Shaheen Bagh and the BJP’s nationalism pitch dominated Shah’s speech, less than half of which discussed local issues.
Home Minister Amit Shah is a busy man. Public meetings, rallies and road shows in Delhi have been keeping him occupied lately, as the Bharatiya Janata Party goes all guns blazing to trounce the Aam Aadmi Party in the upcoming Delhi poll on February 8.
In the past week, Shah has been addressing two or three jansabhas, or public meetings, every day. He’s accompanied by Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari. Shah’s destinations include the traditional BJP strongholds in North East and North West Delhi, like Karawal Nagar, Ghonda, Rohtas Nagar and Nangloi Jat. The BJP has been winning these constituencies since the early 1990s.
On the evening of January 26, Shah arrived at Babarpur in North East Delhi. The AAP had won Babarpur when it swept the Delhi poll in 2015, and the Congress pocketed it in 2003. In the rest of the four elections, Babarpur chose the BJP. The area is dominated by lower-middle class voters, whose uniform woes are water, roads and electricity.
The Delhi police blocked one half of the road in Babarpur for the public meeting. The Rapid Action Force and a riot control vehicle stood by at different points. The meeting was organised in front of an old Shiv mandir. The audience comprised hundreds of people who filled a nearly 100-metre stretch of the road.
In his opening remarks, Manoj Tiwari proclaimed Shah as a “sher”, a lion. Tiwari hit out at Arvind Kejriwal, criticising the Delhi chief minister for not living up to his promises of development in the constituency, especially in schools. Tiwari seemed to gloat before the crowd, once even asking them to clap for him. But he did not evoke much fanfare.
The show really began when Amit Shah took the stage. He was greeted with ecstatic chants of “Modi, Modi”. Naresh Gaur, the BJP candidate from Babarpur, introduced the home minister as “Hindu samrat Amit Shah”. Accordingly, a poster beside the stage also called Shah a “Hindu samrat” in large white letters.
Shah postured majestically at the dias. His very first line put the Shaheen Bagh protests in the line of fire. “Your voice should reach the supporters of Shaheen Bagh,” he began, the rasp in his voice a throwback to LK Advani. “Lift your hands, clench your victorious fists, and shout with me. Bharat mata ki…” The “Jai” in response was loud and resounding.
Shah continued: “People of Babarpur, when you vote on February 8, you will not only make Naresh Gaur the MLA. You will also make the city and country safe and secure. Your vote will stop thousands of Shaheen Baghs.”
Over the next 10 minutes, he lacerated Kejriwal and the AAP for “failing” to live up to the promises of new schools and better roads in the area. He had not even installed CCTVs “to protect the mothers and sisters in Delhi” or given WiFi to the youth, Shah said. Modi, on the other hand, has done everything that he promised. He gave them bank accounts, electricity and toilets, Shah claimed.
The home minister added that when Modi introduced Ayushmaan Bharat, Kejriwal blocked it in Delhi because he feared his votes would swing.
But the local issues on the menu ended here. For the rest of his address, Shah dwelt on pride and prejudice. “People chant ‘Modi, Modi’ even when the prime minister goes around the world. This is not for him or the BJP, it’s for the people of Babarpur,” he said. “Remember when Rahul baba’s party ruled India. All these aaliya, maaliya, jamaliya would crossover from Pakistan and attack our country and behead our soldiers. But little did they know that the people of India would replace maunibaba [a reference to former PM Manmohan Singh] with a 56-inch chest.”
There was rapturous applause and cheers from the audience.
Shah then mocked Kejriwal and the Congress for demanding evidence for the “surgical strikes”. “They only worry about their vote bank. Do you think you’re their vote bank?” he asked. “No,” the crowd shouted back.
“Who is their vote bank?” Shah asked. “Shaheen Bagh,” came the loud response. Shah made them repeat it thrice.
Then came the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. “Every kid, every Indian across the world, knows there should be a grand Ram temple at the site of Lord Ram’s birth in Ayodhya,” Shah exclaimed to the audience’s jubilations of “Jai Shri Ram”. The second most powerful man in India had evoked Ram in a constituency named after Babar. Shah targeted the Congress and Kapil Sibal in particular for “fighting against Ram Mandir”.
“In four months, we’ll have a colossal Ram temple in Ayodhya that will be higher than the skies,” Shah claimed. The crowd’s decibels went up another notch. Once again, he asked them about the Congress party’s vote bank. “Shaheen Bagh,” repeated the crowd dutifully.
Up next was Kashmir. “We’ve always wanted Kashmir to be a part of India. Jawaharlal Nehru had left behind Article 370. No one would touch it, they were scared of the vote bank. But when Modiji became prime minister for the second time, and the moment we had a majority in Rajya Sabha, he removed Articles 370 and 35A from the Constitution,” Shah boasted.
Then came another round of loud chants: “Jahaan hue balidan Mookerjee, wo Kashmir hamara hai. Sara ka sara hamara hai.” Where Syama Prasad Mookerjee was sacrificed, that Kashmir is ours. All of it is ours. (Mookerjee was the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political forerunner to the BJP.) Shah added that Modi had made Kashmir a permanent part of India.
Shah shifted to Jawaharlal Nehru University, deriding Kejriwal for protecting “anti-nationals”. “In JNU, some people shouted ‘Bharat tere tukde ho ek hazaar’ and Modiji threw them in jail,” Shah said. “Since January 19, 2019, the court has been asking the Kejriwal government for permission to prosecute these people. But his government is protecting them. I ask him now: why can’t you give permission?”
“He’s a traitor,” a few young men in the crowd yelled.
To loud chants of “Amit Shah, Amit Shah,” the politician turned towards the elephant in the room: the Citizenship Amendment Act. He said the Modi government brought the law to secure citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and Christian refugees who were “harassed, raped and converted” in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
All of a sudden, a young man cried “CAA wapas lo”. He repeated it several times, but before those in front could turn around and digest it, chairs flew and he was thrashed by the crowd.
“Arey bhai, chhod do isko,” Shah cried, appealing to the crowd to leave the man alone. When he realised it would not work, he asked the security multiple times to come take the man away safely. Then, almost as if to distract the people from the disturbance, he asked them to chant “Bharat mata ki jai”.
Shah then proceeded to more pressing issues. “Modiji gave citizenship to these people who needed help, and Kejriwal opposes it. Kejriwal, Rahul baba and Imran Khan have the same language,” he said. “Only the BJP can keep this country safe.” He concluded: “When you give your vote in the coming elections, press the button so hard and with such anger, that the current reaches Shaheen Bagh.”
Once the rally wrapped up, I met Babarpur resident Jagpal Sharma, 52, who attended Shah’s rally. Sharma, who runs a tea stall, said the biggest appeal in Shah’s rally was its mention of Ayushman Bharat.
“I’m becoming old now, a healthcare plan can help me in the coming years,” Sharma said. “We are shoved around in government hospitals. If we can access private ones, that’ll be a fair opportunity.”
Sharma said the AAP has only done cosmetic work in Babarpur in the past five years. “You can imagine that this place is a broken house. They’ve only painted the broken house. They’ve covered a drain here, put some rocks on it, and that’s it,” Sharma alleged, adding that the water quality has become worse under the AAP.
When I brought up Shaheen Bagh, Sharma said the protests are the protesters’ business. “But we are with the Constitution, we support CAA. India is ours,” he smiled.
Mohammad Rafazat Ali, 22, did not attend the public meeting. He told Newslaundry the AAP government deserved another term in Babarpur. “Kejriwal has done enough work for people to look up to him when it comes to governance,” Ali said. “Water was a big issue here, and they fixed it. Electricity supply is also better, and moreover, it is cheaper. We get 200 units free.”
On the subjects of Kashmir and the citizenship law, Ali said the BJP is stoking tensions and benefiting from it. “They don’t do anything. They create problems and then accuse the AAP of not dealing with it. People in Shaheen Bagh are not wrong. Muslims feel threatened by the NRC and we have the right to proclaim that this country belongs to us too.”