The big picture: AAP eyes a national role

AAP is doing what it takes to articulate its ‘Modi vs Kejriwal in 2024’ campaign. But can Kejriwal measure up to Modi’s larger than life persona or the BJP’s skills of out-manoeuvring its opponent?

When Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister, declared himself to be a “descendant of Maharana Pratap” and vowed to fight till death, he sounded a war cry: loud and clear: “I will cut off my head but will not bow down to the corrupt and conspirators”, Sisodia had publicly stated.

His angst: the BJP government targeting him unfairly and wanting to offer him crumbs of office if he split the Aam Aadmi Party: “They asked me to be their CM candidate because they don’t have a face for the post in Delhi”, Sisodia alleged. This, he said, came with an offer  to close all cases registered against him by the CBI and Enforcement Directorate.

As of now, the heat is on Sisodia. Earlier this month, the CBI raided his home in New Delhi. He is named the principal accused in the controversial excise policy case of the Delhi government.

A trusted aide of Kejriwal, Sisodia is virtually running the government. The BJP had recently pointed out that a single minister, read Sisodia, was allocated 18 major departments of the 29 listed ones of the Delhi government.

The Excise department is headed by Sisodia and the excise policy, which is under fire, comes within the department’s purview.

The controversial policy was introduced last year with a bid to reform the retail liquor sector, in addition to bumping up revenue by a few thousand crores.

The route: shut down government operated vends and allow private players to enter.

Gone were the iron grilled, government run stuffy and suffocated outlets to be replaced by well lit, walk in the air-conditioned stores where customers could look around and reach out to brands of their choice. The reform also generated additional revenue.

In other words elevate drinking to an experience and also make money.

The “joy”, if at all, was short-lived.

In less than nine months, the policy was withdrawn after Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Vinai Kumar Saxena recommended a CBI probe into alleged irregularities. This was a consequence of a report by Delhi’s Chief Secretary Naresh Kumar wherein “deliberate and gross procedural lapses” to provide post-tender “undue benefits to liquor licensees” were listed.

Following the raids, Sisodia has said that he would be arrested soon, like his colleague Satyendra Jain.

Jain, the erstwhile Health Minister in Kejriwal’s government, was arrested earlier this year in a money laundering case. He has been in jail since May.

While Kejriwal has alleged that cases against his ministers are false, Sisodia has dared the BJP to do what it wants. His Maratha blood is clearly on the boil.

The jury is out whether this is a case of corruption or political vendetta. Or the fact that the BJP is nervous about the rise of AAP. The wounds of Punjab are raw wherein the BJP got a drubbing. But more important is the writing on the wall particularly with the forthcoming state elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat where AAP has made enviable in-roads.

Therefore if Kejriwal is asking whether this is “revenge” for Punjab or nervousness for forthcoming state elections, he is bang on.

Elections to the states of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat are due before the end of this year and AAP seems upbeat about expanding its footprint. Its enviable performance in Punjab has given it the confidence to not only position itself against the BJP but also upstage it.

The logic: if in Punjab AAP could win 92 of the 117 seats, then why not Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat?

Call it a pipedream if you will, but the new-founded confidence is not baseless.

Having roared in Punjab and vanquishing all else and more importantly emerging as the only regional party to govern two states, AAP has enough reason to smile. Whether it will have the last laugh remains to be seen given that Gujarat or Himachal Pradesh are no cakewalk. Neither was Punjab but having fared well there, AAP’s hopes have risen.

Punjab was a different ball game because the BJP virtually had no presence there and the Congress was fast losing its sheen. Add to that the state’s proximity to Delhi, where Kejriwal rules, the stories about it being a government of freebies travelled fast. The strategy worked and AAP rode to power.

But Gujarat is a different story. For one it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state; for another BJP has ruled for three decades and intends to go for the kill yet again. For the BJP it is a prestige battle because it cannot afford to lose on the PM’s home turf.

However, the anti-incumbency factor stares the saffron Party in the face.

In 2017, the BJP was down to 99 seats from 115 it won in 2014. Five years down the line, the loss could be higher. However this does not necessarily mean AAP moving in. It sure is a factor to reckon with but whether it will transform into a force remains to be seen. Having said that one cannot deny that it has the makings of one.

However upbeat it may sound, even by its own arithmetic AAP is not aiming for a shot at power in the Centre. While that is its long term goal, as of now it is wanting to position itself as the main opposition Party to take on the BJP. In other words, push out the Congress and occupy the space that it is forced to vacate.

Call it ambition if you will but AAP is not off the mark. Given its 2021 performance in the Surat Municipal Corporation polls where it bagged 27 seats, it has reasons to be optimistic.

But the battle is not confined to the states. It is about grabbing the national space. 2024 may be a tad early but AAP is positioning itself to play a national role. Having tasted blood with the Punjab-win, it is now raring to go.

The first step of the strategy is to convert the electoral battle to be one between BJP and AAP rather than the BJP and Congress. That done it will then pitch itself as an alternative to the BJP in the hope to govern the country rather than remain a state player.

This being the big picture, AAP is doing what it takes to articulate its Modi vs Kejriwal in 2024 campaign. AAP’s claim of Prime Minister Modi being “rattled” by AAP growing popularity may sound a bit exaggerated but it is certainly not unfounded.

To say that this is not giving the BJP sleepless nights would be pushing things under the carpet. Or burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich pretending no one is coming. The truth is that AAP is knocking at the door.

Equally, AAP seems to be jumping the gun because neither Kejriwal nor his party organisation can measure up to Modi’s larger than life persona or the BJP’s skills of out-manoeuvring its opponent.

Pitch Modi’s welfare schemes against Kejriwal’s freebies and BJP has a head start.

This is not to suggest that the freebies strategy has not worked. It sure has, even though there is a question mark on whether that would be the sole criteria for the electorate to vote for Kejriwal. Freebies may be a temptation but whether the electorate will barter Modi’s brand of developmental politics and his long term vision for short term freebies remains to be seen.

When it comes to national politics, stature is the key. On that count, Prime Minister Modi is unmatched. His visibly positioning India on the world stage as a country to watch has injected a sense of pride among Indians. Kejriwal on the other hand seems a local, homemade brand with a limited perspective.

Equally, the perception that Modi is a doer who heads a government that works, gives the ruling dispensation a head-start. For the diminutive Kejriwal to measure up to Modi’s proverbial 56” chest is a long haul but a beginning has been made. So even if 2024 is round-Modi, Kejriwal is the man to watch in the long run.