Decoding AAP’s game plan

How Arvind Kejriwal’s party emerges as the sole opposition force that has actually been growing in an era dominated by BJP’s smash-and-grab politics.

Published : Mar 04, 2024 17:39 IST - 7 MINS READ

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with his party legislators marking one year of AAP leader Manish Sisodia’s arrest, at Raj Ghat in New Delhi on February 26. 

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with his party legislators marking one year of AAP leader Manish Sisodia’s arrest, at Raj Ghat in New Delhi on February 26.  | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal thinks strategically without the burden of ideological purity. For over six months, he has been the most committed advocate of a national opposition alliance that he sees as essential to fight the Narendra Modi-led BJP that has sent his closest party colleagues to jail. Kejriwal also argues forcefully for embracing Hindu religiosity visibly in the political sphere—because he says that the BJP must not be allowed to make that turf its exclusive property.

With Indian politics having shifted rightwards, he says it is a mistake to cede that space entirely to the BJP. Some constituents of the INDIA bloc such as the Left, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal would disagree; the Congress is likely to be at the centre of this argument, while parties such as the Trinamool Congress and the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) would possibly be in sync with the AAP point of view.

Meanwhile, after many hiccups and delays, the AAP has an alliance in place with the very party it once attacked fiercely in Delhi and Punjab: four seats to the AAP in Delhi (candidates were speedily announced) and three to the Congress. There is to be no alliance in Punjab, but through the bargaining period, Kejriwal insisted on the Congress-AAP arrangement extending to Haryana, and as a result, his party will now fight from the Kurukshetra seat. Kejriwal has been trying for the AAP to grow green shoots in Haryana, his birthplace, which enjoys full statehood unlike Delhi. Besides, for months now, the AAP has also been adamant about contesting the Bharuch seat in Gujarat. The AAP wants to build a base in BJP-dominant Gujarat from this tribal hub, and its MLA and State unit chief, Chaitar Vasava, will be the candidate for that Lok Sabha seat. There was resistance from the Congress as this was the late Ahmed Patel’s seat, but the AAP argued that the Congress had not won it since 1984, so why not let them have a go. The Bhavnagar seat in the State will have an AAP candidate. A thing to note, whatever the circumstances confronting the AAP, the party does not give up on its expansion plans.

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All the planning emanates from Kejriwal, at a time when the Enforcement Directorate (ED) recently issued its eighth summons asking him to appear before it. The AAP, which has fought multiple cases at all levels of courts for over a decade now, consulted an entire battery of lawyers before deciding to question the legality of the summons issued to Kejriwal in the now-scrapped 2021-22 excise policy case.

Smash-and-grab approach

At the time of writing, Kejriwal was a free man, but the question of “will he be arrested/won’t he be arrested” has hung over him for months. Simultaneously, the BJP overturned a Supreme Court decision by passing legislation to circumscribe the powers of the elected government of Delhi. The AAP is also psychologically prepared for its bank accounts to be seized or frozen.

It can therefore be said that Kejriwal is leading one of the most beleaguered parties in the opposition space. Yet, it cannot be ignored that he is also leading the only party in the opposition space that has actually been growing in an era dominated overwhelmingly by the BJP, which follows a smash-and-grab approach towards adversaries. Founded in 2012, the AAP is in power in Delhi and Punjab and has registered vote shares in Gujarat and Goa. In September last year, this brought it national party status from the Election Commission, while the Trinamool, the Nationalist Congress Party, and the CPI lost that status.

In terms of numbers in Parliament, the AAP is a still a small party and currently has one member in the Lok Sabha. The question, therefore, is, why has the BJP gone hell for leather against a party that has actually been a contributing factor in the decline of the Congress? Indeed, Narendra Modi’s successful shift to Delhi in 2014 can be credited significantly to the anti-Congress mood in the country after the Anna Hazare Movement in 2011 curated by Kejriwal discredited the UPA-II government.

The BJP high command’s loathing of Kejriwal could be due to the following reasons: first, by winning a historic mandate in the 2015 Assembly election in Delhi (67 of 70 seats) just six months after Modi’s arrival in Delhi, Kejriwal punctured the Modi hype. Second, he made many pitched charges against the Prime Minister, about his educational qualifications and even his temperament (he also contested against Modi in Varanasi in 2014).

  • The BJP high command’s disdain for Kejriwal may stem from two reasons: firstly, his landslide victory, winning 67 of 70 seats in the 2015 Delhi Assembly election, which punctured the Modi hype.
  • Secondly, his relentless accusations against the Prime Minister regarding his educational qualifications and temperament.
  • Unlike other regional Chief Ministers, Kejriwal cultivated a national profile post-2014, paralleling Modi’s ascent but on a smaller scale.
  • Kejriwal’s initiatives include not only founding the Anna Movement but also establishing AAP, while Modi assumed leadership of an existing party, now dominating it with the backing of the world’s largest cadre structure.

Successful populist

One can also surmise that one successful populist recognises the potential of another. Today, the Modi narrative describes the Prime Minister as self-made compared with the dynasts leading the Congress. But Kejriwal created not only the Anna Movement but also the AAP, while Modi took over and now dominates an existing party, propped up by the world’s largest cadre structure. The BJP is also underwritten by huge corporate donations.

Unlike other Chief Ministers of regional parties, Kejriwal developed a national profile after 2014-15, on a smaller but parallel track to the mega Modi splash. Besides, the RSS was part of the Anna Movement; after the AAP’s formation resentment may have lingered. The BJP’s antipathy to Kejriwal and the AAP thus makes sense. Kejriwal has also been fiercely critiqued by many original members of the AAP, who quit on the grounds that the party had become a cult around a leader and abandoned its foundational values. But this did not change public curiosity about Kejriwal as a new-gen politician. Meanwhile, the AAP’s only ideological orientation seems to be efficient delivery of subsidised services.

But the passage of the Delhi Services Act last year gives greater power to the Lieutenant Governor than the elected government. This law (since challenged in the Supreme Court) has cast a shadow on theAAP’s governance potential as bureaucrats often do not even attend meetings called by Ministers. One has to see how this impacts the AAP’s electoral performance. The party swept Delhi in 2015 and 2020, and will face an election in early 2025, seven months after the national government is sworn in.

AAP’s position on secularism

The hardest thing to define about the AAP with the language and grammar of politics available to us is its position on secularism. The Chief Minister and his colleagues frequently participate in religious functions, and the state sends citizens on subsidised pilgrimages to Ayodhya. Delhi was the site of Hindu-Muslim riots—in 2020 in north-east Delhi soon after the AAP won a second term and in 2022 at Jahangirpuri—but the party has always ducked the identity question. In private, party workers say they do not control the Delhi Police and the Hindu-Muslim issue is a BJP trap. When the anti-CAA protests were raging in Delhi, the AAP only spoke about its governance record and was silent on Shaheen Bagh.

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However, the AAP is funding culture, poetry, and theatre in Delhi. Between January 8 and 13, an Urdu Drama Festival was advertised on the front pages of newspapers with Kejriwal’s face, and some of the packed performances were lavishly mounted. Between February 22 and 25, another Urdu Heritage Festival was held at the gorgeous Sunder Nursery, with a Ramleela in Urdu among the events presented.

That event did get a mention in the newspapers. But what is more routine coverage is a single-column news item that Kejriwal has been summoned by the ED again. 

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi-based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.

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