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Arvind Kejriwal’s breakout moment in national politics

The Aam Aadmi Party leader’s anti-BJP politics is set to enhance his influence nationwide

analysis Updated: Apr 26, 2016 17:33 IST
Sushil Aaron
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal speaks during the launch of a mobile app for estate managers of government schools, New Delhi, April 25, 2016
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal speaks during the launch of a mobile app for estate managers of government schools, New Delhi, April 25, 2016(Vipin Kumar / HT)

The Delhi chief minister is lending political muscle to the liberal middle class and building an ideologically flexible party that can potentially take votes from both the BJP and the Congress without threatening regional parties

It looks like Arvind Kejriwal has decided to get out of the confines of Delhi politics and reiterate that he is a national politician that Narendra Modi has to reckon with. Consider his and party’s actions and rhetoric in recent weeks. The Delhi government ran advertisements about its programmes in dailies in Delhi and Mumbai, leaving many to wonder why the latter would be interested in what his government is doing in the capital. AAP will reportedly contest all seats in Goa and it is strengthening its Gujarat unit ahead of 2017 polls — perhaps in an effort to build on the momentum of an anticipated win in Punjab polls next year.

Kejriwal has interspersed these with unambiguous, caustic commentary on national politics. In an interview to the Economic Times, he declared “on record” that the entire JNU controversy was set-up by the BJP “to polarise”, “to divide the society”. When asked for views on central governments schemes like Make in India, Stand up India, Kejriwal mocked them with monikers of his own, “Sit down India, Sleep India”. Kejriwal also faulted the PM for allowing a Pakistani joint investigation team to visit Pathankot, saying “The nation wants to know what prompted the Prime Minister to kneel down before Pakistan”.

Read | Arvind Kejriwal: Delhi’s chief micromanager, thoughtful tactician

Clearly, Kejriwal is finished contending with Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung. Why bother anymore with the cat’s paw when it is time to take on the big cheese? Kejriwal’s new offensive says something about the current political juncture in India and the space the AAP leader is trying to carve out for himself.

First, the context: Two years into his tenure as Prime Minister, Modi’s prospects look unclear. The economy is not doing well; job creation is sluggish, there’s widespread agrarian distress and water scarcity and the education system is a source of despair for the middle class and the elites. The BJP is not expected to do well in the state elections ahead, barring Assam, and will struggle to beat a resurgent Mayawati in UP next year.

There is therefore an opportunity created by NDA’s lacklustre performance. The opposition space, however, lacks coherence with the Congress in disarray and regional parties preoccupied with their own turf. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has sounded the bugle with his call for a ‘Sangh-mukt Bharat’ but Kejriwal is arguably better placed to be the battering ram for the opposition without necessarily contradicting Nitish’s ambitions. The AAP leader’s belligerence is prompted by some factors and may have the following effects:

First, BJP’s majoritarian, anti-liberal, anti-minority agenda is offering Kejriwal the chance to win back support from liberal middle class, including sections of the media. AAP had lost support from this constituency last year owing to Kejriwal’s spat with Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan last year that saw both sides briefing against each other, eventually leading to an unpleasant parting of ways.

But by extending support to Hyderabad Central University students following Rohith Vemula’s suicide and initiating legal action against three TV channels for airing doctored videos of JNU protests, Kejriwal is signalling that he is willing to provide political muscle to liberal causes. This is important for liberals who are being exhausted by the BJP as it moves from one polarising initiative to another via nationalist posturing in campuses and articulating a variety of anti-Muslim positions. Many in the cities, including women who find their lifestyles policed, are bound to appreciate his counter to the BJP’s cultural agenda.

Read | Two young IT professionals power AAP’s social media blitzkrieg

Kejriwal’s anti-BJP politics also conveys that he is offering a form of opposition that the Congress is unable to provide at the moment. This is because Kejriwal has none of the weakness Rahul Gandhi has, for instance. He is not encumbered by foreign parentage which the BJP exploits effectively about the Congress leader. As an upper-caste Hindi belt politician, Kejriwal can adopt nationalist slogans and take a hardline position on Pakistan in ways Gandhi struggles to convincingly. Also Kejriwal has excellent argumentative skills in Hindi, depriving Modi of the advantage he has over the Gandhis. Thus while Modi avoids being cross-examined by the Indian media, Kejriwal grants extended interviews. The media on its part realises that pitting a grim, steely insurgent with a sense of humour against a remote, formidable Hindutva icon makes for good, profitable theatre.

And this is where Kejriwal’s location in Delhi comes in handy. Traditionally, capturing political power in India was about summoning support in the provinces and directing anti-establishment energy towards the capital. Kejriwal does it the other way around. He is based in Delhi and is able to tap into the capital-centric media and get the kind of attention that even Nitish struggles to conjure. Moreover, as an IIT-graduate with a penchant for technocratic governance Kejriwal will keep coming up with catchy initiatives to keep himself in the news, as with the odd-even scheme. He has announced plans to bring government schools on par with private schools and has said there will be no shortage of free medicines at Delhi’s government hospitals. The AAP leader’s visibility is thus likely to grow with such measures; analysts have already pointed to parallels between him and Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo, a pro-poor, anti-corruption campaigner who propelled himself into higher orbit via high-profile roles as mayor of Solo and then governor of the capital, Jakarta.

Read | Kejriwal launches mobile app for maintenance of Delhi govt schools

With an assured national visibility, Kejriwal can position himself as a sensible centrist to attract a variety of constituencies. He can rail against crony capitalism but also point out that he is a baniya who is not opposed to business – coming out in support of jewellers protesting excise duty on jewellery items. Likewise, he can attend Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ‘world culture festival’ – much to the chagrin of environmental activists – indicating his keenness to not let BJP monopolise religio-business networks. This ideologically capacious character can help him attract both BJP and Congress voters without threatening regional parties.

What helps his cause further is the rounded political machine that he is nurturing. The AAP has a combative social media presence and has spokespersons who can both argue policy minutiae and match decibels with BJP counterparts on TV. All this is bound to interest opportunists in other parties, including demoralised Congress cadres. Purists will regret that AAP’s mode of recruitment compromises his ‘clean’ politics but Kejriwal may have reconciled to the trade-offs he needs to make in an entrepreneurial political culture, in order to counter the BJP.

Read | Slice of pie for every aadmi in AAP’s Delhi Budget

What then do AAP’s national ambitions mean for Opposition unity? How will Nitish Kumar and others react to Kejriwal’s rise? Of course no one knows; both are used to dominating in their domain and their cooperation will depend on the context in 2019. The best case scenario for non-BJP forces in the event of a hung parliament then would be for Kejriwal to defer to Nitish’ seniority, while using his own authority and clout to enforce unity among opposition ranks. In some ways, ensuring opposition coherence will be the ultimate test of the transformative politics that Kejriwal espouses.

There’s some way to go before that. For now, the BJP is still the party to beat in India. But it faces anti-incumbency in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and is expected to lose in UP. The outcomes are not clear but Kejriwal seems most alert to opportunity at hand and is pro-actively generating political possibilities rather than just passively waiting for the BJP to trip up.