J'accuse: The symbolic power of Shweta Bhatt v Narendra Modi

Shweta Bhatt is no David against Narendra Modi’s Goliath. The Biblical David had a slingshot’s chance against the giant. Bhatt’s candidacy against Modi in his own stronghold, Maninagar, is symbolic.

“One only hopes Shweta Bhatt will retain her (electoral) deposit,” a BJP booth manager in Ahmedabad told Rediff . “Even the Congress wants Modi to shift to New Delhi soon.”

She is not there to win as much as she is there to try and embarrass the lion in his own den. She is there as her husband’s proxy, a sort of political Banquo’s ghost, a nagging reminder from a past Modi wants to put firmly behind him. The editor of a Gujarati daily told Rediff it just proved the Congress has no leader who can put up a credible fight against Modi. Sanjiv Bhatt’s allegations against Modi about asking his police to allow rioting mobs to “vent their anger” in 2002 were explosive but have not made much of a dent in the chief minister’s grip over his state.

Sanjiv Bhatt and wife Shweta Bhatt. AFP.

But both Shweta and the Congress, which has fielded her, know those allegations reverberate louder outside the state. And with Modi having an eye on higher office, they want those charges to get maximum airtime in the echo chamber of the national and international media. It becomes an excuse to revisit that story over and over again.

Shweta’s stand-by-your-man act is not unusual in politics. In India, many a wife has come into the limelight as an extension of her husband. Some have eventually come into their own – a Deepa Das Munshi in West Bengal has found her own political footing after stepping into her husband Priya Ranjan’s shoes. Others floundered like a Janaki Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu or a Laxmi Parvathy in Andhra Pradesh.

But whether they ultimately succeeded or failed, few of them even pretend to have any claim to the office beyond the marriage certificate. Some come to power because hubby dearest has moved onto higher office, for example, being the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Some do a sati savitri act because the husband is in jail thanks to a fodder scam and he needs someone he can trust to hold onto the gaddi. Some made a bid for power because the husband is dead and they can reap the sympathy vote. Or they want to seize control of the party coffers before a pesky step-son does. And still others just want to keep the seat warm for beta.

When a husband dies, the wife is the natural beneficiary of the sympathy factor. Y.S. Vijayamma surpassed her late husband’s already impressive vote margin when she contested his seat after his sudden death in a helicopter crash. The Congress’ attempt to create an ugly showdown by pitting his brother against her backfired mightily against it. Picking on the little woman is bad enough, but picking on the bereaved woman is a PR disaster. The Congress probably hopes that Modi who has already come under fire for his “50 crore girlfriend” dig on the campaign trail will make a misstep and come across as a bully this time around as well.

The critical difference between Shweta Bhatt’s candidacy and most of the political wives who have come before her is this - Shweta is not fighting this election to hold onto any kind of political empire or party assets. She is not in this to keep the gaddi warm for Sanjiv. She is there simply to make a statement. Her candidacy is in effect, just there to say one thing to the Modi juggernaut  even if it falls on deaf ears in Maninagar– J’accuse.

In the process, of course, Shweta is unavoidably politicizing her husband’s judicial fight. Sanjiv Bhatt can no longer just claim to be the police officer with a conscience, victimised for speaking up. BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar was quick to sound that note saying his wife’s candidacy exposed the truth behind Sanjiv Bhatt’s fight against Modi as being a “ Congress-sponsored hate campaign to defame Gujarat and Gujarati voters will definitely teach a bitter lesson to Congress.”

If there was a moral point to be made by putting up a symbolic fight, Shweta Bhatt could  have made it by running as an Independent. But it’s hard to see how much sympathy she can drum up as the candidate for a party whose own reputation for probity and moral uprightness is fairly tattered these days.

 

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