We are an emotional people and never more so then when the subject is politics. But emotions tend to be an impairment when trying to get a clear view of the political landscape. So for the moment let’s cast aside all the angry recriminations of political spokespersons, the media clatter, and social media babble. The question of the hour being: what are the reasons for the recent escalation of hostilities between the Modi Government and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to a level that seems like almost total war? Admittedly, relations have been steadily deteriorating since AAP’s landslide victory in February 2015, but till now Prime Minister Modi was happy to leave the task of tormenting the Delhi Government to Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung with able support from the Delhi Police and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley putting in a guest appearance on occasion. The recent escalation, however, has been of a higher order and intensity, something no one in Lutyens’ Delhi has missed.
From the moment Arvind Kejriwal launched his quixotic campaign to challenge Narendra Modi for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat in 2014 the fates of the two man have seemed inextricably linked. The stakes have only risen since then. After all, AAP’s sweeping victory in the 2015 Delhi assembly elections was the first electoral defeat Prime Minister Modi had ever experienced. It was as nasty a campaign as has been seen in recent times and few will forget the sight of union cabinet ministers spreading out across Delhi to try and stop AAP’s guerrilla campaign. In the months since then, LG Najeeb Jung has willingly played proxy for the BJP in its attempt to scuttle AAP’s government, the litany of misdeeds with which we are all familiar. Chief Minister Kejriwal has been pretty vocal about what he thinks of Prime Minister Modi and, if BJP leaders are to be believed, the feelings are mutual.
With the Congress in retreat and Priyanka Vadra’s apparent entry into a more full-time party role for the Uttar Pradesh election campaign, Rahul Gandhi’s diminishment as a national alternative to Modi continues apace. History tells us that in a durbar there can be only one heir, because when there have been two heirs internal strife is the inevitable result. Such are the dynamics of power. The weakening of Congress has provided AAP opportunities to rise in Punjab, Goa and Gujarat in recent months. The BJP’s grand plan to constrict and destroy AAP within borders of Delhi has largely failed. AAP’s crusade to get to the truth behind PM’s college degrees only heightened tensions between the governments and increased the mutual animosity between the party leaders.
Recent internal polling done by BJP in select states has startled senior party leaders, especially the rise of AAP in Gujarat, where a defeat for BJP in 2017 would be seen as a personal setback for the PM. Kejriwal’s unequivocal call for the incarcerated firebrand Hardik Patel to be released as well as his impending trip to Gujarat has left the BJP even more jittery.
Thus we have a rising party on one side and the all powerful ruling party on the other. Naturally the party in power will take every step it can to impede the rise of the challenger. In the case of Narendra Modi we have a Prime Minister who believes in the sledgehammer approach to crushing opponents, as can be seen in his track record in Gujarat.
So, according to senior IB and CBI officers, it seems word recently came down from the PMO asking the agencies why it was that they had files loaded with information on every Chief Minister in the land except for the only one that mattered, Kejriwal. And sure enough in the last week there have been a non-stop series of charges, investigations and cases inflicted on AAP with the most high-profile being the recent arrest of Delhi CM’s Principal Secretary by CBI while the CM was campaigning in Punjab. A direct attempt to target Kejriwal himself. The idea being to pressurise the aide until he breaks and then to turn him against Kejriwal. I will not waste words going into the veracity of the charges, because I’m not a lawyer and frankly it does not matter, everybody knows how the CBI has operated as a tool of the PMO under successive governments and it is even more true under the current regime (in fact, it’s entirely possible during the course of your reading this piece that an AAP leader or MLA could well be charged or arrested for any range of alleged crimes on the basis of a one-line complaint without any corroborating evidence whatsoever, but don’t be overly alarmed because such is everyday life for AAPians in the age of Modi). You’ll hear plenty of headline-making leaks to the media about this and other investigations in the days to come, never to be proven in a court of law because the aim of the entire charade is not judicial but as always electoral. The only thing these desperate strong-arm tactics really reveal is the BJP’s fear of a rising AAP and more importantly fear of the ideas AAP has come to represent in the mind of voters.
These are the facts so far, and the next six months will be a torrid period for AAP with the Modi Government trying its best to malign the party’s image as corruption-fighters and to malign the aam aadmi-friendly model of governance in Delhi. So what must AAP do to counter this central government-directed campaign against it? With the Badal Govt in Punjab starting to follow suit in recent days and BJP governments in Goa and Gujarat not far behind, AAP needs a new path forward.
It is a given that BJP will do its best repress and malign AAP in the next six months, nothing anybody can do about that, it’s the law of jungle, but AAP can certainly adapt and adjust its strategy to better meet the threat. Since the formation of the AAP Government in Delhi, the acrimonious exit of those two drama queens Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, and the non-stop war with the central government along with the accompanying media storm, the AAP leadership has understandably been forced to retreat into a bunker mentality just to ensure the party’s survival. That is no longer necessary, the party has survived and prospered, the battle for Delhi is nearing its end and the battle for India is about to begin. It’s safe to come out of the bunker.
AAP must transform from a guerrilla political organisation, which vanquished the giant, lumbering BJP army in the bylanes Delhi, into a national party that can adapt to the electoral imperatives of larger states. The organisational transformation in Punjab over the last year, spearheaded by AAP’s very own wunderkind Durgesh Pathak and his team, has been nothing short of miraculous. But the national leadership has been somewhat static, and for a party expanding by leaps and bounds at the grass-roots the growth should also be reflected at the top as well by attracting experienced hands. Right now Arvind Kejriwal and his core team have single-handedly taken on the might of the Modi Government, but it’s time to recruit reinforcements to help broaden the campaign fight and spread the burden. There must be space for experienced national and state leaders from other parties with a track record of honest and competent service to be welcomed into the national leadership structure. In the larger war to come AAP will require more generals, and anybody who thinks otherwise is living in a fool’s paradise. As the big tent of the Congress collapses nationally it is imperative that AAP takes its place like it has done on a much smaller scale in Delhi.
Delhi Government, in a very short period, has earned a well-deserved reputation for competence and reforming zeal particularly in the areas of education and health care, a creditable achievement certainly but it is not near enough for AAP to be taken seriously as a national party. In addition to education and health AAP will have to start participating in the national debate on vital subjects that it has only done so sporadically like foreign affairs, national security and finance, with well thought out policy stances. This will require opening up the party to policy experts in these fields, many of whom being retired bureaucrats and establishment-types are naturally suspicious of AAP, and will require some wooing. The good news is that there are many who are willing to help and are just waiting for the right opportunity.
Part of transitioning out of the bunker mentality will require that AAP’s frontline leadership must now take a step back from daily battles as participants in combative press conferences and television debates, which take their toll and leave all participants less worthy in the eyes of the viewer. The reason any political party has spokespersons is to project the party message while insulating the leaders from the daily maelstrom of the media madness so they can preserve their image and concentrate on more important party-building tasks. Younger spokespersons, like the soft-spoken but formidable Atishi Marlena, will be far more effective in dealing with the Sambit Patras of the world and frontline leaders can interject themselves into the media debate as and when it is necessary. Also the tendency to hold daily press conferences about the latest conspiracy theory before checking its veracity or collecting solid evidence must be put an end to as soon as possible, it hurts the party’s credibility and plays right into the criticism that AAP cries wolf without any factual basis. Above all it is lazy politics of little or no electoral benefit and careless accusations may make headlines in the short term but tend to prove counter-productive in the long term. Political parties are not media organisations and nor should they try to be. Politics at its best is about knowing when to exercise restraint as much as it’s about knowing when to act decisively, and the ability to strike a balance between both these instincts is what makes the difference between success and failure. No other party can match AAP in terms of fighting spirit and energy, traits when combined with tactical adroitness and message discipline will likely be unbeatable.
In politics a party either evolves to changing circumstances or soon meets its end, and you just have to look at the current condition of the Congress Party for proof of this maxim. The Aam Aadmi Party has overcome an unprecedented eighteen months of sustained assault by the combined might of the Sarkari Dilli establishment, media included, on a mission to destroy it. It has been a trial by fire for the party and has emerged battle-hardened. Modi Government can return every bill the Delhi Government passes, can arrest or disqualify every AAP MLA, it can continue to use the CBI and police to trump up charges against Arvind Kejriwal, but they will soon come to realise that the Indian people always root for the underdog who stands up to the powerful for a worthy cause. In that regard this is still very much Mahatma Gandhi’s India. With elections in Punjab, Goa and Gujarat due next year, 2017 could well be the year of AAP.
Let me conclude by telling a story, quite possibly apocryphal, that is often retold at Lutyens’ Delhi cocktail parties with a mixture of wonder and horror. The story goes that a junior IRS officer put in a request for unpaid long leave from service and was asked by his immediate superior the reason for this unusual request, the young officer replied he wished to give his entire attention and energy to fight and root out the corruption in India’s governing system. Needless to say the request for long leave was not immediately approved, but nor was it denied, and made its way up the chain of command with each succeeding officer passing the request swiftly upward like it was a ticking bomb about to explode on their desk. Finally the request reached the Revenue Secretary in North Block, who was equally clueless about what to do with it and so went to see the Finance Minister, the previous BJP-led government then being in power and the inimitable Jaswant Singh being the incumbent. After Jaswant Singh heard the predicament he laughed out loud and said he was impressed with the young man’s gumption. Jaswant Singh is said to have approved the request for leave on the spot. The young officer’s name, which I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, was Arvind Kejriwal.