“Twas a famous victory”. Wasn’t it?

‘Burn out’ is an actual thing. I learned this the hard way, after writing well over 20,000 words on this blog in the space of a week – and, in between the writing, reading books on authoritarianism/fascism, the media and propaganda, protest movements around the world, and related subjects.

I spent the last four days or so in a sort of daze, unable to really process anything I was seeing and hearing into cohesive thoughts. I know I need to rejig how I do this – not documenting, not writing, is not an option in these times but equally, writing every single day is not viable either.

So: I’ll do daily round-ups of the news that I think it is necessary to highlight, to document, to collate so individual items are not lost in the surround sound; about once in four or five days, I’ll write essay-length pieces on issues I think need exploration.

I’m not the only one suffering from burn-out, by the way. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has not been seen or heard from since the morning of February 11. His Twitter stream is dormant (except for a retweet of a plug for a public engagement today where he will apparently talk of drug trafficking); while his titular boss Modi and other BJP worthies were quick to “welcome the verdict” and promise Arvind Kejriwal “full support”, Shah has been conspicuously silent; he has also been conspicuously absent from his office.

Burn-out. Besides masterminding the vicious, dangerously toxic, no-holds-barred Delhi campaign (which has repercussions that will ramify well beyond this election cycle; remember for instance that around midnight on February 11, an AAP MLA’s convoy was fired upon, killing one) which involved all Union ministers, and almost all BJP chief ministers and MPs, he personally led 44 rallies and roadshows and also went door to door in a 13-day span.

For all the post-facto sound bites about this being a “local election” and the BJP having accomplished its objective by increasing its existing tally and improving its vote share, Shah was clearly in it to win it.

From the bits and pieces I’ve been able to pick up behind the scenes, Shah’s motivation was not to gain control of the glorified municipality that is Delhi, per se. He saw this – particularly in light of the party having swept Delhi in the 2019 national election – as his opportunity to shed the tag of Modi’s consigliere, to emerge out of Modi’s shadow, to be recognized as a leader in his own right, one capable of winning elections on his own (Note that Modi was used for just two rallies – one at the start, and one towards the end, of the campaign).

The resounding thumbs-down by Delhi voters has put paid to that ambition — and that is a good thing, since the last thing this country needs is a Shah turbo-charged by the confidence of victory. The elections to follow, in Bihar later this year and in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal in 2021, are too complex for him to even attempt to put himself front and centre without a confidence-boosting win under his belt.

For me, that is the single biggest takeaway from the Delhi results – that it stopped Shah in his tracks. That the criminal campaigns of Pervesh Verma, Anurag Thakur and their ilk met with a resounding rebuff is just a corollary; this was about Shah, and Shah alone, and he needed to be stopped, and Delhi did the deed with spin-proof emphasis.

That said, I am conflicted about the Delhi outcome. The defeat of the BJP is of paramount importance, simply because the next general election is a long way off and this fight to reclaim the moral core of this country cannot wait for four years – it has to be fought in the here and the now, and the answer to that is the brewing Centre versus State battle across multiple fronts, most urgently the resistance to the nationwide implementation of the NPR.

At the time of writing this Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and West Bengal have officially passed resolutions against the CAA (and emphasized their resolve that the NPR process will not be permitted in these states). Yesterday, in direct defiance of Governor Kiran Bedi’s strong messaging, Puducherry became the first Union Territory to pass an anti-CAA resolution).

In order to fight and win the battle of our times, it is necessary to shrink the BJP footprint in the states, to reduce its sphere of influence, to destroy the nation-wide hegemony it enjoyed even as recently as this time last year. The non-BJP states will take strength and support from each other; the more such states there are, the stronger the resistance and the harder it is for the BJP to fight on multiple fronts. (This is also the reason Bihar, which goes to polls in October 2020, is critically important – with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Chattisgarh out of the BJP net, Bihar is the one big state other than Uttar Pradesh that remains in the Hindi heartland).

Delhi doesn’t change the map of influence since it was not controlled by the BJP earlier, but by retaining Delhi, AAP has ensured that the sequence of the BJP’s state-level losses is maintained and has prevented the BJP from finding a makeweight for its loss of Maharashtra and Chattisgarh.

It’s not the win itself that makes me queasy, therefore; it is the manner of it. At no point did Arvind Kejriwal and AAP stand up in support of Shaheen Bagh, of JNU and Jamia and other centers of protest. At no point did AAP take the BJP’s polarizing rhetoric head-on; at no point did it directly contest the message the BJP was fighting on. With this result: the BJP believes that it was its stand on the CAA, its demonizing of the opposition as “gaddaars” deserving of “golis”, that enabled it to increase its vote share by a tick over 6%, and therefore it will now double down rather than back off.

A toxic idea that is uncontested will, like all cancers, metastasize. This was the thought uppermost in mind as I watched the last leg of the campaign, and monitored the results, but then Mihir Sharma argued the point brilliantly, so I’ll avoid repetition and link to his piece instead (One crucial clip below, but read the entire article – you must):

It might feel wonderful to declare that this was the voter in Delhi rejecting divisiveness and declaring her disagreement with what the BJP had to say, but that would be a brazen misinterpretation of what has actually happened. In fact, the BJP won the argument. It simply did not win the election. The AAP has not disagreed with the BJP on the themes or substance of its critique of Shaheen Bagh, of the anti-CAA protests, and so on. Arvind Kejriwal himself complained the problem with the CAA was that Indians themselves were not getting jobs. He also declared that if given a free hand, he would clear Shaheen Bagh in a couple of hours, and that nobody had the right to block traffic indefinitely. Quite amazing hypocrisy from a man who rose to power on a record consisting solely of pointless, fruitless, and interminable protest. If the BJP’s campaign has been one of open malice, the AAP’s campaign has been no less damaging to India’s soul. This is a victory of not just cowardice, but of submission to the BJP’s core values. 

As the results came in, Omair T Ahmed on Twitter came up with a thread on similar lines, which was then expanded into another must-read article on the subject. The crux:

That is also the failure of AAP, or the limit of its reach. It can’t, and won’t, challenge higher politics. Bijli, sadak, pani are all well and good, but not if the bijli is provided in detention centres, where the sadak leads, where pani is served to those stripped of citizenship at the whim of a bigoted and incompetent government, as has happened in Assam….

That politics of deflection and cowardice reached its inevitable nadir when AAP suggested that the ladies of Shaheen Bagh abandon their protests for the sake of Delhi’s elections—without once even being able to summon up the courage to speak on the issues. When people are protesting about their very citizenship, to suggest that this can be abandoned for the sake of a politics of mere service delivery was both outrageous and presumptuous. 

And in its post-election editorial, the Hindu makes a similar point. Between them, these three pieces sum up the reasons (at least, most of them) for my discomfort: that THE most emergent battle of our times, the one that has brought millions out onto the streets and kept thousands permanently camped at 24/7 protest sites across the country, was not won because it was simply not fought.

The consequence? In Delhi, the BJP secured 3.6-plus million votes, and these votes give it sufficient validation to double down on the toxicity. We, all of us, will pay the price for Kejriwal choosing to whiff rather than swing for the fences.

In passing, the utter decimation of the Congress has come in for much derision, but it is worth noting that while the Congress – from what I gather, tactically – opted to run a lukewarm campaign in Delhi in order not to split votes, the party has shown the moral courage to stand with the protestors and against hate.

Delhi PCC chief Subhash Chopra resigned owning responsibility for the party debacle (despite the obvious fact that the debacle was not his fault, but that of a leadership that opted to bail). It is worth noting though that when the full might of Shah’s police was unleashed against protestors in Delhi, he was constantly at the forefront, fighting for the release of those who had been illegally detained. It is equally worth pointing out that in both Delhi and UP, whenever the state-sponsored violence against protestors peaked, it was the Congress that the protestors and activists reached out to – and the party’s local activists always responded.

I hold no brief for the Congress and I am thoroughly vexed at a party that, even in these parlous times, is still busy fighting internal battles over the question of leadership – but equally, I admire the fact that Priyanka Gandhi at great personal (and, as Kejriwal demonstrated, political) risk was present at India Gate, at AIIMS to inquire into the welfare of protestors who bore the brunt of official and unofficial thugs; at Daryaganj when state violence peaked; and just yesterday, at Azamgarh in UP to stand with the protestors – UP, a state where the leaders of the two big local parties, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, have been conspicuously silent on the reign of terror unleashed by Ajay Singh Bisht.

The Congress, unlike AAP, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, has shown the willingness to take the hard knocks and keep right on fighting — and this, to my mind, outweighs its decimation in Delhi. Can it do more? Yes. Should it? Yes. But to its credit, it is at the least not running away from the larger battle for the sake of smaller wins.

The Battle of Blenheim (1704) prompted British poet laureate Robert Southey to write ‘After Blenheim’, a poem on the senseless cruelties and sheer pointlessness of war. Here it is in full, and here below are two clips relevant to our times:

“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby, died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

…..

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he;
“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

Kejriwal adroitly side-stepped a battle that needed to be fought; the result was “a famous victory”, but as Mihir and others argue persuasively, the long-term outcome, sadly, has been to affirm the BJP’s conviction that polarisation is the best – the only – weapon left to it. And this is going to cost all of us.

I started this piece talking of burn-out; I’ll end it with a reiteration of how this blog will work going forward. There will be a once-daily round-up of the stories I think it is important for you to take note of; every once in a while, at the rate of around once a week, I’ll step away from the quotidian and write at length about larger issues.

PS: I’m not going to spam your timelines with the daily round-ups – you know how to find your way here if you feel the need.

Cover image courtesy Yahoo India

Update, 4.40 PM: Every point needs a good counterpoint, and there is none better on the net today than this one by Pragya Tiwari, who you should follow because she is an excellent writer. Here’s the money clip:

Refusing to let the BJP dictate the agenda is less indicative of ideological compromise than of a tactical move. Focusing on denouncing polarising propaganda is noble but it can also have the opposite effect of entrenching it and forcing even fence sitters to take defensive positions.

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