What also adds to Kejriwal’s rising stature in national politics is the finding that 24 per cent of the respondents—the highest—say that he is best suited to lead an alliance of Opposition parties against the BJP. In this race to become the leader of opposition alliance, he is ahead of West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee, who has the support of 20 per cent respondents, and Rahul Gandhi, who is backed by 13 per cent respondents. That’s not all. Kejriwal is also the second most popular chief minister in the country—rated by respondents across the nation and also within his home state Delhi. In fact, within Delhi, the percentage of respondents satisfied with his performance has surged from 59 per cent in August 2022 to 69 per cent.
So, can we assume that Kejriwal is the tallest Opposition leader in the country and the only one who can challenge PM Modi in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls? Is AAP going to replace Congress as the prime rival of the BJP? The party, which was founded in 2012, has recently got recognised as a national party and is in power in two states—Delhi and Punjab. The Congress, known as the grand old party, is in power on its own in three states. Has Kejriwal emerged as the main challenger against PM Modi—no matter how wide the gap is—and pipped Rahul Gandhi to the second position? The answer to all the above questions is a straightforward No.
Of course, Kejriwal’s influence in India’s political landscape has grown in recent years. His journey is one of the most fascinating stories in Indian politics in the past decade. In 2011, he was part of the Jan Lokpal Movement alongside Anna Hazare, and then went on to launch the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2012. Despite having no prior experience in elections or grassroots politics and no affiliation with any established outfit, Kejriwal managed to become the Chief Minister of Delhi in his very first electoral outing. Furthermore, he swept both the 2015 and the 2020 assembly polls, despite the Modi factor looming large. Last year, his party swept Punjab too.
However, even after all these successes, Kejriwal’s trajectory has been chequered. He has gone from being an aggressive street-fighter to a play-it-safe CM who stands up for barely anything, from a crusader of transparency to someone who is as opaque as other politicians in India and from the promise of good governance to having faced corruption charges. If his party saw massive success in Punjab and Delhi, it bit the dust in Goa, a small state it hoped to capture, and barely registered its presence in Gujarat, winning just five of the state’s 182 seats.
Arvind Kejriwal has proposed the “Delhi Model”, based on good governance, service delivery and freebies, as an alternative approach to be implemented across the country. His supporters have spread the word far and wide, particularly through social media, but the big question is whether this can translate into electoral success when it comes to the Lok Sabha election.
For that to happen, AAP needs two things—organisation and credible faces in almost all big states. The party doesn’t seem to have either of the two in all electorally significant states that determine the outcome of the Lok Sabha seats—be it Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar or Tamil Nadu. Nor does he have anyone in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat and Rajasthan, which have more than two dozen seats each. Even in the assembly polls, AAP has been able to do well in states only where the BJP is weak or non-existent—Delhi and Punjab. In states where the BJP is strong, it eventually ended up eating away Congress vote share.
And that’s where the challenge for Congress and AAP lies. AAP is primarily targeting the traditional vote share of the Congress in every state. Kejriwal’s arrival in national politics was propelled by the public outrage against the Congress-led UPA government towards its end. What also helped him earn more popularity was the negative perception about Rahul Gandhi. But the Bharat Jodo Yatra may have corrected that impression of the Congress leader. And that’s certainly not good news for Kejriwal.
More importantly, the Aam Aadmi Party faces two challenges—organisational and narrative-building. It is in the process of building an organisation in every state, while the Congress has an organisational network in place even in the states where it is the weakest. So, it will be a long-term project for AAP to organisationally outpace Congress. The Bharat Jodo Yatra has now energised the Congress organisation in several states, and if the party continues with further activities to maintain the momentum gained by the yatra, the hurdles for AAP will only mount.
As for a narrative, by trying to replicate BJP’s Hindutva model—Kejriwal was the one who wanted images of Hindu deities on Indian currency—AAP has isolated the minority vote, giving Congress and the regional parties an edge. In contrast, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress has made its position clear—it stands for an inclusive and secular India, as against BJP’s divisive politics. The objective is simple—to appeal to and capture all minority votes and that section of the Hindu vote that is not happy with BJP’s aggressive Hindu politics. Kejriwal’s political position remains vague to both groups.
At the same time, it is well-nigh impossible at this point for him to woo the voters of Hindutva politics as the BJP has positioned itself as the prime propagator of the ideology. The expectation that those who believe in Hindutva but are unhappy with the BJP’s governance and economic policies did not work in Gujarat. When it comes to good governance and freebies, the BJP already has a lead in consolidating the beneficiary bloc by highlighting the several welfare schemes of the Union and state governments.
AAP also has yet to formulate or articulate anything on regional or identity pride—the poll plank on which several regional parties operate. The party will have to fight several regional forces such as the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Jal, Bharat Rashtra Samithi, YSR Congress Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Shiv Sena apart from the BJP and Congress if it hopes to become a national challenger to the BJP. If not, it must become the pivot of the Opposition, a role the Congress has played in the past and hopes to continue playing. However, to be acceptable to other political forces, Kejriwal must have a vote bank in every state so that regional parties find value addition in an alliance with AAP. That’s one reason why several political parties often tie up with the Congress, because the grand old party has a traditionally loyal vote base in every state. If the Congress is finding it difficult to force such alliances after the 2014 debacle, it is because of its dwindling vote share. If Bharat Jodo Yatra results in a consolidation of the Congress vote share in some states, it may again become critical for an Opposition alliance. With a negligible vote share in almost all big states, Kejriwal will find it next to impossible to convince regional stalwarts to shake hands with him.
And a resurgence of the Congress, which the Bharat Jodo Yatra may facilitate, may shut the door on him completely. Kejriwal will, therefore, have to keenly observe the Congress moves post the yatra. How the two parties perform from this point onward will determine the future course of Indian politics.
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