“I know the company in which I have been photographed will send some message. But I am past caring,” remarked former finance minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yashwant Sinha while sharing a dais with former Congress minister Manish Tewari and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in New Delhi on Thursday.

The unusual trio was seen together at the unveiling of Tewari’s book, Tidings of Troubled Times. While it was known that Sinha would be the chief guest at the function, Kejriwal’s last-minute presence turned out to be a big surprise. Tewari admitted as much when he thanked Kejriwal for accepting his invitation at a short notice.

The parties represented by the three leaders – the Congress, the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party – share a volatile relationship as its leaders are constantly engaged in an acrimonious political slugfest which has often degenerated into a personalised attack. Who can forget the bitter battle of words between the Kejriwal and Tewari at the peak of the 2011 anti-corruption protests? Similarly, the Aam Admi Party and the BJP have been slugging it out ever since Kejriwal crushed the saffron outfit in the 2015 Delhi assembly election.

Political messaging

It is not just the BJP but the Congress is equally wary of the Kejriwal-led AAP. Though it has been urged by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the Left parties to invite the AAP to join the proposed anti-BJP opposition front, the Congress has steadfastly declined. Given this trust deficit between the two parties, Kejriwal’s presence at the book release function of a Congress leader obviously resulted in considerable chatter. Tewari could not have extended an invitation to Kejriwal without prior clearance by the Congress leadership. And Sinha’s presence added further spice to the occasion. In these days of political messaging and symbolism, the presence of these three leaders at a common platform could hardly be overlooked.

Though Sinha has been on the warpath for the past three years, taking occasional potshots at the BJP leadership, he hit the headlines recently when he published a newspaper column in which he lambasted his own party’s government for its mishandling of the economy. Having found an ally in Sinha, the opposition, which is always on the look-out for opportunities to put the government on the mat, was predictably quick to welcome and endorse the BJP leader’s critique of the country’s economy. Pushed on the defensive, finance minister Arun Jaitley and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were forced to give public explanations about the state of the economy and hold out assurances of coming “achhe din”.

Realising that they have created a ripple in political circles, the dramatis personae played to the gallery. While Sinha was at his acerbic best, Tewari was a picture of humility and Kejriwal was unusually subdued.

Image credit: PTI

‘Fighting for freedom’

It is too early to say if Thursday’s development will result in a realignment of political forces but Sinha appeared willing to join hands with the opposition in battling his own party. Stating that it would be the best day of his life if the BJP initiated disciplinary action against him, Sinha declared, “Dar (fear) and democracy don’t go together. If there is an atmosphere of fear, we have to get out of it. We should stand up for democracy… if need be, we should do so together.” Hitting out at Jaitley who had remarked that a disgruntled Sinha was looking for a job, the former finance minister said, “I am 80 years old…there may be an age bar for a government job but there is no age bar on fighting for freedom.”

The senior BJP leader pulled no punches as he took on his party leaders without naming them. He began by pointing out that he had been trained in politics by stalwarts like Chandra Shekhar, Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani who maintained that “you should never allow political differences to affect personal relations”, and that was the reason he had accepted Tewari’s invitation to unveil his book two months ago. In a clear jibe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sinha said, “Nobody spoke of mukt this or mukt that as it was understood that debate and discussion and the evolution of consensus is the hallmark of democracy,” referring to the BJP slogan of “Congress-mukt Bharat” or “Congress-free India”.

Continuing in the same vein, the dissident BJP leader said democracy is not about numbers but of reaching out to others. Obviously referring to Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s periodic assertions about their party’s numerical strength, Sinha said, “You have to take people along…that’s the tradition I grew up in.” Extensively citing the Mahabharata, the former minister went on to describe the Modi-Shah duo as the two infamous Kauravas – Duryodhan and Dushashan, stating airily, “Personalities are a passing phase. Values are more important than personalities…I will not allow personalities to affect my values.”

Arrogance and complacency

While Sinha was the proverbial “showstopper” at the packed book release programme, Kejriwal also made his presence felt. Though he went all out to lambast the Modi government for pushing the economy into doldrums and unleashing the income tax and the enforcement directorate on people, he was not his usual strident self. Speaking in a measured tone, Kejriwal quoted statistics to make his point while pointing to the “overall atmosphere of fear” in the country. “It appears that the entire nation is under surveillance,” he said. The Delhi chief minister did not mention the Congress and instead confined his remarks to the BJP.

Following up on Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s recent admission that their party had become arrogant, Tewari maintained that a certain amount of arrogance and complacency did creep in during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime in its second term. “Hubris is the undoing of any political party or politician,” he added.