Can Kejriwal 3.0 take on Modi-Shah in 2024?

It may be too early to ask this but after a landslide in Delhi that seems to be the larger question in Indian politics. Can Kejriwal be the consensus candidate of non-BJP parties to take on Modi in 2024? Especially when a national party – the Congress – is down in the dumps

During the campaign for the Delhi Assembly election, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) president and chief minister Arvind Kejriwal kept the focus sharply local and maintained his own narrative instead of getting trapped in a narrative set by someone else. That strategy has worked; AAP has won Delhi and won it with a resounding landslide. The party won 62 seats in a house of 70 members, with 53.6% vote share, not far from the share it won in 2015. In the Lok Sabha elections nine months ago, the party polled only 18% votes and its candidates stood third in five out of the seven parliamentary constituencies. From 18% to 53.6%, it’s a quantum jump of 35 percentage points. There may be reasons such as the people of Delhi chose different leaders in different elections but the fact remains that Kejriwal led his party to a massive win less than a year after a rout in Lok Sabha polls.

There are many takeaways from AAP victory in Delhi. The biggest and the most important is this: State elections cannot and should be fought on national issues. Secondly, there’s a limit to what dividends polarization can bring. It is a fact that when the Delhi elections were announced, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cadres were de-motivated in the face of an impending washout. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former party president Amit Shah changed the campaigning script with its focus on the protests against the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Shaheen Bagh. That it worked is not a myth – the party gained 6.4 percentage points in vote share over 2015, which translated into 5 additional seats – but people of Delhi refused to become polarised and voted for a government which, they believed, will do the right thing by them and their city. They chose the narrative of development over the communal narrative. They chose a local leader over a national one. They chose Kejriwal over an invisible BJP chief ministerial face.

The AAP has done what the BJP did in 2019 LS polls: become a rare incumbent to hold its vote share from one landslide election to the next. The BJP bettered its 2014 performance in the 2019 national elections, by increasing its vote share by around six percentage points. So one fact is in the national scene, Modi seems invincible as of date, and another fact is that BJP is now limited to 13 states and about 40% of India’s population. The party that tries to nationalize – and polarize – all state elections failed to form government in nine out of 11 states where Assembly elections were held. The exceptions are Haryana and Arunachal. What does this mean? It means that people want state elections to be fought on local issues, local leaders, and promises of welfarisms. Brickbats have been thrown at the AAP for making lot of things free – free electricity up to 200 units, up to 20,000 litres of water every month and free travel for women in Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses – but that the party disallowed more than 200 private schools in Delhi to increase fees, that it spent almost one quarter of its budget on education, that it opened 300 mohalla clinics for free diagnostic tests, free treatment and medicine at people’s doorstep are also facts that cannot be ignored. At least the voters in Delhi didn’t ignore these.

As for BJP, the party also promised a lot of freebies in its manifesto, indicating that it wasn’t averse to implanting the welfare model of Kejriwal if elected to power – or at least so it suggested – but when it failed to wrest Delhi from a party which is only seven years old, it trained its guns at the model.

For the Congress, which drew a blank for the second election in a row, there’re bigger and louder messages. The Delhi election was a bipolar election: 92% is the combined vote share of AAP and BJP, reducing all other parties, including the Congress, to less than 8%. The party is in disarray. It needs an overhaul. Zero seats in 2015 and zero seats again means the party can safely change everything and everybody without bothering about the consequences. Nothing can be worse than this.

After discussing the takeaways for different parties, let’s focus on Kejriwal 3.0. How an IIT-ian – Kejriwal is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur – segued into a civil society activist to a politician whom no one took seriously to an integral part of Indian political life is in public domain. The question now is: Can he take on a Modi-Shah in the national elections? Can he play a role in filling the vacuum in the opposition space? Can he emerge as the consensus candidate of the regional parties – from Trinamool Congress in the east to the Samajwadi Party in the north, from Nationalist Congress Party in the west to the and southern forces – to stop the Modi-Shah juggernaut?

Let’s examine this.

When AAP first emerged on the political stage in 2013 Assembly election, it won 28 seats and most poll pundits dismissed it as a one-election wonder. But Kejriwal was ambitious – some would say, overambitious – and he contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Varanasi taking on Narendra Modi, who looked determined to rule the country. Some say Kejriwal fought this election only to remain relevant in Indian politics. But when his party romped home in the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections – with a massive 67 seats – its effort to go national took wings again. AAP stepped out of Delhi and fought the Punjab Assembly election seriously – so much so that at some point many poll experts began saying that it was coming to power – but the party failed. That’s when Kejriwal decided to stay focused on Delhi and went into a mute zone. He disappeared from the national headlines for his statements against the “non-cooperative” Central government. That worked.

Now with a renewed mandate and a governance model that he takes pride in, Kejriwal may once again be tempted to play a national role, especially when the Congress is moribund and the regional parties failing to become a potent force against the Modi-Shah combine. This time, the regional satraps may keep the Congress out, thinking that it spoils their party. In Delhi, the Congress didn’t fight hard because, some people say, it wanted the AAP to take on BJP without any of its vote getting divided. Such magnanimity, if true, may prove fatal for a party that has ruled the country for such a long time. It’s a pity that the party cannot look beyond the Gandhi family to lead it even though it has stalwarts such as Ashok Gehlot, who have displayed their mettle in the Gujarat state election.

Some people recall the days of the Congress when non-Gandhi family members were at its helm – Sitaram Kesri – and say that it is in the genes of the Congress workers to be led by a Gandhi family members. They say it took a Sonia Gandhi to put the party together in shape from a time when several leaders were forming splinter groups. She may have led the party in a time when the BJP was not led by Amit Shah, who is a master of election management and Narendra Modi, whose pan-India popularity is intact – especially in the absence of a suitable alternative.

The regional parties cannot take the duo on. At most, they can make regional dents. But even that, if translated nationally, can do them well in national elections. They need a face to lead the combine, a voice to fill the space that the Congress is ceding – could the Muffler Man be that face?

For one, the AAP needs to expand its footprint in other states and have a base to supplement the respective regional forces. There’s ample time for that – 2024 is still several state elections away.

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