-Kejriwal battle. Shah’s ministerial colleagues are also urging voters to shun the parties that are “trying to break the country”. Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also stepped into the ring, saying that the Shaheen Bagh protest is “a text book case of a few hundred people trying to suppress the silent majority. The Indian flag is being used as a cover for the people who want to divide the country....”
AAP spokesperson Saurabh Bharadwaj says that the BJP not talking about the Centre’s flagship programmes such as Ujjwala Yojana or Ayushman Bharat was an “ominous sign” of the BJP losing the polls. “BJP has realised that pitching Modi in the Delhi elections will harm Modi’s image. Results will be embarrassing for the BJP. Shah has his own handicaps. The only debate Mr Shah can do is the usual BJP rhetoric of polarisation.”
BJP spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP G.V.L. Narasimha Rao denies the charges. “The Hindu-Muslim narrative is a complete lie and it’s the AAP and Congress, who are responsible for bringing CAA into a divisive plot. This is a legislation that gives citizenship to persecuted minorities. This was passed in Lok Sabha in 2016. It wasn’t contentious then,” says Rao.
Analysts say the AAP has an edge over the BJP and Congress despite the rhetorics. Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) says the scales are tilted in favour of AAP. A pre-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS predicted a majority for AAP in the upcoming polls. “I am not surprised that BJP is playing divisive politics. They would try to shift focus on national issues. AAP will contest on the development plank. BJP...will have to pick up national issues, which they have been doing since the last Lok Sabha and assembly elections,” says Kumar.
Analysts are also sceptical about BJP’s effort to mobilise Hindu votes by targeting the Shaheen Bagh protestors. Last week, the Election Commission barred BJP leader Kapil Mishra from campaigning for two days following a couple of brazenly communal tweets. The BJP, however, is refusing to back off. Senior leader Vijay Goel says that opposition leaders and Pakistan speak in one voice and blames Kejriwal for inciting protesters. “The Congress has its own vote bank in Shaheen Bagh. Whether it’s AAP or Congress their statements are as good as Pakistan’s statements. They make statements which suits Pakistan. Pakistan uses them later,” he says, adding that the party is also focusing on exposing Kejriwal government’s unfulfilled promises.
The AAP has been cautious not to fall into the BJP’s trap on the Shaheen Bagh issue, maintaining an ambiguous stance on the protests and CAA. “CAA is not a political issue for Delhi. People realise that BJP will keep the Shaheen Bagh issue alive. That’s why they are not trying to resolve it,” says Bharadwaj, who is contesting from Greater Kailash constituency. As both BJP and AAP trade barbs, the question remains whether Shaheen Bagh can swing this election.
BJP’s Janakpuri candidate Ashish Sood is confident that the party can counter AAP’s populist measures and that Shaheen Bagh won’t have any impact on real issues. However, Sood accused Kejriwal of playing communal politics. “It was Kejriwal who made a statement last year that the Muslim votes have shifted to Congress. Why is the CM instigating the protests despite a court order to vacate the site (at Shaheen Bagh)?” he says, adding that all hell will break loose if BJP uses force to remove the protestors.