For 53 minutes Monday evening – in sharp contrast to the Pakistan-bashing by Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath elsewhere on the streets of Delhi the same day – Prime Minister Narendra Modi reeled off a litany of complaints against his chief rival, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, and followed it up with promises the BJP would shower upon Delhi if it was voted to power.
“Delhi has the right to a government that looks after its people and believes in ‘vikas (progress)’. The BJP can give such a government to the people of Delhi,” Modi said, as he addressed a big crowd at Kakardooma.
The Centre has given several housing schemes to other states, but Delhi refuses any under the PM Awas Yojana; the Centre has given large sums of money for health insurance under Ayushman Bharat, but Delhi refuses it; the country has a Lokpal, but Delhi doesn’t.
“India in the 21st century will not be run by politics of hate, but by politics of development,” Modi added.
It all seemed like just another campaign day for India’s most popular leader.
Then, suddenly, it was as if a switch was turned off. For the next seven minutes of his hour-long speech, PM Modi abandoned the convincing moderation that had defined him so far and uttered the two-word phrase that has recently acquired the contours of an anti-national metaphor in the BJP’s lexicon: Shaheen Bagh.
“Whether its Seelampur, Jamia or Shaheen Bagh,” the PM said, referring to three Muslim-dominated areas of the capital, “several protests against the Citizenship Act have taken place. Are these protests coincidental? No. There is a political design behind them that threatens to break up the country’s unity….”
“Both the AAP and the Congress are playing a political game. They are putting the Constitution and the flag in front but plotting a conspiracy from behind…. You want to show the world that you are abiding by the Constitution?” Modi added.
Trump on the way
Certainly, as India readies for the visit of US President Donald Trump later this month, Modi doesn’t want to be seen as morally defeated by a few hundred people, mostly women, leading the anti-Citizenship Act protest in a small corner of Delhi called Shaheen Bagh.
There is already talk of Trump cutting down his India tour, by dropping the anticipated Gujarat leg and restricting it to Delhi. If that happens, it will be a personal blow to Modi’s prestige.
Not that Shaheen Bagh is capable of giving Trump and his entourage any security nightmare. But to think that the foreign press could share precious space with Delhi’s protests would be sheer torment. On the other hand, breaking up Shaheen Bagh on the pretext of maintaining law and order or by saying that it has become a nuisance to those travelling from Delhi to Noida – as Modi indicated – may result in the BJP breaking off more than it can chew.
Better to denigrate Shaheen Bagh as Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath have been doing for the last few days. Soon after Modi spoke in Kakardooma, Amit Shah told a rally in Delhi that slogans demanding “azadi” or freedom are filling the air in Shaheen Bagh.
“Shaheen Bagh main kya bhashan ho rahe hain. Hamein chahiye azadi, Jinnah-wali azadi (What kind of slogans are being shouted in Shaheen Bagh? We want freedom, the Jinnah kind),” Shah said.
Yogi Adityanath brought up the other bookend, invoking Pakistan eight times in 48 seconds in his speech, also Monday.
Kejriwal was speaking “Imran Khan’s language,” Shah had said earlier.
Kashmir after Delhi
Modi is also keenly aware that 5 February, three days before Delhi goes to the polls, marks the six-month anniversary of the scrapping of Article 370. Several politicians and Kashmiris remain under house arrest and in jail, including sitting MP and former CM Farooq Abdullah, who is missing from the ongoing Budget session of Parliament, as well as former CMs Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.
Speculation is rife that at least these three leaders will be let go on the eve of Trump’s visit, possibly on the promise of good conduct. Three incarcerated leaders in the world’s largest democracy, under no charge, cannot be good for the headlines when the representative of the world’s oldest democracy is in town.
But all this will come later. Modi knows that the 8 February polls is a test of his leadership, as it is of Amit Shah. The PM may have done only one campaign rally in Delhi so far, compared to several by the home minister, but whether the BJP wins or loses the election, Modi will have to share both the credit and the blame with Amit Shah.
That’s why Shaheen Bagh needs to be discredited. It’s not enough to tout the benefits of ‘vikas’ and wax eloquent about Delhi’s welcoming nature (“Dilli sabka satkar karti hai, sabko swagat karti hai”).
The Modi-Amit Shah-Adityanath high-octane campaign has just raised the stakes for Delhi sky-high.