In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, every speech made by Arvind Kejriwal was a shade shriller than the previous one as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) national convener went all out against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then BJP president Amit Shah, saying their return to power would sound the death knell for democracy.
After the verdict, Kejriwal had to recalibrate his approach as the BJP scored an emphatic victory by bagging 303 seats, vanquishing the Opposition, including the AAP, which saw its tally shrink from four to one. Over the following year, the Delhi Chief Minister paired up with poll strategist Prashant Kishor and dialled down his pitch against the PM as part of a political “transformation”.
However, the jailing of Manish Sisodia and Satyendar Jain over separate charges of corruption landed the AAP in the middle of a full-blown crisis, forcing Kejriwal to embrace a brand of politics he had left behind, one in which Modi is marked as the “enemy” in no uncertain terms. In the past week alone, Kejriwal has hit out at the PM several times. On Thursday, Kejriwal criticised the PM after four people were arrested and cases were registered over posters saying “Modi hatao, desh bachao (Remove Modi, save the country) ” came up across Delhi. The following day, after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from the Lok Sabha, the Delhi CM said the country had yet to see a PM as “insecure, corrupt and uneducated” as Modi. On Tuesday, Kejriwal attacked Modi over his alleged links to industrialist Gautam Adani and said, “PM is less educated and does not understand things properly. This is worrisome.”
Behind Kejriwal’s sudden decision to no longer steer clear of directly attacking the PM is a growing realisation that the strategy, which appeared to have worked in Delhi where the AAP formed government for the third time in 2020 within a year of its drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections, was not working beyond the National Capital’s borders.
“It is beyond obvious that Kejriwal dislikes the PM. His 2015 tweet that the PM is a ‘coward and a psychopath’ was a reflection of that. But the whole idea behind toning down was to wean away a part of the BJP’s disenchanted voter base who, we felt, could have been unhappy with their party but would not find attacks on the PM palatable,” said an AAP leader.
The AAP’s display of religious piety and steadfast refusal to take positions on polarising issues related to issues of civil liberties and minority rights were also justified as “realpolitik” by its leaders.
When put to the test in Gujarat, where the AAP even avoided condemning the release of convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case, that strategy did not yield much success, with the party’s gains limited to areas and communities that traditionally stood with the Congress. It failed in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, where the party gave up midway after Jain was taken into custody.
In Delhi, the BJP continues to hold on to a sizable vote share — 38.51 per cent in 2020, 32.3 per cent in 2015, 33 per cent in 2013, 36.34 per cent in 2008 — even though the AAP made some dents initially as the rich and the middle class got drawn towards it after the “India Against Corruption” movement. As the poorer communities drifted away from the Congress, the AAP stamped its dominance.
Moreover, the situation in Punjab that propelled the AAP to victory has no parallels in other states. “If the Lok Sabha polls are held today, the AAP is unlikely to win anywhere else apart from Punjab. The only way to maximise our chances in Punjab is showing aggression against the BJP and the PM at the national level,” said an AAP insider.
Punjab sends 13 MPs to the Lok Sabha. The AAP lost the lone Sangrur seat it had won in 2019 to Simranjit Singh Mann of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) when bypolls were held last year after Bhagwant Mann won the Assembly polls and became the chief minister.
While the general elections are still a year away, the coming Assembly polls in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh — states where the AAP has decided to contest — have also played a role in the latest reorientation in the party’s political approach.
“Firstly, the battle is personal for Kejriwal now. Sisodia has been his friend and comrade for decades and when you put him in jail, things cannot be expected to remain as is. Secondly, Gujarat has exposed the limitations of our post-2019 strategy. Thirdly, not all Congress voters will get swayed by our solution-centric politics only even if they are unhappy with their party. The ‘B-Team of the BJP’ tag becomes a hindrance there,” said an AAP functionary.
Other than Kejriwal’s speeches, a shift in the AAP’s game plan is also visible elsewhere. In Parliament, the party’s Rajya Sabha MPs are coordinating closely with the Congress and other floor leaders of the Opposition, marking a shift from the desire to carve out a distinct path away from the others.
Away from Parliament, the AAP is also steering efforts to bring non-Congress and non-BJP parties under the “G-8 governance platform”. Earlier this month, this attempt hit a roadblock as Kejriwal’s proposed dinner conclave where the CMs of Kerala, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Punjab were invited could not take place as many stayed away citing other commitments.
Said AAP Rajya Sabha MP and general secretary (organisation) Sandeep Pathak, “That invitation did not come about overnight. It was done after many rounds of consultations. It is a work in progress …”