In Talks with Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal's Big Mistake

Published: March 07, 2019 16:36 IST

Patience is the hallmark of seasoned politicians. Arvind Kejriwal is neither seasoned, nor a politician. Impatience is his virtue. Impatience with the system made him the phenomenon he was and it is impatience that has left him with few friends and lost opportunities.

Kejriwal was once seen as the next best thing in Indian politics. Not anymore. And he can only blame himself. The streak of impatience was in full display when in Delhi, the Congress refused to tie up with AAP for the parliamentary elections. The announcement that Congress would not partner with AAP was made by the former Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit. Kejriwal could not wait to tweet. He wrote words that he may regret later. "At a time when the whole country wants to defeat the Modi-Shah duo, the Congress is helping the BJP by splitting the anti-BJP vote. Rumours are that the Congress has some secret understanding with BJP. Delhi is ready to fight against the Congress-BJP alliance. People will defeat this unholy alliance.," he tweeted.

One of the basic fundamentals of negotiation is that the top men don't jump into the fray unless they are dead sure that deal is done - or not done. Kejriwal is the party in AAP, he is the first and the last word in the party; the rest don't matter. If he accuses the Congress of an "unholy alliance" with the BJP, then the doors are shut to any future negotiation with the Congress for 2019.

One can understand his frustration. He has been striving for some kind of understanding or alliance with the Congress for the last one and half years, since the 2017 election for the president of India and the Gujarat polls. The Congress refused to indulge him. Before the Gujarat election, AAP reached out to Ashok Gehlot to stitch up a seat deal but Rahul Gandhi was far from eager. Similarly, during the presidential election, AAP kept waiting for a phone call either from Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi requesting support for their candidate Meira Kumar. Finally, it was Meira Kumar who made the call. The message was very clear. The Congress was simply not interested. 

In 2018, as the momentum for opposition unity built up, it was argued that AAP and the Congress should come together in Delhi and Punjab. In Delhi, AAP is the ruling party with 66 seats and in Punjab, it is the main opposition party. Together both the states command 20 parliamentary seats. It was said that if the two parties could come together, they could sweep the two states. AAP was more than keen to go along with the Congress. The Congress did not reciprocate. Feelers sent by AAP were snubbed. So allergic was the Congress to AAP that at a farmer's rally organised by RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi refused to share the dias with Kejriwal. He waited for Kejriwal to leave and only then joined the protest rally.

Mamata Banerjee and Chandrababu Naidu tried their best to make the two talk, to make them both understand the math in Delhi and the importance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's defeat at the national level. Slowly, Rahul Gandhi showed signs of softening. This happened only after the three state elections in December, in which the Congress took control of three heartland states.

The first contact was established between the two leaders at Sharad Pawar's residence, where opposition leaders met to chalk out a strategy to checkmate Modi. Mamata Banerjee and Chandrababu Naidu took the lead. Pawar also told them that both parties should fight the elections together. Kejriwal had no problem but Rahul Gandhi was reluctant. He told them that his Delhi unit was dead against any tie-up with AAP. But the ice was broken.

After this meeting senior leaders of the Congress and AAP met again and the possibilities of a seat-share arrangement were discussed. AAP acted as the big brother and offered only one of Delhi's seven parliamentary seats to the Congress. The Congress wanted three. It was a stalemate.

During electoral negotiations, ups and downs are part of the game. Deals are stuck on the brink of collapse. But AAP showed immaturity by announcing, the very next day, six candidates for the elections. The message for the Congress was clear. Take it or leave it, AAP can't offer more than one seat.

In a way, AAP slammed the door on the Congress. AAP should have waited some more. A second round of talks was needed to iron out differences. AAP's announcement of candidates was a bad political move. The Congress had to respond. And that it did through Sheila Dikshit.

Seasoned politicians would have read the message, waited, divined feedback through the track two route about the mood in the Congress camp. But Kejriwal was too impatient. He just couldn't wait to tweet.

This was not the end. The next day AAP, from its official Twitter handle, started a vicious campaign with the hashtag #CongressHelpingBJP. The purpose was to discredit the Congress on social media platforms. That was unnecessary. But Kejriwal does not believe in the waiting game. In AAP, nothing moves without his permission. This hashtag and social media campaign surely has his consent. This will have disappointed well-wishers working to bring the parties together even more. It proves Rahul Gandhi's point - one he has been sharing in private - that Kejriwal is too volatile and can't be trusted.

It is also a reality that both AAP and the Congress will find it very difficult to coexist. The Nehru-Gandhi family has an axe to grind with Kejriwal. They believe it was Kejriwal who first raised corruption allegations involving Rahul Gandhi's brother-in-law Robert Vadra, and that those were seized by the BJP and Modi regime.The Vadra controversy has been a great embarrassment for the Gandhis. It has given a stick to the Modi government to beat and humiliate Rahul, his sister Priyanka and their mother Sonia Gandhi.

There are more reasons why AAP and the Congress can be a combustible combo.

The Congress was the king of Delhi. Sheila Dikshit ran the Congress government for 15 years. Kejriwal's campaign against Manmohan Singh at the centre and Sheila Dikshit in Delhi proved to be disastrous for the Congress.

Manmonhan Singh lost at the centre to PM Modi and Kejriwal defeated Sheila Dikshit in Delhi. Later, once in the government, Kejriwal registered an FIR against Sheila Dikshit on corruption charges. 

Going by polls over the past few years, AAP has replaced the Congress in Delhi. The Congress is reduced to third position in the national capital. At present, the Congress has no MLA in the Delhi Assembly. Both the parties share the same social base. AAP's rise could not dent the BJP's social base. It still has more than 30% votes. If the Congress has to revive itself in Delhi, it can only do so at the cost of AAP. 

The Congress finds Kejriwal and AAP too maverick and volatile. In private, Congress leaders confess it is very difficult to handle Arvind Kejriwal and his party. For them, AAP is too unpredictable and does not move like a traditional party. The Congress is especially apprehensive of Kejriwal. Across the political spectrum, Kejriwal suffers from a credibility crisis. Be it Nitish Kumar or Rahul Gandhi, they have the same opinion about him.

Still, both parties know if they contest separately they are doomed and it will be a walkover for the BJP in Delhi. And if they contest together, then the BJP might end up with no seat.

The BJP in 2014 had won all seven seats. AAP was number two on all the seats with the Congress, a distant number three. Now there is anti-incumbency against the BJP government and Modi as a Prime Minister is no longer as popular as he used to be. It's a golden chance for both the parties, provided Rahul Gandhi can move on from the past and Kejriwal can shed his impatience. There is still a chance and they can join hands. Will Kejriwal prove me wrong?

(Ashutosh is a Delhi-based author and journalist.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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