The Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) impressive debut in the hitherto bipolar electoral fray in Gujarat is being interpreted variously by political observers. Those who had given up on the Congress as a spent force, lacking the vigour for a head-on collision with the BJP, a perception bolstered by the party’s tepid campaign in Gujarat, are looking at Arvind Kejriwal as a plausible alternative. Others are alarmed by his slide to the Right and dismiss his party as a “spoiler”, essentially helping the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by fragmenting opposition votes. In Gujarat, the AAP’s nearly 13 per cent vote share has led to the Congress’ vote share plummeting from 41.4 per cent in 2017 to 27.28 per cent in 2022.
Yet, nobody can deny that the AAP’s metamorphosis from a political start-up, floated in 2012 as a new-age revolution against corruption and cynicism, to a national party in just 10 years is phenomenal, and that Arvind Kejriwal, once a fledgling anti-establishment poster boy, has shape-shifted into a deft politician swiftly. There are other attributes that make him a potential Prime Minister contender: He is young, a Hindi heartlander, and as Delhi’s Chief Minister he has a list of accomplishments in the health and education sectors that attest to his capacity to deliver. Like Narendra Modi, he is self-made, so when his time comes, he can borrow Modi’s “naamdar versus kaamdar” jibe to best “entitled” opponents.
But his proclivity to play both sides of the ideological spectrum, donning a liberal raiment with impetus on creating a welfare state, while not-so-quietly embracing some of the Right’s focal talking points, be it the uniform civil code or illegal immigration, raise questions on his ability to offer a positive vision for the future, especially when a deeply polarised society is in dire need of a compassionate leadership. How can he defeat the BJP without questioning its Hindu majoritarian ideology, ask his critics. In headliner incidents concerning the minorities, such as the controversial remissions in the Bilkis Bano case, the AAP’s articulation is muted. This is the outcome of a growing realisation that the core opposition voters, particularly the minorities, need no pandering as they would rally around whoever has potential to take on Narendra Modi.
AAP MLA Saurabh Bhardwaj, who spoke to Frontline, made light of the party’s critics. “The so-called critics are prone to getting trapped in the narrative created by the BJP for them. We are not here to earn appreciation from those who have been advising the Congress for a long time, and evidently, their advice has not helped it in any way,” he contended, adding, “We know how to take on the BJP”.
In the AAP’s calculations, it is not necessary to confront Hindu nationalism to defeat its purveyors. In private conversations, its leaders say that the only way to fragment the BJP-RSS’ formidable social coalition is to co-opt elements from within it. They indicate that Kejriwal is likely to project himself increasingly as both a Hindu nationalist and an economic populist, seeking to attract voters with bread-and-butter economic issues, caring little about their ideological affiliations.
According to the AAP, Modi is not immune to anti-incumbency, but the Congress’ and the regional satraps’ baggage of alleged “appeasement politics”, perceived lack of commitment to the national interest, which today is interchangeable with a commitment to placing the social and political interests of Hindus at the top, and their inability to offer solutions for the economy dissuade voters from abandoning Modi.
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Says an AAP party insider: “The people, particularly the middle class, wants to defect, but it’s just that they don’t want to defect to a disintegrating Congress or an amalgam of Mamata [Banerjee], Nitish [Kumar], Akhilesh [Yadav] and Tejashwi [Yadav] who, they suspect, would end the Hindu hegemony seen in the Modi years or unduly favour the minorities.” He is quick to add: “We don’t have such a label.”
The AAP’s rightward tack is increasingly noticeable. Even when the party talks about economy, it carefully laces its articulation with a Hindu-first undertone. On the occasion of Deepavali 2022, Kejriwal wrote a letter to the Prime Minister lamenting the state of the economy and demanding that the pictures of Hindu deities Lakshmi and Ganesha be inscribed in the Indian currency. “A confluence of right policy, hard work, and gods’ blessings will put our nation on the path of progress,” he emphasised. The former IITian, 54, only partly conceals his disdain for an anti-Modi front. “Gathering political leaders will not make an alliance that can make India number one. We must gather all 130 crore people of India to make this country number one,” he averred.
Those who know Kejriwal say he has a “laser focussed objective to becoming the Prime Minister” and that he can be “ruthless in that pursuit”. But what would be his strategy to vault to national prominence? General discussions with AAP leaders and workers and journalists who had in the past counselled Kejriwal give the impression of a two-fold trajectory: Taking on the Congress in 2024, and the BJP in 2029.
The AAP is aiming to replace the Congress in the States, particularly wherever the grand old party is in a straight contest with the BJP. This is easier said than done, but the underlying thinking is that even if it manages to nibble some of the Congress votes, such as in Gujarat, or earlier in Goa where it polled 6.8 per cent votes, helping the BJP’s Pramod Sawant retain the State, a message would be relayed that the Congress is incapable of winning, boosting the AAP’s prospects. In an interaction with Frontline, Amanatullah Khan, AAP legislator from Okhla, admits this is the plan. “In Gujarat, we showed it is the AAP, not the Congress, which can battle the BJP fiercely; we will win the State in 2027.”
The AAP is hopeful that if it can add a couple of States to its kitty, Kejriwal’s elevation as Modi’s nearest opponent could be as early as in 2024. That is an unrealistic assessment, especially when Rahul Gandhi is shedding his “reluctant-politician” tag with an arduous pan-India foot march. But few are ready to bet that the Congress or a potential third front can oust Modi in 2024, or even drastically reduce his majority. The AAP is readying itself to seize that moment. “Ultimately, it would be Modi versus Kejriwal,” says Amanatullah Khan.
The veteran journalist M.D. Nalapat, currently director, Department of Geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, feels that a strong Prime Minister in control of his or her party, and correspondingly the government, has become a “desideratum for most voters”. He says that Kejriwal, not Rahul Gandhi, is more likely to challenge Modi. “Rahul [Gandhi] was very much at the top of the Policy Influencer chain [during UPA regimes], yet was not seen as having accomplished much. This, plus his refusal to accept governmental responsibility during such periods has lowered expectations of his performance as head of government,” Nalapat tells Frontline. According to him, if Arvind Kejriwal puts up a stellar performance in Punjab, his credentials as a leader who can be trusted will grow, “although not in time for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls”.
In 2023, the AAP plans to foray into newer regions with the halo of an incorruptible, consummate outsider. In Rajasthan, the AAP has announced it would contest all 200 Assembly seats; in Orissa, it is raising the pitch on the flood situation while promising free water and electricity and universal education and healthcare as blandishments.
The party is hopeful that Dalits, tribal people and the lower-income work force will gradually coalesce into its dependable support base. Its sudden exhortation of Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar, proponents of an egalitarian society, is aimed at precipitating that. The BJP realises that if the economy continues to flag and jobs remain elusive, the marginalised sections will move in a steady trickle to the AAP. Its wariness was betrayed when no less a person than Modi rushed to berate AAP’s sop distribution as “revdi culture”.
A recent online survey conducted by the Indian arm of the global market research firm YouGov, Mint, and the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research showed the AAP capturing public imagination more than before. Around 36 per cent respondents in 204 cities and towns said they identified with the BJP, down from 38 per cent in the previous round of the survey held in November-December 2021 while 7 per cent picked the AAP, against 1 per cent earlier.
The hounding of AAP leaders by the government’s investigating agencies also gives away the BJP’s unease. While Satyendra Jain, an AAP Minister, was arrested in a money-laundering case, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia is an accused in alleged irregularities in Delhi government’s now-withdrawn new excise policy. But opinion is divided on whether these corruption charges can make a dent in the party’s reputation.
To effect his transition into a frontline political figure, fund-raising and a brush-up on international relations figure prominently in Kejriwal’s agenda. He is eyeing municipal corporations in several States, which would help him build personal patronage networks and keep the cash flow coming. The AAP has genial relations with global think tanks, courtesy its social activism background, and Kejriwal plans to use them as an opening to secure international prominence. In August 2022, he was invited to participate in the World Cities Summit held in Singapore, but Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor denied him permission to travel.
Modi’s image of a global leader, as one who understands the great power dynamic and has the ability to harness it to India’s advantage, distinguishes his brand of politics. As China continues to engage in provocations, political observers such as M.D. Nalapat believe Kejriwal’s ineptness in geopolitics will be his stumbling block. “As yet, Arvind Kejriwal has not given any indication of his view on the ongoing Cold War 2.0 between the United States, its allies and partners and China. It is this that offers India both the biggest threat as well as the biggest opportunity. Each year, the awareness of the public on the effect of global geopolitics is growing. As a consequence, Prime Minister Modi, with his experience spanning over 2014-2022, is strengthening his position,” Nalapat pointed out.
As the AAP’s pros and cons get debated, critics say it has reneged on its promise to fix a flawed political system. “The AAP’s structure is as undemocratic as that of any other political party and its leader autocratic. It is not inclined to take any position that might jeopardise the pro-majority sentiment,” rued Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times, in a conversation with Frontline.
The AAP’s disadvantages are considerable. In several States such as Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, it failed to make a mark; its leaders were quickly absorbed by the BJP. There are signs of determination in the Congress not to cede any ground in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, where elections are due in 2023. In Rajasthan, where it is in power, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot announced the price of cooking gas cylinders at Rs.500, illustrating the Congress’ plans to hijack the AAP’s and the BJP’s populism. If the Congress wins two or more of these States, the AAP’s march will be scuppered. If Modi’s popularity unexpectedly wanes before the 2024 general election, the Congress and regional parties with a superior organisational machinery will be better placed to take advantage of people’‘s frustrations and snowball to power. The AAP’s leaders say political battle lines will not be abruptly redrawn, but off-camera, they do not gloss over these prospects.
- The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has made an impressive debut in the hitherto bipolar electoral fray in Gujarat.
- Those who had given up on the Congress as a spent force, lacking the vigour for a head-on collision with the BJP, are looking at Arvind Kejriwal as a plausible alternative.
- But others are alarmed by his slide to the Right and dismiss his party as a “spoiler”, essentially helping the Bharatiya Janata Party by fragmenting opposition votes.
- Yet, the AAP has grown from a political start-up, floated in 2012 as a new-age revolution against corruption and cynicism, to a national party in just 10 years.
- Arvind Kejriwal is a potential Prime Minister contender: He is young, a Hindi heartlander, and as Delhi’s Chief Minister he has a list of accomplishments in the health and education sectors that attest to his capacity to deliver.
- But, as the AAP’s pros and cons get debated, critics say it has reneged on its promise to fix a flawed political system.