Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The ides of March are here

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Column in Business Standard, February 28, 2015

Beware the ides of March,” warns the soothsayer as Julius Caesar, triumphant in battle, passes by, but Caesar ignores the prophecy at his own peril. Ever since, the phrase has come to imply a sharp shift in mood from victorious celebration to unsettled foreboding. Narendra Modi’s ides of March are suddenly upon him. His trumpeted reforms of land acquisition and foreign investment are blocked in Parliament. His failure to restrain the torrent of anti-Christian and anti-Muslim speech pouring from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Yogi Adityanath are perceived as signs of weakness. And if the BJP’s rout in the Delhi election by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was a wake-up call, the withdrawal of support by allies such as the Akali Dal and Shiv Sena on the land acquisition Act underscores the fickleness of political friendships.

Arvind Kejriwal’s reference to the BJP government as a “property dealer for big industrialists” could hardly be as cutting as the insult tweeted by worshipful-Modi-activist-turned-critic Madhu Kishwar this week: “Modiji has accomplished what seemed impossible 9 months ago: Revived the fortunes of Medha Patkar & anti-BJP NGOs.” As men and women with “a lean and hungry look” crowd around to label the ruling party as anti-poor, anti-farmer and anti-minorities, the prime minister’s election slogan of “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” is dead in the water.
You could blame it on the season’s drift, of course, turning from salubrious spring to harsh summer, and coinciding with Parliament’s Budget session that lasts till May 8. But other changes are apparent, superficial and tectonic. The prime minister’s evaporating honeymoon shows: his appearance, after a relentless bombardment of Photoshopped images, has dipped from exultant braggadocio to deflated solemnity. He sat stony-faced through Congress Lok Sabha leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s attacking speech: “The American president threw a bomb as he was leaving. Now you need to set this right.” Gone are Mr Modi’s colourfully speckled safas and his touchy-feely embrace of world leaders; the Rs 4.31-crore splurge by a diamond dealer for his suit of shame at a charity auction is dismissed as further proof of his filthy rich fan club.

The homeless urban migrant, the cash-strapped farmer, the tyrannised Muslim and Christian are making their presence felt. These are the voters who responded to the AAP’s promises. The bulk of the audience at one of Mr Kejriwal’s large election rallies on the Delhi-Noida border, I noticed, were Muslim daily-wage earners from Uttar Pradesh who occupy the teeming welter of slums along the Yamuna. Farming may employ 70 per cent of the working population, but at about 2.5 per cent annually, it is the slowest growing sector of the economy. The huge migration to urban fringes is dictated by agriculture’s declining share of the gross domestic product (13.7 per cent in 2012-13) and is driving the change. Of the AAP’s recent sweep in Delhi its leading ideologue Yogendra Yadav says, “AAP today has the support of the poorest, of minorities and of Dalits without sharing in the least the agenda that used to come with all these three. This is the beginning of a new kind of politics.”

The Congress party’s vote share in the Delhi, plunging to a perilous 9.5 per cent, has made leaders like Mr Yadav crow like roosters at dawn. “We are waiting for the first opportunity where someone else can come and give the Congress a hard kick. I suppose then the Congress will simply get up and abdicate. What is a crisis for the Congress is basically an opportunity for the AAP.” But it may be a case of counting his chickens before they are hatched. And who will deliver the kick?

After fishing in troubled waters in Bihar and knotting a treacherous alliance with the Peoples Democratic Party on the shores of Dal Lake, the ides of March have also caught up with BJP President and master strategist Amit Shah. He is beginning to look like an old-style Congress party fixer. His reputation as the party’s heavyweight “Loh Purush” (Man of Iron) is offset by the weightlessness of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party’s leader-in-waiting, now nicknamed “Avkash Purush” (Man on Leave).

Between now and the crucial state election in Bihar, due at the end of the year, the mettle of Left-leaning agrarian populism of parties such as Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, will also be tested. Will their stream of doles and sops to Mahadalits, Muslims and caste affiliates check the advance of the BJP? Or will pockets of their support base move (in Mr Yadav’s formulation) to the “new kind politics”. Chances are that, by then, Mr Kejriwal’s massive subsidies on water and electricity for the urban poor would have driven Delhi to bankruptcy. You could blame it on the ides of March.

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