The BJP's Kiran Bedi Project

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

Without warning, just like that, the Delhi assembly election has become a fascinating contest and a high-risk game for all three parties in the fray, the BJP, the Aam Aadmi party (AAP) and the Congress. How has this happened? Let us look at it party by party.

By bringing in Kiran Bedi as the face of the BJP campaign and candidate for chief minister, party president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have raised the stakes significantly. Bedi's reputation as India's first female IPS officer is well-known, as is her activism while in service as well as during the India against Corruption phase in 2011. Nevertheless, she is not an organisational insider in a party where patience is seen as a primary virtue. She is a lateral entrant and obviously the traditional BJP leadership in Delhi would feel slighted and threatened by her sudden ascendancy.

Yet, Shah and Modi are betting on Delhi's demography and civic sensibilities having evolved beyond old-style political loyalties. This explained why the children and grandchildren of Jana Sangh founder members voted for Sheila Dikshit(Congress) in 2003 and 2008. This explained the surge in support for AAP in 2013. The BJP is seeking to incorporate this "non-political" or "extra-political" sentiment by projecting Bedi. If the venture succeeds, it could herald a new dynamic within the party. On the other hand, if The Bedi Project falters, the BJP will be in some trouble. It would have superseded a generation of local leaders without being able to appropriately fill the resultant vacuum.

For Arvind Kejriwal and AAP, Delhi 2015 represents a desperate battle. It is unlikely AAP will win a majority; even Kejriwal adherents don't go that far in their optimism. At best, AAP can hope for a near repeat of the December 2013 verdict and a hung assembly that gives Kejriwal and his colleagues a veto in terms of government formation. Should this happen, the party will then use its auxiliaries in the media and in the "civil society" networks to pressure the Congress into backing it.

What if the unexpected happens and AAP slips from its 28-seat performance of the previous winter? In that situation, the desertions of recent weeks - with a series of second-level AAP functionaries joining the BJP - will intensify. AAP's future and the sustainability of a political career for its motley crew of journalists, social scientists, mohalla roughnecks and retired income-tax officers will come into serious question. In some senses, the Kejriwal bubble would burst at that point and a more normal politics would return to Delhi.

In the Congress, the risk-taking is being done by Ajay Maken and his group in the Delhi unit. This follows a period of intense internal debate in the party. The Dikshit camp is absent from this campaign, as is the central leadership of the Congress. Both the proverbial "high command" of the party and the faction centred on the former Chief Minister have appeared quite content to play second fiddle to Kejriwal in the interests of some fraudulent notion of "secular unity". Maken showed more of a streetfighter instinct. He has taken on AAP, reckoning quite correctly that it is the chief competitor for what remains of the Congress vote.

Maken has encouraged Congress big guns in Delhi, including former MPs, to go back to their constituencies and enter the assembly contest. The Congress isn't in the race to lead a government and will probably finish third - but there is a huge difference between aiming for under half-a-dozen seats and being in serious contention in about a dozen. In going for broke, Maken is hoping to interrupt the neat BJP-AAP bipolarity that was developing. He is giving his party, and himself, a chance to fight another day, in 2020 or whenever. A poor third place for the second successive election would leave the Congress in very dire straits.

In previous elections in Delhi, the presence of a third force - the BSP or Muslim independents competing in minority-dominated constituencies - had hurt the Congress and divided its vote. This time, the BJP will be praying that the Congress can cut into the AAP vote and play spoiler.

As for the Dalit segment, the BJP has made a very determined attempt to wrest it, calculating that the absence of the BSP and weakness in the Congress give it an opening. Of course, Kejriwal is making very much the same assumption.

All in all, with two weeks to go, the seat of India's capital is left with three competing gambles and three competing gamblers. February 10, the day the votes will be counted, may as well be Derby Day in Delhi.

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