The most obvious conclusion being drawn from the Aam Admi Party’s spectacular victory in the Delhi assembly elections is that Arvind Kejriwal will now move to the national political stage. His well-wishers and party cadres see this as a logical step after Kejriwal notched up a third consecutive victory, which is particularly special as he was battling the Bharatiya Janata Party’s formidable election machinery and its vicious and vitriolic campaign, led by no less than Union Home Minister Amit Shah. This is clearly no mean achievement for a seven-year-old party and an inexperienced leader who dared to take on the well-entrenched mainstream political parties.
It is reasonable to surmise that like his followers, Kejriwal is equally eager to spread his wings, now that he has tasted success in Delhi. It is also being assumed that the AAP will focus next on Punjab since it has a base there and is the main opposition party in the state assembly. This could be followed by foraying into Haryana, Goa and perhaps even Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh based on the belief that there is space for a third political alternative in these bipolar states.
Though Kejriwal’s ambitions are well-known, there is a serious impediment to his going national. And that is Kejriwal himself. Much like his bête noire Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the AAP leader also believes in building a personality cult around him, cannot tolerate criticism, has an authoritarian streak and is quick to put down anyone who has the potential to challenge him. In order to emerge as a national player, the AAP leader will have to necessarily extend his catchment area to states and groom credible regional leaders. The big question is whether the Delhi chief minister will be willing to do so.
There are doubts that Kejriwal will be happy remaining a chief minister of a quasi-state with a 70-member state assembly while his party’s regional leaders will be based in states with a larger geographical spread and numerically stronger assemblies. Punjab is a case in point. The AAP had a strong state unit there, but it was weakened considerably when its key local leaders were either shown the door or forced out of the party.
It must be remembered that in order to establish his sole control over the party, Kejriwal had thrown out Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, who had worked with him during the anti-corruption movement. Modi had similarly banished veteran BJP leaders L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha to a margdarshak mandal on coming to power in 2014. After doing away with any potential competition from within the party, Kejriwal (like Modi) ensured that his ministers remained virtually faceless. Amit Shah is the sole exception in the Modi government while Manish Sisodia is perhaps the only AAP leader who is allowed to share the limelight with Kejriwal. Information flow from the Delhi government is restricted – not very different from the template set by Modi.
Kejriwal also borrowed heavily from Modi’s Gujarat model of development, which was the centrepiece of the BJP’s 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign. Kejriwal did the same this time. He did not allow himself to get distracted by the BJP’s polarising campaign and focused steadfastly on his governance record. Kejriwal may not have followed Modi’s shrill Hindutva trajectory, but he was not averse to playing the Hindu card, as he recited the Hanuman Chalisa and publicised his visits to temples while keeping a safe distance from the Shaheen Bagh protests.
Having failed in his earlier attempts to expand his party’s footprint, Kejriwal will have to exercise greater caution this time. After his first win in Delhi in 2013, an enthusiastic Kejriwal fielded candidates across states in the following year’s Lok Sabha election while he personally took on Narendra Modi in Varanasi. Kejriwal did create a buzz but the AAP was a virtual no-show in most states except Punjab where it surprised everyone by winning four Lok Sabha seats. But since then, it has been in steady decline nationally and even in Punjab (its strongest state), its performance in the last Lok Sabha and assembly election was well below its expectations.
Today, Kejriwal is being hailed as a hero for the humiliating defeat he handed out to the BJP’s Modi-Shah duo. Regional leaders like Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, DMK’s M K Stalin and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav were quick to congratulate him, indicating a willingness to welcome him to their fold. However, it is anybody’s guess if they will accept him as the Prime Ministerial face of an anti-BJP grouping. Kejriwal’s election strategy in Delhi proved to be a runaway success, but the AAP leader will have to reinvent himself if he is to emerge as a serious player on the national political stage. He has to go beyond projecting himself as a provider of civic amenities and alter the centralised command structure of his party.
The writer is a senior journalist. This column will appear every fortnight