BJP bid to smear AAP fumbles but not many shedding tears for Sisodia.

In a week from today, Arvind Kejriwal’s Number 2, the marquee face of AAP’s education reform, former Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia, would have spent a month in custody. On Friday, orders went out to his family to vacate their official bungalow, and to the family of Satyendar Jain, the other AAP minister in jail, arrested last year.

As the BJP and the Opposition trade sharp unpleasantries on the government’s alleged targeting of political opponents, on the Delhi street, a whiff of a reality check to both AAP and the BJP carries a layered message.

The BJP’s hectic bid to smear AAP with the corruption taint hasn’t found much of an echo but, at the same time, few are shedding tears for its leaders in jail.

From a JJ camp in Shalimar Bagh to a South Delhi office and mall, you are likely to hear the same division of political labour: Kejriwal for the provision of quotidian “suvidhaein”, goods and services made accessible and free — bijli and paani, mohalla clinic and sarkari school, and free travel in buses for women, not necessarily in that order.

Modi for Hindutva of course, Ram Mandir and Article 370. But also for other “big ideas” and, more and more, for securing the country’s “sarhad (borders)”, and steering the “desh-videsh” assertion and outreach.

That last image, of India-in-the-world, recurs in the conversation on Modi, even as the refurbished sarkari school is a prominent motif when you talk about Kejriwal — very often to the same voter. It may point to a shift: Modi, who has energetically courted a pro-poor image across the country, is, in Delhi at least, forced to share some of that space with Kejriwal. Here, Modi’s claim to solo space is as the god of big things.

In Shalimar Bagh, listen to Shakuntala, housewife, mother of six. Drainage is a problem, dirty water constantly runs into her home, she says, but the government school has definitely improved. Two of her six children go to a sarkari school in the time of the Kejriwal government. “Ab bachhon pe dhyaan dete hain (now they pay attention to the child in school). I went to a parent teacher meeting, and I could see that the teachers were under pressure not to waste time”. She remembers the phone call from Sisodia’s office when one of her children came first in class. “They asked aage kya karna hai (what have you thought for the future of your child)?”

Yet “desh ke liye (for the country)”, for Shakuntala too, it is Modi. Because “woh desh-videsh ko madad karte hain, madad lete nahin hain, yeh sahi hai (on Modi’s watch, India helps other countries, instead of seeking their help, that is how it should be)”.

Across the city, outside a law firm in well-to-do Jangpura, young lawyer Supriya Jain also acknowledges the Kejriwal government’s success story. “My maid’s son went to a government school, got a scholarship and went on to do a computer course”. But “country-wise”, she says, “it is Modi. His work is being recognised by the world”.

The Modi-dominated poster advertising India’s G20 presidency may well have put its finger on a beating pulse. “Climate change, terrorism and pandemic can only be solved by acting together”, it says, marking out the wider ambitions that the BJP hopes will help lift the Modi campaign off the ground when the time comes, and take it to a place presumably unsinged by anti-incumbency.

This high-voltage push framing Modi as the leader taking India to the world resonates — but equally, its campaign to tar AAP with corruption has failed.

For the AAP, even as the corruption shadow over individual leaders has so far not spread over the party, there is not-so-good news too.

The aam aadmi and aurat in Delhi view the arrests of Sisodia and Jain, who presided over two of its biggest success stories — the sarkari school and the mohalla clinic — as par for the political course in a system that typically hides more than it reveals and, in all events, as something the same system will fix eventually.

At the Government Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in Burari, their children’s exam-time stress is writ large on the faces of parents who crowd at the gates. A teacher lists the many positive changes in the school, from furniture to attendance, and is confident that “the improvement is here to stay”. On Education Minister Sisodia’s arrest, he says: “Tantra hai (this is the system). The people know, it happens, an election is coming… Remember Jain bandhu (a reference to the Hawala scandal in the 1990s), where are they now, that storm passed too. Only the media is agitated.”

And at the Seelampur mohalla clinic, where the footfall is high, and a doctor is available in two shifts, asked about the arrest of former Health Minister Jain, patients draw a distinction between what is visible, and what is not.

Hum aam public hain… dawaiyan mil rahi hain, shiksha mil rahi hai, ration mil raha hai… androoni baat hamein nahi pata (we are getting medicines, education and ration, how do we know what goes on behind the scenes)”, says Ram Vinay, who describes himself as unemployed.

While the response on the street to the arrests of Sisodia and Jain is marked by the absence of urgency or outrage, on one of the issues in play — the scrapped excise policy in connection with which Sisodia has been sent to jail — there is more than a hint of moral censure.

In Seelampur, Ashok Kumar says, “The buy-one-get-one-free scheme that was being offered by private liquor shops was completely out of order”.

Bas sharaab ka kaam galat hua hai (there was a mess-up on the alcohol front)”, says Imran, in a tea shop near the Seelampur clinic. Here, a group of young men, self-professed Kejriwal supporters, are strong critics of Modi. “In 2014, a roti cost Rs 2, now it is Rs 5. A plate of korma was for Rs 30, now it costs Rs 70,” says Fahim.

And at the liquor vend in a mall in Mayur Vihar, customer Deepak Sarna, an interior designer, says: “Alcohol had become too easy. People started drinking even during the day”.

Another takeaway for the AAP: There is goodwill for Sisodia, for his work in the government school, but a campaign around his arrest is also likely to come up against the stigma that attaches to all issues involving alcohol.

A signal for the Congress, too, the almost invisible third Delhi player, in the matter-of-fact response to the escalating political hostilities on public display. “A thin line divides the ruling party and Central agencies” but “there is a nyaypalika (justice system) to go to”, says Abhishek, a civil service aspirant, out with friends at a Saket mall.

Santosh, the balloon seller outside the same mall, says: “Let the CBI tell us (the evidence for Sisodia’s arrest)”. And in Shalimar Bagh’s JJ cluster, Anil Chowdhury says: “One man may want to impress his dominance in the country but this is a prajatantra, not rajtantra (democracy, not monarchy)”. Rahul Gandhi’s scenario of institutions bent and broken under the growing pressure of authoritarianism strikes very few sparks.

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