Is there now a winning team?

Published April 2, 2024
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi

FOR India’s opposition, the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s now known that a key witness against Kejriwal donated a tidy sum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign fund through electoral bonds.

What began as a domestic skirmish ahead of the make-or-break general elections starting this month, found international interest. Germany and the US counselled transparency on Kejriwal’s behalf. They annoyed India but were joined by the UN secretary general’s office, whose concern for probity was couched in diplomatese.

The harassment of a key baiter of crony capitalists also spurred the opposition to regroup, partly in self-interest but also out of slowly dawning political sagacity. Going by Sunday’s mammoth rally showcasing India’s most seasoned opposition leaders at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds, the arrest of two serving chief ministers on election eve — the other being the tribal chief minister of Jharkhand — appears to have revitalised a foundering campaign to dislodge Mr Modi in the multi-stage elections starting on April 19. Results are expected on June 4.

Hope and fervour were plentiful, but apprehension was also lurking at the grand park that links New Delhi with the old city, the venue where a landmark opposition rally turned the tide against Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule in 1977. Speaker after speaker cautioned Mr Modi against ‘fixing the match’ or queering the pitch for rivals, whether by jailing opponents or by freezing bank accounts of cash-strapped parties through legally dressed subterfuge. “India will burn if you try to win the election by fixing the match, or tinker with the constitution.” The sharp sentiment was expressed by Rahul Gandhi, and everyone on the podium seemed to agree with the intent.

If Modi was not stopped this time around, it could be India’s last look at democracy. Udhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena had supported Mrs Gandhi’s emergency. He was now an embodiment of a born-again democrat, so to speak. Confident of winning the elections provided the opposition stays united, he went a step beyond Rahul Gandhi’s warning. Mr Thackeray promised to put the Modi government in jail after the elections. Lending a degree of credibility to the call for a winnable fight was the presence of Dereck O’Brien, MP for Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. It was her decision to go it alone in West Bengal that all but broke the alliance. Now her endorsement of opposition unity was packaged with renewed conviction that her party was tethered to the INDIA alliance and its resolve to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The arrest of two serving chief ministers on election eve appears to have revitalised a foundering campaign to dislodge Mr Modi.

Given that match fixing was the day’s theme and its fear was an important factor in prompting the disparate group to close ranks, let’s stay with the cricket metaphor. Let’s ask if the opposition’s rearguard action, for that is what the rally essentially was, had come too little, too late to fetch victory.

Before lifting the 1983 World Cup, the Indian team, not unlike the current Indian opposition, was mauled and broken at both the previous outings. Which made it that much more rewarding for Kapil Dev to take the cup at Lord’s. The cricket analogy works nicely for the 14 major political parties gathered in Delhi on Palm Sunday. As with Kapil Dev’s team, the rally initially saw a squad that was low in self-esteem, but which could yet fix its gaze on the prize, despite not seriously hoping to win it. The no-frills self-effacing-to-a-fault eleven welded into a winning unit when it came to the crunch and defeated the day’s most invincible squad in the tournament not once but twice to surprise everyone, including themselves.

In one of the matches, so low was the expectation from the Indian team that there wasn’t a TV camera stationed at the Nevill Ground in Kent to record Kapil Dev’s once-in-a-lifetime 175 not out. It rescued the team from yet another humiliating World Cup exit. The largely unwatched match against Zimbabwe would put India on course to rewriting cricketing history.

That event had a canny resemblance to the one in New Delhi on Sunday. There was no TV news channel to cover the rally. That’s what the Modi media does. Typically, the huge story about electoral bonds revealing the BJP’s quid pro quos as the main beneficiary was quietly airbrushed. For the Modi-friendly TV channels the story never broke. There were on the stage leaders of stature representing governments in major states including Punjab, West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. And there were leaders from Maharashtra and Bihar whose state governments were torpedoed by Mr Modi’s associates by inducing defections. They are hungry for revenge. And there was no TV channel, unbelievably, to cover this event.

“When pressure is put on umpires and captains, players are bought off and the match is won in cricket, it is called match-fixing,” Mr Gandhi continued. “We have a Lok Sabha election before us. Who selected the umpires? Before the match started, two players were arrested … Narendra Modi is trying to do match-fixing in the election,” Mr Gandhi asserted. “The BJP is raising the slogan of getting 400 seats but without EVMs, match-fixing, pressuring media and buying them, it will not be able to reach even 180 seats,” he said.

Granted that looking ahead the coming electoral match may not be best remembered for its free or fair spirit. But there is another cricket metaphor India’s opposition alliance might be wary of. It’s called being out ‘hit wicket’.

Among several ways, Mr Modi’s opponents can fall to self-harm; not seizing the moment that Kejriwal’s arrest has created could be decisive. Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar or Akhilesh Yadav — they are all match-winners on their day.

Today, it’s Kejriwal who looks primed to swing the match against Modi, even a rigged one. Applaud him.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2024

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