Even 5-star audience reserved applause for Kejriwal
By Saeed Naqvi
Aamir Raza Husain's timely play at the ITC theatre would by itself have made for a satisfactory evening. But the appearance of L.K. Advani, Arvind Kejriwal and some Delhi Congress leaders at the event added an interesting diversion. This, obviously, because we are in the thick of a historic election season.
The packed hall did not quite notice Advani as he walked past Kejriwal, ignoring him altogether, to take his seat well beyond the AAP leader's whispering range. Kejriwal had earlier taken up his seat with his usual modesty, unnoticed by the throng.
The manager of the hotel introduced the play, steering clear of any political affiliations. Aamir could not resist the temptation of introducing Advani, a gesture noticed by the audience in silence. But when he announced Kejriwal's presence in their midst, the audience burst into applause.
Of course there is a considerable novelty factor in operation. But the danger for all stakeholders in the political bazaar is that they are, by contrast, beginning to look stale and out of date. A foretaste of it was available at President Pranab Mukherjee's Republic Day Reception.
When that audience at the play picked up the next morning's newspapers, what do you think went on inside their heads? Did they leap with joy when they saw BJP president Rajnath Singh hold a laddoo in his fingers and deposit it deep inside Ram Vilas Paswan's wide open mouth, virtually on his tonsils? With this ritual act, Paswan the "secular" had become Paswan the "communal".
Paswan is an exceptional politician whose status in public life is in inverse proportion to his address in Lutyen's Delhi. The bungalow, abutting Sonia Gandhi's, has been his residence ever since he joined V.P. Singh's cabinet in 1989. His career has gone downhill since then, but he knows the tricks to stay in play.
In 2009 he was given 12 seats by Lalu Prasad Yadav which he lost. Unhappy with the five seats Lalu and the Congress combine were giving him this time, he has turned to the BJP. His great ambition in life is to launch his son, Chirag Paswan, from a safe seat. Chirag is a failed film actor.
For a thick skinned opportunist like Paswan, the impending brickbats do not matter. But will Narendra Modi's victory chariot also not be mired in the slush? All the senior BJP leaders from UP and Bihar were in attendance to welcome a politician who has nothing to show for himself except an impressive bungalow in New Delhi and his own solitary membership of the Rajya Sabha.
What is one to make of this desperation on the part of Modi's cohorts? Coalition, NDA, flexibility - these terms had no currency with Modi's team for the eight months he was named the election chief and then the Prime Ministerial candidate.
What has punctured that cocky certitude? Chasing a discredited turncoat is surely not symptomatic of a party blazing a trail?
One knows that in politics one plus one sometimes equal eleven or that Paswan does influence six percent of the vote in Bihar.
It is also possible that Modi, after floating in cloud nine, is being brought down to earth. It is not a secret that a Modi Prime Ministership is possible only in the event of a landslide. Since a landslide appears elusive on current showing, Sudheendra Kulkarni may be right. He wrote some months ago that an NDA-II requires another Vajpayee like figure. Modi, surely, is not that figure.
Before other BJP busybodies start scouting for alternative candidates, it would be helpful for Modi supporters to start weaving an NDA which is not confined to the Akali Dal in Punjab and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Are a Paswan in Bihar and Vaiko's MDMK in Tamil Nadu being roped in to give the NDA's image the required width?
Supposing Paswan had just said that his "Lok Janashakti Party is now part of NDA", he would have left room for speculation: who is the PM candidate in the NDA of his perception. But he has been asked to put his imprimatur on an unambiguous statement. "LJP is now part of NDA, and Modi is its PM candidate." The irony, of course, is that Paswan had quit the NDA in 2002 blaming Modi for the Gujarat riots.
Paswan once marketed himself as a "secularist"; he would probably consider himself a "realist" now. The difficulty with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav is that he persists in wearing his secular cloak as if Muzaffarnagar did not happen on his watch. The past year when his son Akhilesh Yadav has been the chief minister, there have been countless communal riots.
So keen is the CPI-M in keeping afloat the 11-member non-BJP, non-Congress front of reasonably muscular regional parties, that in this grouping Mulayam Singh with his dismal record is being feted as God's gift to Indian secularism. Meanwhile which glory are the Congress leaders covering themselves with? On this, more later.
These then are the leaders on our shelves. Over decades we have grown accustomed to them. It is the singular contribution of AAP that the public no longer feels hemmed in and suffocated by a restriction on choice.
There is now either growing revulsion or, at best, indifference towards the traditional politician. If this variety of politician were to turn up at the theatre I mentioned at the outset, he would be ignored. It does not require rocket science to guess who would invite the loudest applause if Kejriwal too were in the audience.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal.)