In the second fortnight of August, political noise peaked in Lutyens’ Delhi after a flurry of raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as it probed charges of irregularities in the Delhi government’s now-withdrawn excise policy. The BJP seized on the controversy to sharpen its attack on Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia, whose residence and office were searched, and demolish the halo of incorruptibility which has been the Aam Aadmi Party’s handy tool to mobilise public opinion. However, it may have erred in being too loud about it at a time when the debate surrounding the independence of institutions figure prominently in people’s minds. The AAP got the accoutrements it required to look like the victim of a contrived plot.
Its articulations in the media were carefully framed to bolster that perception. “...It is unfortunate that those who do good work are harassed like this. This is why our country has not yet become No.1,” Sisodia tweeted after a 14-hour long CBI raid at his house in Delhi on August 19. The message resonates with a section of the BJP’s middle-class supporters who are wary of its bid to create a monolithic power structure, even though they show little sign of abandoning it at the moment.
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As the political squabbling intensifies, animating and dividing the electorate of either party, the key questions to examine are: Why is the BJP increasingly hostile to the AAP? Is it because of Kejriwal’s attempts to expand his political tent in election-bound Gujarat? Or, does the BJP have a broader fear that Kejriwal’s systematic adoption of core ingredients of its politics, such as powerful expositions on nationalism, immigration and national security as well as the commitment to place the social and political hegemony of the majority community at the top could power his emergence as a front-line political figure and precipitate his party’s full-scale takeover of India’s right wing?
Delhi Excise Policy
The general impressions on these vexed questions are varied and often inconclusive. There is also no broad-based consensus either decrying or upholding the AAP’s ambitious endeavour to liberalise and privatise the liquor industry. A C-Voter survey conducted after the CBI raids found that 51 per cent of the respondents believe Sisodia is culpable, whereas 49 per cent do not think so. When the Delhi Excise Policy was rolled out on November 17 last year, the Kejriwal government was upbeat about upping revenue collection from liquor sales, from Rs.6,000 crore to Rs.9,500 crore annually, by allowing private companies to open 850 shops across 32 zones in the Union Territory. As crowds swelled outside liquor shops, many of which were offering hefty discounts, the move appeared to pump more sheen to Kejriwal’s image as an economic populist.
But, after Sisodia reportedly gave liquor licensees a waiver of Rs.144 crore citing the COVID-19 as an excuse, the opposition’s corrosive comments on his integrity found takers. Under Sisodia’s aegis, the formula to determine the rates of foreign liquor was modified, and the levy of an import pass fee of Rs.50 per case of beer was dropped. In some instances, producers, retailers and distributors of liquor were the same persons, which was in violation of the excise policy.
In November 2021, the CBI registered an FIR charging Sisodia and others with the “intention to extend undue favours to the licensees”. The accusations were upheld in the Delhi Chief Secretary’s report in July, prompting Lieutenant Governor V.K. Saxena to recommend a CBI probe.
While there is no clarity on the exact loss the new liquor policy has caused the exchequer, the AAP maintains that the revenue dip was caused by the LG’s last-minute decision to restrict wine shops in “non-conforming areas”. The party has framed the entire controversy as a BJP ploy to pressure its A-rung leaders and engineer a split.
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Speaking to Frontline, AAP legislator Saurabh Bhardwaj pointed out the pattern: “In West Bengal and Maharashtra, we saw a sudden interest of investigating agencies in probing opposition leaders. We also saw their eventual switchover to the BJP.” His reference was to Suvendhu Adhikari of the Trinamool Congress and Narayan Rane of the Shiv Sena, both now in the BJP.
‘AAP versus BJP’
By exposing its desperation to wreck Kejriwal’s image, the BJP made itself look like the pioneer of a pessimistic politics, focussing on sabotaging political opponents rather than formulating an optimistic vision to address bread-and-butter economic issues. This is the same mistake that regional parties and the Congress recurrently do by making anti-Modism the fulcrum of their politics. In effect, it bolsters Modi’s profile as the tallest national leader. The AAP wasted no time in exploiting the opportunity the national party had handed it. “It will be AAP versus BJP in 2024,” announced Sisodia.
It was not a remark made in passing. The AAP’s recent assertions projecting Kejriwal as Modi’s primary challenger in 2024 are based on the calculation that a strife-ridden Congress, having lost two general elections, is incapable of winning, more so when its leader Rahul Gandhi’s commitment to the hard grind of full-time politics remains debatable. In AAP’s assessment, a disparate group of regional parties, constantly querulous on who would become the Prime Minister, is unlikely to upset Modi’s powerful regime. The party barely conceals its disdain for an anti-Modi front. “I don’t understand their alliance of 10 or more parties,” Kejriwal said recently.
So, what will be the AAP’s driving strategy to vault to national prominence: nibbling the opposition’s space or luring BJP voters by embracing the right wing’s focal issues? The AAP’s shape-shifting politics indicates it will be both, though the party is increasingly loath to join the opposition in its fight against the politics of division and hate. This could be the outcome of a belief that India’s slide to the right is irreversible in the foreseeable future, hence, the more a political party attempts to turn elections into a mandate on Hindutva, the more it will alienate Modi’s core voters, who are otherwise anxious at the state of the economy and willing to defect.
The core opposition voters, on the other hand, will not need pandering; they would rally around whoever is the best bet to oust Modi. A careful study of the voting patterns and other nuances in several elections upholds that point of view. In Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party was the obvious choice for Muslims despite their generally favourable opinion of Priyanka Gandhi’s street confrontations with the BJP; in West Bengal, the community voted en-bloc for Mamata Banerjee, not riled by her over-the-top rebranding as a devout Brahmin.
The AAP’s slide to the right, under way for a couple of years, is now more noticeable. On August 17, when Hardeep Singh Puri, the Union Minister for Housing, tweeted that Rohingya refugees would be shifted to flats for the Economically Weaker Sections in Delhi, the AAP was the first one to whip up an anti-immigrant rhetoric. “There is hooliganism across the country because of the BJP today…. In the last eight years, why did the BJP give shelter to Bangladeshis and Rohingyas across the country?” Sisodia bellowed at a press briefing. The Ministry of Home Affairs quickly repudiated Puri’s announcement.
In headliner incidents concerning the minorities, such as the controversial remissions in the Bilkis Bano case or the genocidal slogans raised against Muslims by a Hindutva mob at Jantar Mantar, the AAP’s articulation is nebulous or even muted. Its several other actions illustrate its bid to amplify growing polarisation in India and use it as the emotional core of its appeal. In May 2021, the party’s official Twitter handle posted a list of countries, all predominantly Muslim, who were the beneficiaries of India’s COVID essentials. Yogendra Yadav, psephologist, activist and former founding-member of the AAP, explained these antics in an interaction with Frontline. “The AAP knows that the market for right-wing politics has surged exponentially, and there can be more than one vendor. It is trying to be one.”
The Hindu overture is punctuated with anti-BJP hootings frequently. When some BJP leaders went overboard demanding that The Kashmir Files, a film accused of stoking Islamophobia, be made tax free, Kejriwal sneered: “Put it on YouTube, it will be all free.”
This proclivity to play both sides is not an AAP invention. It prominently surfaced in parts of Europe, where liberal players have pivoted to the right on issues such as immigration, security, and national identity in order to reckon with a society consumed by the far-right’s racist theories. France’s Emmanuel Macron is an upfront example. Faced with the growing acceptability of Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, a far-right political party, the incumbent President tacked to the right, enacting new laws which accorded overreaching powers to the government to track religious groups and close houses of worship. He also parroted far-right talking points on terrorism and Islamist extremism before winning a re-election in April.
But why should the BJP, armed with a formidable electoral battleship, control of communication, and surplus capital, fret over a junior party’s manoeuvre? The answer is obvious. Kejriwal threatens to dilute that one factor which is responsible for Modi’s unsagging electoral fortunes amid constant failure on economy: “TINA” or, there is no alternative.
The TINA factor has been achieved by years of ruthless discrediting of Rahul Gandhi and vilifying his Congress party as anti-Hindu. The regional parties, some of which are also battling perceptions of being anti-Hindu, can hardly dent the BJP at the national level. In a country responsive to the tutelage of a strong-arm executive, they come across as a leaderless muddle, vague on the question of national security.
Kejriwal is not only immune to the charges of Muslim appeasement, he is cannily redrawing his public image as a dynamic and assertive Hindu leader dedicated to serving the national interest. On the day of the CBI raids, Kejriwal announced a “missed call” campaign urging people to join his “national mission”.
Hindutva with development
Kejriwal also brings Hindutva with a dash of development. The blitzkrieg surrounding his model of free electricity and free education seeks to attract lower-income groups from across the political spectrum, who contributed significantly to Modi’s ascension to power in 2014. The BJP fears that if the economy continues to flag and jobs remain elusive, the working class will move in a steady trickle to the AAP.
But many questions hang over the course of Kejriwal’s politics and its ramifications on society. Can Kejriwal deal with the labyrinth of castes and identities that will test his electioneering skill in the Hindi heartland? Will he reduce the appeal of political extremes? Or, will his flirtations with Hindutva make it even more acceptable? We do not know. But the duel between two right-wing panderers is expected to be India’s most telling anticipation for the future since the “Mandal-kamandal” days.