The emergence of Arvind Kejriwal has undoubtedly been the start-up story in Indian politics of the last decade just as the inexorable rise of Narendra Modi has been the biggest brand revolution over this same period. Both have had unique stories that appeal to a middle-class, aspirational India: the IIT-trained anti-corruption crusader who chose to take the political plunge with the promise of transforming the country’s political culture and the RSS-trained pracharak who promised to shake up the Nehruvian establishment. For their followers, both symbolize hope and change, albeit in starkly different ways. If the Aam Aadmi party leader represents the dream of a more socially conscious, egalitarian India, the BJP mascot is the flag-bearer of Hindutva politics where religio-nationalist zeal is at the core of a ‘new’ India vision. Both leaders swear by a good governance model premised on populist welfarism and yes, both are fiercely individualistic and their own respective party high command.
So, as Kejriwal storms back to power with another remarkable majority in the Delhi Vidhan Sabha elections, the question might inevitably be asked: can the AAP leader be a future challenger to prime minister Modi? The short answer is yes and no. The longer answer needs a more detailed analysis of the changing nature of Indian electoral politics. As the widely contrasting results of the Delhi Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha in the last year have shown, the voter is making a sharp distinction between state and ‘national’ elections. The Lok Sabha elections foregrounded the issue of ‘leadership’ and Mr Modi was successfully able to almost ‘invisibilise’ the opposition by raising the potent question: ‘Modi versus who?’ By contrast, a Vidhan Sabha election is increasingly fought on local issues where the effective delivery of basic utilities becomes a decisive factor while making political choices. Kejriwal’s ‘bijli-paani’, ‘school-mohalla clinics’ agenda was far more successful in attracting voters in a Vidhan Sabha election than in a Lok Sabha poll where the cacophony of post Balakot ‘muscular nationalism’ made the daily necessities of life seem almost insignificant.
Like with Mr Modi in the Lok Sabha, the absence of a credible challenger at the state level made Kejriwal’s task that much easier. Without having the endless resources of the BJP, the AAP leader was able to fashion a clever communication campaign that crafted a larger than life image for himself, although within a more limited geographical space in Delhi. The near-complete identification of every state government scheme with the chief minister meant that the same voter who was attracted by Mr Modi’s persona at a national level was unhesitatingly willing to make the switch to Kejriwal in a state contest. This easy swap – we saw it in Delhi 2014-15 as well – is a reflection of the mindset of a transactional voter who is less likely to be swayed by high-pitched emotional rhetoric in a more localized election milieu.
In effect, Kejriwal has been recognized and is now trusted as the ‘face’ of Delhi. But this also limits his potential to expand his brand value beyond the national capital which, after all, is ultimately a city-state with just seven Lok Sabha MPs. In Mumbai, for example, the Shiv Sena for decades has played the role of benefactor at the local level: its network of shakha pramukhs have been able to create a regional connect that ensures the party’s dominance in the cash-rich city Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Could a Kejriwal with his ‘education-health’ governance model offer an alternative to a corruption-tainted BMC? Not unless AAP is able to create a local organization that can identify with the uniquely Maharashtrian ethos of the city: an agenda for civic governance needs a distinct regional dimension in different parts of the country.
The limitations of AAP were exposed in 2017 in Goa and Punjab, two states where the party has made a concerted attempt to expand. In Punjab, the AAP’s original anti-corruption agenda resonated for a while but the failure to identify and empower a local Sikh leadership prevented the party from taking advantage of the initial momentum. In Goa too, the complex nature of panchayat-driven village societies meant that AAP was seen as a party of ‘outsiders’ in a starkly parochial political environment.
Moreover, while AAP has been able to establish itself as the premier political party of Delhi, has it really been able to change the country’s political ethos in a manner that would make it an attractive option for those fatigued with mainstream politics? The list of winning AAP MLAs includes some bright, young minds but it is also populated by defectors and moneybags: the idealism of the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement has been compromised by the harsh realities of electoral politics. Kejriwal’s reluctance to build a second line of leadership that can grow outside the shadow of the Supreme Leader has meant that AAP is still burdened, like many regional outfits, with the one man show tag.
And yet, politics often does offer a second innings for those willing to learn from past mistakes. Kejriwal 2.0 appears a more sober, patient and reflective avatar of his earlier impetuous, confrontational, perpetually angry man image. This isn’t the Kejriwal of Varanasi 2014 vintage when he attempted to punch above his weight by challenging Modi in a quasi-presidential style battle: he didn’t mention Mr Modi even once in anger during the Delhi campaign and, in fact, has studiously avoided any embittered references to the prime minister on social media since 2017. Instead, we now have a newly minted Brand Kejriwal who offers a peculiar mix of robust nationalism (witness his stand on article 370), cultural Hinduism (the repeated invocation of Hanuman) and pro-poor welfarism in an attempt to position himself as a more inclusive right of centre alternate to the BJP’s polarizing Hindutva politics.
Crucially, Kejriwal’s latest election triumph also comes at a time when the Congress is in a deepening organization and leadership crisis, one that shows no sign of ending anytime soon. In particular, the inability of Rahul Gandhi to be seen as a leader of substance has meant that the opposition leadership space remains wide open. It is unlikely that senior leaders like a Mamata or a Sharad Pawar would cede that space to a relatively ‘junior’ Kejriwal but the anti-Modi coalition will continue to push for credible alternatives in the build up to 2024. Five years ago, Kejriwal may have been driven by haste and hubris to project himself as a ‘natural’ alternative to a Modi-led BJP. This time, he needs to press the pause button before attempting to scale up his Delhi-centric model: truthfully, Dilli dur ast.
Post-script: There is another curious link now to the Modi-Kejriwal story: ace political strategist Prashant Kishore is now firmly in the Kejriwal camp, having contributed in no small measure to his Delhi win. Kishore’s clients now include a diverse range of anti-Modi forces from Mamata to the DMK. Will he now seek to glue them together into a broad national coalition? Watch this space.