Last Saturday's BLink column:
Following Shazia Ilmi through the 2013 Delhi assembly election, a new documentary offers a glimpse into the struggles of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Lalit Vachani’s 2015 documentary An Ordinary Election, shot in the run-up to the 2013 Delhi assembly elections, tracks politician Shazia Ilmi’s campaign in south Delhi’s RK Puram constituency. Screened last week in Mumbai, Kolkata and at least three different venues in the Capital, the film attracted an audience largely comprising activists, journalists and academics. While Vachani could not have predicted it, the fact that Ilmi left the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in May 2014 and joined the BJP in January 2015 (after losing the RK Puram seat narrowly to the BJP contender) forms an overarching frame for the way we view the film. And given that the much-publicised exit of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan from the AAP Executive Council was taking place the week Vachani chose to screen his film, many saw it as a prescient comment on the AAP’s present.
From the start, when we see Ilmi alone in a seemingly empty room, being recorded for TV even as she is recorded for Vachani’s film, it is clear that she is a creature of the camera. As The Economic Timesrecognised in a 2011 profile of her, “being on TV is Ilmi’s core competence.” Having worked as a political correspondent and news anchor for 15 years, Ilmi “is not flustered by rudeness, can shout as loudly as necessary to gain the anchor’s attention, speaks fast and without gaps so that others can’t sneak in parallel commentary, appears to have a cultivated disregard for punditry, and has the rare capacity to smile beatifically for the entire duration of the debate.”
We have had more occasions to watch Ilmi in action since, and Vachani shows her putting these impressive abilities to use on the campaign trail, continuing to hold the beatific smile while being told by a Vasant Vihar uncle that she should have stayed a journalist, or hearing the news of her electoral defeat. In a Q&A after one Delhi screening, Vachani said that he considered tracking at least one other candidate, perhaps from another party, but for various reasons, including budgetary constraints, decided to stick with Ilmi, whom he knew from her student days at Jamia Millia Islamia. (Vachani now teaches courses on documentary at the University of Göttingen, Germany.) But while he makes good use of his unfettered access to Ilmi, and her ease before the camera, he spends equal time talking to her three different campaign managers and volunteers, providing a rare picture of AAP from the inside out — a point I shall return to.
A documentary doesn’t have to lay out its arguments like a thesis does, which can be a strength. But the two axes along which Vachani’s interests lie seemed clear to me: religion and class. Religion is perhaps the more obvious one, given that Ilmi, whose name identifies her as Muslim, was standing from a constituency where only 4.5 per cent of the population is Muslim. AAP’s choice was a rejection of vote bank politics, and Ilmi repeatedly appeals to voters to see her as ‘just a citizen’ rather than a ‘Muslim face’. What the film also catches, though, is Ilmi’s cleverly multifarious presentation of self, in which references to biryani (cooked by one of her poorer constituents) sit side by side with remarks that project a subliminal Hindu worldview: “Jab bahut zyada adharm badh jaata hai, toh safai ke tareeke hote hain”. In one revealing scene, she does not contradict a temple priest who says, “Brahmin prasann honge toh bhagwan prasann honge (If Brahmins are pleased, god will be pleased too)”. When she then leans over to whisper in his ear, “My mother-in-law is Brahmin,” it is difficult not to think of it as political opportunism, especially in the light of Ilmi’s future actions.
As for class, the film shows Ilmi traversing the constituency of RK Puram, which consists of middle-class government quarters, jhuggis, as well as posh colonies. She is self-possessed and gracious wherever she goes, though her appeals to middle and upper middle-class voters rang truer for me than her attempts to learn Tamil from Tamil-speaking slum-dwellers, which evoked an Indira Gandhi style of politics. What is harder to pinpoint — and yet crystal-clear as you watch the film — is how class operates as a dividing line within the party, causing invisible fractures that eventually break the campaign, damaging Ilmi’s chances. We see the removal of two campaign managers. The first, Omendra Bharat, an IIT graduate and an inspired orator, is replaced by Siddharth (no last name), another computer engineer, who lasts until a TV sting shows him willing to accept donations without receipts. (The sting was later dismissed as manufactured.) Anjana Mehta, who replaces Siddharth, comes across as a much-more English-speaking figure, who dismisses both Omendra and Siddharth as “pontificating” rather than working, and casts aspersions on their loyalty. Vachani captures the anger of several volunteers who believe that these decisions were taken undemocratically, including Mohanji, who stops working in protest, only to return once Ilmi leaves.
One revealing disagreement breaks out over why Ilmi should be called ‘Ma’am’ rather than by her first name. Gender, of course, is the elephant in the room. Ilmi talks of men’s inability to deal with a woman as boss. Omendra’s carload of campaigners is entirely male and North Indian, while Siddharh is quoted as unselfconsciously saying that whatever money he spends on AAP, “it’s still cheaper than dating girls”. AAP’s brilliantly energetic 2015 campaign revealed a party so astute about class as to successfully make it the unifying election plank so many have failed at. Watching Vachani’s film, though, one worries that it cannot prevent itself from being riven by it.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.