Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the one question that perhaps defined the contest was, “If not Modi, then…
Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the one question that perhaps defined the contest was, “If not Modi, then who?”. Fast forward eight months, and the Aam Aadmi Party is trying to define the Delhi Assembly election by the question, “If not Kejriwal, then who?”
In a curious role reversal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi is tying itself up in knots trying to present a state-level challenger to the Delhi chief minister.
On Sunday, home minister and BJP chief Amit Shah had said that the BJP would contest the election under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Arvind Kejriwal, when asked about this at a press conference after the dates of the Assembly election were announced on Monday, said in a mellow style that has become his trademark of late, “How is this possible? Modiji will not leave the prime minister’s post and become the Delhi chief minister.”
Close on the heels of what can be politely described as a rout in the Lok Sabha election, the AAP appears to be the frontrunner in the Assembly poll battle. An opinion poll by ABP-CVoter predicted that the AAP will win 59 seats in the 70-member Assembly, while the BJP will win only eight seats. Further, when it comes to the popular choice for the post of the chief minister, Kejriwal is head and shoulders above the rest, with 70 percent of the people considering him to be the best person for the top job.
Of course, a month is a long time in politics, and Assembly elections in the recent past have thrown up many a surprise. Nevertheless, the AAP appears to be in the driver’s seat at present largely due to a complete image makeover of Kejriwal, a realistic recalibration of its ambitions and a focus on positive campaigning.
The early signs of this change were seen in August, after the Central government effectively abrogated Article 370 in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and divided the state into two Union Territories.
Kejriwal’s stance came in for criticism from many, who pointed out that the AAP has been arguably been the most vocal proponent of the demand for full statehood to Delhi. However, the statement signalled a clear intent on the part of the AAP to not cede the nationalism plank to the BJP.
As of now, the AAP appears to be positioning its version of inclusive nationalism as against the BJP’s aggressive chest-thumping variety. On 29 December, Kejriwal felicitated family members of ex-servicemen and those who were killed protecting the nation and said that a number of ex-servicemen were given jobs by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in different departments. Similarly, on the last day of 2019, the Delhi government renamed the Mukarba Chowk and flyover as Shaheed Captain Vikram Batra Chowk in honour of the Kargil war martyr. (Incidentally, Captain Batra’s mother Kamal Kanta Batra had unsuccessfully contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Hamirpur on an AAP ticket, and later left the party).
The AAP has also avoided getting drawn into recent campus protests, whether in the Jawaharlal Nehru University or the Jamia Milia Islamia. When violence broke out at JNU on Sunday evening, many exhorted Kejriwal to stand in solidarity with the students. However, he merely posted two tweets condemning the violence and saying that he had spoken to the Lieutenant Governor, asking him to ensure peace. Eventually, it was party leader Sanjay Singh who went to AIIMS to inquire about the condition of students injured during the violence. Clearly, the party wanted to avoid the optics of its most recognisable face taking a clear position in favour of JNU students.
Further, the AAP has taken care not to fall into the trap of positioning Kejriwal as an alternative to Modi. In complete contrast to its earlier confrontational approach, the party has restricted its barbs to the local leadership of the BJP. On multiple occasions, it has also aced the strategy of lampooning the BJP without sounding acerbic.