New Delhi: The BJP’s chief campaigner in Delhi, Amit Shah, learnt a few cricketing techniques during his stint as Gujarat Cricket Association president. Or so it seems from his bodyline bowling at Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal during the assembly poll campaign, daring him to play his short-pitched deliveries on Shaheen Bagh protests, Sharjeel Imam and a host of other polarising issues. Kejriwal has been extremely patient, ducking most of the time to let those deliveries pass.
Shah is relentless, though. He has also deployed a battery of young bowlers, including Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma, to keep up the attack in what Kapil Mishra, Kejriwal’s former teammate who is making his debut in Team BJP, has termed an “India-Pakistan” match.
The use of the provocative slogan, “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” by Mishra and Thakur, and Verma’s projection of Shaheen Bagh protesters as potential rapists and killers were part of the same strategy to not allow Kejriwal to play to his strength — that is governance.
“So far, Kejriwal was running the narrative. He used to set the agenda. But our campaign has picked up and we are forcing him to react on issues we are raising,” said a senior BJP leader.
“He had to, for the first time, tweet on Shaheen Bagh, Sharjeel Imam. As the campaign picks up pace, he will be forced to make his stand clear on whether he is with anti-CAA protesters of Shaheen Bagh or not.”
Speaking at a campaign rally in Delhi Monday, Shah had said, “I want to ask Kejriwal whether he is in favour of apprehending Sharjeel Imam or not? Whether you are with the people of Shaheen Bagh or not, please tell the people of Delhi.”
Kejriwal responded at a press meet the same day, saying, “Due to closed roads in Shaheen Bagh, people are facing inconvenience. The BJP does not want the roads to be opened. BJP leaders should immediately go to Shaheen Bagh and get the roads opened.”
It was the Delhi chief minister’s way of ducking, unlike his deputy Manish Sisodia, who was almost caught trying to hook the ball with his assertion that he “stood with the people of Shaheen Bagh”.
He sought to make amends soon as he took fresh guard Wednesday, saying he was not responsible for Shaheen Bagh protests as law and order was the central government’s responsibility.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off the party’s campaign from Ramlila Maidan in December, his focus was the central government’s decision to regularise unauthorised colonies in the national capital.
He did target the AAP and the Congress for “misleading” the people on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) — the focus of the Shaheen Bagh protest — but there was no mention of the marathon protest in his speech.
Cornered to change tack
For Kejriwal, so far, the winning mantra for the Delhi elections seems to be to focus entirely on governance, leaving no space for any other party to change the narrative.
The party started early as it asked its volunteers to focus on the governance model of the AAP administration and highlight the work done by them, especially in the field of education, health and urban development.
The campaign of the party has remained focused on highlighting the work they have done so far, including the freebies they have offered, like electricity, water and free public transport for women passengers.
However, the party is now being cornered by the BJP to speak on contentious issues, which they have been strategically avoiding so far.
As the election campaign formally started after the announcement of Delhi poll dates on 6 January, the BJP was attacking the AAP on the issue of freebies and “misgovernance”.
On 25 January, while addressing a programme called ‘Jeet ki Goonj’ in Delhi, Home Minister Amit Shah brought up Shaheen Bagh in the election campaign for the first time as he asked people to “press the lotus symbol (on the EVM) so hard that protesters at Shaheen Bagh feel compelled to get up and leave”.
The former BJP president has been harping on this issue at every poll meeting since. Gradually, he has also brought up other issues that fit into his polarising narrative.
Explaining the shift in the BJP’s strategy, a senior BJP functionary told ThePrint: “He [Kejriwal] has created an image of a doer. Although there are many gaps in his governance model, somehow, people are willing to overlook that. And hence we have also changed our election campaign.”
Real test will be in slog overs
The AAP has been seeking to focus on its achievements in health and education sectors and on the freebies, skirting the contentious issues. Responding to questions on the CAA and the NRC, Kejriwal told news channel Times Now on 23 January: “I think the CAA & NRC are irrelevant. The Centre should discuss ways to create jobs”.
When he was asked about shifting Shaheen Bagh protesters to another location, he said: “Everyone has a right to protest peacefully, but protests should not cause any inconvenience.”
The Delhi chief minister refrained from extending support to Shaheen Bagh protesters, who primarily comprise Muslim women. He has sought to keep the electoral discourse on his government’s achievements, wary of getting dragged into the polarising Hindu-Muslim debates.
A senior AAP leader told ThePrint: “We don’t want to be dragged into the polarisation debate. It’s the BJP’s time-tested strategy. That’s precisely what we had been avoiding. Our focus has been on the work we have done in the past five years. The development that has come about in Delhi, that’s what the people of Delhi want to know about.”
The AAP’s assessment about the BJP raising Shaheen Bagh is echoed by political analysts.
“Considering elections are round the corner, they (BJP) are trying to create a Muslim scare and Shaheen Bagh’s image is that of a Muslim protest, in a way,” said professor Apoorvanand of Delhi University.
“The idea behind creating this Muslim scare is that one would then require a saviour. This is an old thing and they try to work on some of the Hindu biases. There is a primordial fear in Hindus about collective Muslims. This is something that the RSS has been propagating too.”
Kejriwal has managed to duck short-pitched deliveries from the BJP but the real test of his and his party colleagues is likely to be in the slog overs, in the last week of the poll campaign.
(With inputs from Aneesha Bedi)