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Possible Key Players?

Will these usual suspects stitch up an opposition alliance come 2024?

Print edition : Jun 18, 2022 T+T-

Will these usual suspects stitch up an opposition alliance come 2024?

Sharad Pawar

Sharad Pawar | Photo Credit: Satish Acharya

A look at the political record of some of the other leaders who believe they can play a significant role in an opposition alliance in 2024.

Sharad Pawar

Sharad Pawar is the quintessential politician. He is a master strategist and a political pragmatist who is well-informed about his colleagues and his opponents, and a brilliant administrator with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Maharashtra.

He also has a dry sense of humour that he uses cleverly. For instance, when he was asked, for the nth time, whether he was the power behind the throne in Maharashtra, he replied that he was neither the “headmaster” nor the “remote controller” of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government. It was a gentle jibe at Bal Thackeray’s favourite line where he called himself Maharashtra’s remote control. And “headmaster” was a reference to the coaching classes owned by the Shiv Sena’s Manohar Joshi who was the party’s first Chief Minister.

Pawar’s denial is typical of the man but it is a fact that he is the fulcrum of the MVA government. The MVA leader, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, depends on him considerably and especially so when he first took the chair in November 2019.

Pawar combines his vaulting ambition with a strong streak of daring, and this is what led him to create the MVA, an alliance of highly unlikely partners: the Shiv Sena, mercurial street fighters; the Congress, staid and so fixated with tradition that they have a dim vision of the future; and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) that Pawar leads.

While Pawar may tire of being called “kingmaker” and “the power behind the throne”, he is undeniably the one who mentors the MVA. It is his influence and advice that has seen the MVA through its two-and-a-half years in power.

While Thackeray and his ministers handle the day-to-day matters, it is Pawar they turn to when it comes to handling the bigger picture. For instance, in April, Pawar met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi and mentioned his concerns over the Enforcement Directorate’s actions against Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut. He also expressed his displeasure at Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari delaying passing the 12 names recommended by Thackeray for nomination to the State Legislative Council. Both issues should have been handled at the State level, but with the State BJP asking the Centre to intensify pressure on the State government, finally it fell upon Pawar to intervene with the Centre.

When the MVA was formed they had an alliance code that logically said that no partnerships would be formed that would hurt the alliance. But this year during the zilla parishad election, the NCP had a covert agreement with the BJP. In Gondia, the NCP joined hands with the BJP, with the latter’s candidate winning the president’s post and the NCP’s elected vice president. The Congress was kept out. In a seeming tit-for-tat in neighbouring Bhandara, the Congress joined with the BJP to get its candidate elected president and the BJP’s vice president.

There is a trust deficit in the Congress about Pawar and the NCP. Before the 2014 Assembly election, Pawar had a clandestine understanding with the BJP that resulted in a break-up of the established Shiv Sena-BJP and Congress-NCP alliances. Each fought the elections separately, with the NCP and BJP staying out of each other’s territories. The BJP garnered the maximum number of seats and was hunting for allies. The NCP offered outside support, since Pawar was wary of crossing the secular-Hindutva divide. The BJP was keen that the NCP ally with it formally, and Narendra Modi and the late Arun Jaitley even visited Pawar in his stronghold of Baramati. Ultimately, the BJP formed the government with the help of the Shiv Sena but the activities in between only proved yet again Pawar’s hold on Maharashtra politics.

Pawar has honed his political instincts over the past five decades to the point where he knows exactly when to go for the kill. The 2019 alliance with the Sena was a master stroke. It must have been a time of extreme tension, of walking on eggshells, but one would not have known it, looking at Pawar. The only time his brow was creased was when his nephew Ajit Pawar, when the MVA was thought to be a done deal, announced that he, along with some independent MLAs, had joined the BJP and that they had the required majority. Ajit Pawar said he had already taken his oath as Deputy Chief Minister at dawn at the Raj Bhavan. That shook the Maratha strongman but it did not defeat him. The matter was soon resolved.

Despite being the architect of the MVA, he does not bother to put out small fires within the coalition, especially when they are between the Shiv Sena and the Congress. For long, the Congress has felt itself slighted in the State of its birth. From ruling the State for almost four decades the Congress suddenly finds itself as the juniormost partner in government. Plum posts are given to members of the Sena and NCP. Moreover, the Congress has a firm ideology that is in conflict with the Sena’s. However, the pragmatist in Pawar accepts, without compromising on his party’s core ideology of secularism, that there has to be flexibility for the alliance to survive.

Lyla Bavadam

Akhilesh Yadav

Akhilesh Yadav
Akhilesh Yadav | Photo Credit: Satish Acharya

The role that Akhilesh Yadav, SP president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister will play in any national opposition alliance against the BJP is a matter of much debate in political circles for one main reason: Uttar Pradesh, as the most populous State in the country, sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. The principal opposition party in the State is expected to provide an effective counter to a BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has won twice from Varanasi.

In the past, both the SP and Akhilesh Yadav have raised hopes about mounting a serious challenge to the BJP but have repeatedly failed to live up to them. However, the consensus among political observers and practitioners now is that the situation will be different in 2024. One main reason for this is the spirited fight the SP, along with allies such as Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), Mahan Dal and the Janwadi Party (Socialist), put up in the 2022 Assembly election, literally making the contest a bipolar one.

In the process, the seat share of the BJP+allies dropped from 322 in 2017 to 273, while that of the SP alliance rose from 52 to 125. The BJP’s seat share came down to 255. The SP’s vote share went up by a whopping 10.26 per cent, from 21.8 per cent in 2017 to 32.06 per cent in 2022. The allies chipped in with about 4 per cent for a combined vote share of 36.1 per cent.

The Assembly seat numbers when mapped against the Lok Sabha seats in the State point to the SP alliance being ahead in as many 24 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats. The SP’s much-touted alliance with Mayawati’s BSP won only 15 seats.

There are other interesting statistics: Of the 255 seats the BJP won, in 63 the margin was less than 10,000 votes, and in eight it was less than 1,000. In 19, the margin was between 1,000 and 5,000, while 36 seats had a margin of 5,000 to 10,000 votes. Political analysts say the BJP and its allies may face a stiff contest in another 15 to 18 seats in 2024. How these projections will shape up is hard to tell, but there is little doubt that the expectations from the SP and Akhilesh are higher than ever before.

Post-election, the SP alliance was predicted to collapse but nothing of the sort has happened yet. RLD chief Jayant Choudhary has been elected to the Rajya Sabha as the alliance candidate. Besides, the SP leadership drew former Congress leader Kapil Sibal into its fold and sent him too to the Rajya Sabha as an independent candidate. These are clear signals that the SP and Akhilesh Yadav are positioning themselves to play a larger role in national opposition politics.

RSS and BJP leaders admit that in 2019the SP alliance with the BSP and the RLD was perceived as a coming together of dominant castes—the landholding Jats, the core vote base of RLD; the powerful Jatavs, the core vote base of the BSP; and the Other Backward Caste Yadavs, the core vote base of the SP—and this spurred the movement of non-Yadav OBC-MBC communities and non-Jatav Dalit communities to the BJP. This strengthened the pan-Hindu alliances that the BJP had crafted in Uttar Pradesh over the past three decades. The net result was that the BJP-led NDA took 49.51 per cent of the votes polled. In comparison, the NDA managed only 45 per cent of the votes in the 2022 Assembly election, a decrease of 4.5 percentage points.

An added concern for the Sangh Parivar is the widespread perception that the BSP actively assisted the BJP in 2022 by transferring votes in as many as 60 seats. Leaders also point out that the SP consolidated a big part of the anti-BJP vote and found new moorings among the smaller backward castes such as the Rajbhars and Pasis. All this provides Akhilesh the opportunity to build on his gains and launch a concerted campaign for 2024.

Meanwhile, the BJP has already started several counter-manoeuvres. One of the first has been to bring to its fold Shivpal Yadav, the brother of SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav. Shivpal had contested the election with the support of the SP but fell out soon after. Shivpal and Akhilesh have battled for supremacy in the party since mid-2016. Ultimately, Akhilesh got the party and Shivpal formed the Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party.

Another serious charge against the SP leadership, and Akhilesh in particular, was that they were not taking up the concerns and issues of Muslims, although the community stood solidly with the party. The incarceration of senior SP leader Azam Khan was highlighted as an example of this neglect.

While the campaign was blown up in the media, a large number of political observers are of the view that it does not seem to have had much traction in the Muslim community as a whole. It can, however, come up again in the days to come. One of the key challenges before Akhilesh Yadav will be to handle the pressures on this front even as he tries to position himself as a serious player in the national opposition camp and its efforts to build a united front.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan


Mayawati  | Photo Credit: udaya Shankar

After the huge drubbing the BSP suffered in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, its president Mayawati is reportedly trying to rebuild and overhaul the party. Grass-root BSP workers, however, suggest that she has not been able to infuse any creativity into the exercise. Workers across six districts of UP that Frontline visited are of the view that the restructuring activity is ad hoc. They said, however, that Mayawati holds regular press conferences, seeking to maintain her media presence.

In the first press conference after the announcement of results, she blamed the Muslims for her party’s defeat. She complained that the community had allied with the SP, leaving the BSP with just one seat in a house of 403. The party’s vote percentage fell from 21 per cent in 2017 to just 12.73 per cent. The BSP had 19 seats in the 2017-22 Assembly.

Several political commentators saw this as the end of the road for the BSP, a party that has wielded considerable influence in the State’s politics for decades. Since 1993, it has been a key factor in the formation of governments in the State; in 2007, it bagged 206 seats and formed a government on its own.

In her most recent press conference in early June, Mayawati spoke against the BJP and its spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal who had abused the Prophet. A section of the BSP believes their leader is making concerted efforts to rebuild the party base in the minority community. Some aver that estranged SP veteran Mohammed Azam Khan will ultimately join hands with Mayawati.

It is not clear how far these expectations will be met. But the fact remains that over the past 15 years, Mayawati has repeatedly failed to protect her core vote base. There has been a considerable drift towards the BJP’s pan-Hindutva politics. In the 2022 election, her voters shifted the SP as well to the Bhim Army led by Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan”. Several former BSP supporters told Frontline that Mayawati can regain her political clout only if she plays the role of a real opposition. They were also of the view that as things stand, the SP is the real opposition force in Uttar Pradesh.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Tejashwi Yadav
Tejashwi Yadav | Photo Credit: Satish Acharya

Tejashwi Yadav

Tejashwi Yadav was down and out after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The BJP- led NDA had decimated his RJD in Bihar, winning 39 of the 40 seats. The RJD drew a blank.

The young leader of opposition in Bihar was clueless as his father Lalu Prasad had been languishing in jail for over two-and-a-half years with no hope of relief. Then came the 2020 Assembly election, when Tejashwi surprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and shocked Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. In a little over a year, the RJD emerged as the single largest party with 75 MLAs and the RJD-Congress-Left “Grand Alliance” came within striking distance of knocking down the NDA in Bihar.

In the counting of votes that dragged for over 24 hours amidst fierce claims and counterclaims at least on 15 seats, the Election Commission notified 125 seats in the NDA’s share, against 108 for the Grand Alliance. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) was reduced to 43 MLAs but the NDA led by him retained power by a whisker.

From 2020 onwards, Tejashwi has gone from strength to strength. He is in the centre of opposition politics in Bihar, fine-tuning the strategy that earned him the massive success against the NDA. It is paying him dividends too—the RJD wrested the Bochaha seat from the incumbent BJP which trailed third in the recently concluded byelection.

Asked about the strategy that turned around Tejashwi’s fortunes, the RJD’s national spokesman and Rajya Sabha MP, Manoj Jha said: “His (Tejashwi’s) complete focus is on issues concerning the common people. He promised ten lakh government jobs to the youths in one go in the event of securing power and that struck a chord with the youths.”

Moreover, taking a cue from his father, known for his ways of connecting with the masses, Tejashwi repeated the slogan “ kamai, dawai, padhai, sichai (job, medicine, education and irrigation)” in every campaign meeting, making it a catchword with the people. He drew more crowds than Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath and Nitish, all of whom were campaigning feverishly in Bihar then.

What actually made Tejashwi’s words more credible was his alliance with the Left—mainly the CPI ML (Liberation), which had the major share, and also the CPI and CPI(M). This was meticulously worked out by Lalu’s old associate and veteran socialist leader, Jagdanand Singh, the State RJD president whom Lalu had roped in to “guide” Tejashwi. Jagdanand ensured that Tejashwi incorporated the 25-point charter of resolutions drafted meticulously by the CPI-ML(Liberation) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya in the Grand Alliance’s common minimum programme. The CPI (ML) Liberation—very effective at the grass-roots level in Bihar—provided the cadre support to the Grand Alliance against the well-oiled and cash-rich NDA. The Congress got 70 seats in its share which probably marred the prospects of the Grand Alliance—the grand old party, bereft of cadres and social base at the grass-root level managed to win only 19 seats.

Having lost to the NDA by a whisker in 2020, Tejashwi is cautious about the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Manoj Jha said: “There is little doubt that the RJD-Left-Congress Grand Alliance will take on the NDA in Bihar in 2024. But the Leader of Opposition in Bihar, while appreciating the importance of the Congress, has repeatedly said that the grand old party should contest against the BJP in about 220 seats where it was in direct fight with it and it should leave the regional parties (read RJD) to be in the vanguard in the States they are capable to take on the BJP.”

The advantage of the Tejashwi-led Grand Alliance in Bihar at this stage is that the NDA looks to be a divided house. Of late, Nitish Kumar has publicly opposed the BJP on certain issues. For instance, he ignored the BJP’s covert plan to put the caste- based census under the carpet in the run-up to the 2024 election and organised an all-party meeting in early June announcing the caste-based census in Bihar, in effect accepting Tejashwi’s demand for the caste-based census. Secondly, Nitish Kumar has opposed the implementation of the uniform civil code and also the national register of citizens (NRC) in Bihar. He described pulling down loudspeakers from religious shrines in the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as “nonsense” and participated in iftar parties with Tejashwi twice in March.

There is verifiable evidence of Nitish and Tejashwi getting closer. The local media and political circles are agog with the speculations that Nitish—given his irreconcilable differences with the BJP on certain issues—might switch over to the Grand Alliance again. There was a flutter in the NDA camp when Nitish denied a third term to the JD(U)’s former national president and Union Steel Minister R.C.P Singh in the Rajya Sabha. Needless to say, R.C.P. Singh’s ministerial berth is in jeopardy. The grapevine has it that Nitish Kumar denied R.C.P Singh the Rajya Sabha berth simply because the latter had become “more loyal” to Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Manoj Jha said: “There are indications but it will be unwise to speculate at this stage if Nitish ji will join the Grand Alliance. Let us see how things unfold. What we are sure of is that our Grand Alliance is better placed than the BJP in Bihar in the context of the 2024 Lok Sabha election. The BJP has most of its partners deserting it because of its arrogance and crass anti-minority and anti-people policies whereas more and more parties are looking towards the Grand Alliance.”.

It is difficult to draw a conclusion about 2024 on the basis of the stakeholders’ performance in the Assembly election. The context and issues in the two elections will be different. However, thanks to a variety of factors, Bihar will not be as easy for the BJP as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh might be in 2024.

Nalin Verma

Sitaram Yechury

Sitaram Yechury
Sitaram Yechury | Photo Credit: Satish Acharya

Explaining the role of the Left in the overall opposition strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha election, Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the CPI(M), said the objective is not merely to defeat the BJP in the election or replace the government but, in fact, to safeguard the Constitution and its foundational pillars and to ensure that the constitutional guarantees are implemented for all its citizens. Yechury added: “It is imperative that all efforts should be made to make sure that this government that has been systematically undermining the Constitution is defeated. The objective therefore is not merely to hold power, but to safeguard the secular democratic Indian republic. The effort must be to unite all opposition parties who are willing to take on this communal offensive of incendiary hate speeches and religious bigotry. That is our effort. As far as the CPI (M) is concerned, the effort has to be to forge the broadest possible unity of secular forces to take on this challenge. This is what the unity should be. The question is will it be?

“Given India’s composition and character and immense diversity, there are different parties and political forces which have considerable influence in different regions and States of the country; any effort in this direction cannot be a pan-Indian effort to begin with but has to be State-specific. In every State, the leading secular force which is anti-BJP must take the lead in forging unity among all secular forces like it was done by the DMK in Tamil Nadu. Once the State-wide understanding of seat sharing or electoral understanding takes place, it is on that basis that a national alternative will emerge. Historically speaking, on various occasions, the national-level government formations came into existence only post general elections. This was the case with the 1996 United Front, 1998 NDA or the 2004 UPA. So it cannot be very different in 2024.”

One way of achieving the objective of safeguarding the character of the Indian republic in 2024, he said, is through an electoral understanding but it is more important to reach out to people and rally them together towards this effort. The battle is not confined to the time of elections, but has to be built up towards that. Yechury said: “It is here that the Left has been playing a seminal role in forging the unity of working people in struggles around their fast deteriorating livelihood conditions. So be it the historic year-long farmers’ struggle or the struggle of the working class against privatisation, the loot of national assets and dilution of labour laws, the Left has been playing a role in galvanising public opinion against the government’s policies. It is this combination of people’s struggles and electoral understanding between secular forces which will take us forward to the 2024 battle.”

Yechury added: “We have seen parties that oppose the BJP at the level of the State but in Parliament, they support the BJP. They have to decide for themselves where they stand. Our appeal to them is that they should realise the gravity of the attacks on federalism that is eroding rapidly the constitutional rights of the State governments. Unless this is arrested, the regional parties running State governments may well find themselves at the mercy of the Union government to survive. For this reason alone, the regional parties must come forward to safeguard federalism and the basic features of the Constitution. Every regional party can and will have ambitions. Nothing wrong with that. It has repeatedly happened that before every general election, there will be talk of a third front, a fourth front or a regional front. But finally a government comes to life only after elections. The regional parties must realise, just as the Left does, that India is a “Union of States” and that federalism is its foundational principle. The BJP’s effort in advancing the RSS’ fascistic agenda requires a unitary state structure hence the interests of the States and the regional parties can never be protected unless this tendency to push a unitary state structure is rebuffed.

“The Left has been working very well with some regional parties, like the DMK in Tamil Nadu. With some others, there have been situations where the Left, in the interests of the people, has led and will lead protests against anti-people policies and the regional parties know this. But today that is not as important as safeguarding India’s constitutional order and the challenge is to isolate and defeat the BJP. As for the Congress, it is a reality that it still constitutes the largest single opposition force in the country. Among the opposition parties, it has the largest share in the electoral college that elects the President of India.”

The political resolution passed in the 23rd Congress of the CPI(M) held in April in Kannur made it clear that isolating the BJP was the main objective. It ruled out a political alliance with the Congress. The Resolution recognised the weaknesses of the Congress, its diminutive role in the present context, its declining political influence and organisational strength. The Congress, while it proclaimed secularism, was unable to effectively mount an ideological challenge.

On the subject of fiscal space of the States, the resolution noted that “the non-BJP State governments along with all democratic forces should come together to resist such assaults on federalism and in defence of States’ rights. Safeguarding federalism, the basic feature of our Constitution, is part of the struggle against authoritarian centralisation.” Even though the regional parties had embraced the neoliberal trajectory, and shifted political positions displaying political opportunism, the conflicts between many of them leading State governments and the BJP had sharpened. Many of them were under pressure due to the misuse of Central agencies and therefore supported the ruling party in Parliament.

Sitaram Yechury pointed out that despite the harassment by Central agencies, some regional parties like the DMK in Tamil Nadu or the NCP in Maharashtra (the NCP is a constituent of the LDF in Kerala), the RJD in Bihar or the SP in UP were playing a major role in taking on the BJP in their States.

The political resolution made it clear that the Left was willing to work together with the regional parties in common struggles against anti-people policies of the central government and in defence of secularism against communal forces. But their political positions needed to be taken into account while working out a tactical approach with them.”

The political line of the party is clear that it will “cooperate with secular opposition parties in Parliament on agreed issues. Outside Parliament the party would work for the broadest mobilisation of all secular forces against the communal agenda. The Party and the Left will independently and unitedly work with other democratic forces, on an issue to issue basis, fight assaults of neoliberalism, authoritarian onslaughts against democracy, democratic rights, suppression of dissent by the use of draconian laws.”

T.K. Rajalakshmi

Arvind Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal
Arvind Kejriwal | Photo Credit: Satish Acharya

“I don’t want to defeat anyone, I want the country to win,” said Arvind Kejriwal, when nudged on the question of “opposition unity” in the 2024 general election.

Such nebulous articulation on a question of profound national import is neither uncharacteristic nor unwitting for Kejriwal, whose Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is known to change from secular to Hindu-nationalist raimentquickly and frequently, making him suspect in the eyes of many opposition leaders who feel they must join hands to staple together the issues of unemployment, price rise and the assault on institutions into a commanding national narrative.

The politically savvy Delhi Chief Minister thinks differently. If some of his counsels are to be believed, his goalpost is not partnership in power but the pinnacle of power—and he is willing to go about it incrementally. He is apprehensive that his joining the stable of regional leaders will relegate him as “one among many Modi baiters”, restricting personal dynamism and a degree of assertiveness, desirable traits of a national leader in contemporary politics.

This, together with an underlying belief that Modi cannot be replaced by mismatched regional parties with no single leader to rival his aptitude in national security and foreign affairs and his capacity to animate diverse audiences across India, draws Kejriwal away from them. He only partly conceals his disdain for an anti-Modi front. “I don’t understand their alliance of ten or more parties,” he pointed out recently.

Kejriwal and his team, say insiders, have been carefully examining voting patterns in several big-ticket State elections. These include the ones in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where the opposition (either led by a major regional party or the Congress) stopped short of toppling the incumbent BJP/NDA governments despite the voters’ many palpable grievances and the ominous backdrop of the migrant labourers’ crisis and a year-long farmers’ agitation that Modi’s critics believed would script an electoral revolt for his party.

In AAP’s understanding, the BJP’s constant berating of the Congress and regional parties as anti-Hindu, combined with other facets of right-wing populism that have floated in the Hindi heartland for years, have crystallised into a sentiment among a section of the electorate that voting for them would result in an inconclusive muddle, making the BJP somewhat immune to failure in governance.

The Uttar Pradesh elections bore this out. Despite constant talk of non-Yadav OBCs’ resentment with the BJP, illustrated by the defection of OBC heavyweights such as Swami Prasad Maurya and Dharam Singh Saini to the SP, the BJP and its allies secured 66 per cent of the Kurmi votes besides 64 per cent of the Koeri, Maurya, Kushwaha and Saini votes, as per a CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey of March 2022.

Those who have been counselling the AAP feel that constituencies such as these, enough in number to tilt the scale of elections, are more guided by selfish interests rather than the call to thwart the right-wing invasion of democracy, insisting that it avoid a head-on collision with Modi, and focus on countering the “Hindu victimhood” narrative fed by him by appropriating elements of the BJP’s identity politics. In a recent rally at Rajkot in Gujarat, Kejriwal launched a temple pitch, promising to send senior citizens to a pilgrimage in Ayodhya in airconditioned coaches. “Did the BJP send anyone to Ayodhya in last 27 years from Gujarat?” he asked scornfully.

As for Kejriwal’s immediate game plan, a source from the AAP said: “To replace the Congress wherever it is locked in a bipolar contest with the BJP.” A long, candid conversation with him underscored that the thinking within AAP is that despite a surge of powerful regional leaders, the place for a principal opposition party is sacrosanct in Indian polity, illustrated by the Congress’ near 20 per cent vote share in 2014 and 2019 general elections despite the BJP’s virulent attack on it. It is this 20 per cent of steadfast anti-BJP votes that the AAP aims to cull in order to vault to national prominence before nibbling at other parties’ support bases.

The AAP believes that its determination, energetic cadre and the captivating story of its ascent to power in two States in less than a decade of its formation offer a stark contrast to the internecine warring factions within the Congress and at times muddled articulation of its leader Rahul Gandhi, discredited by years of BJP’s ruthless campaign. It is confident that persuading Congress voters to switch to AAP will not be difficult. This line of thinking was betrayed when AAP’s young Turk Raghav Chadha, exulting at the party’s success in Punjab, declared, “AAP will be the Congress’ national and natural replacement.”

Not surprisingly, both the BJP and the Congress have begun to assail Kejriwal in a sharper and more vindictive tone. During the Punjab election earlier this year, the two parties alluded that the Delhi Chief Minister was pro-Khalistani. Their apprehensions are easy to understand. Kejriwal’s age, fluency in Hindi and his image of a leader who delivers, unscathed by any charge of corruption, all hand him the potential to emerge as the most significant claimant for power in a fractured electoral field.

Some may point out that the AAP’s foray in Goa and Uttarakhand, where it polled 6.8 per cent and 3.3 per cent votes, respectively, were unimpressive, while it was a non-starter in Uttar Pradesh despite an assiduous year-long campaign helmed by prominent leader Sanjay Singh. But the fact that the BJP retained all three States is the key to AAP’s strategists, as it prepares to joust the Congress from the opposition scene. It is this message that the party is planning to relay in election-bound Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh where the Congress has so far been the BJP’s only major adversary, besides Karnataka where it shares the opposition space with the Janata Dal (Secular).

While it is improbable that the AAP can immediately replace the Congress in any of these three States or in 2024, public interest in the grand old party will be drastically reduced if it fails to improve its electoral performance. In the AAP’s calculation, both Congress and a third front have only dim hopes of scuppering the BJP’s comeback to power in 2024. By sharpening its attack on the Congress and distancing itself from the regional parties, the AAP is aiming to secure its place as a credible force that India may choose when it has had enough of Narendra Modi.

The path to 7, Lok Kalyan Marg is arduous and accident-prone. But so were the ones to Delhi and Punjab.

Anando Bhakto