On the face of it, recent TV images suggest that the battle for general elections 2024 will be fought between the Modi-led BJP and the Gandhi family. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are being questioned by the Enforcement Directorate in the National Herald case. The Congress is protesting on the streets. Rahul Gandhi was interrogated for 58 hours, Sonia Gandhi has been summoned by the Enforcement Directorate for 3 days. Congress leaders are being bundled into buses and letting fly at the tyranny of the Modi regime.
But all of this is a smokescreen. Because the real battle in the future, as the BJP well knows, may lie elsewhere.
Lost in the screaming headlines of the Gandhis vs the Enforcement Directorate is another news story: Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal was refused permission by the Modi government to visit Singapore to attend the World Cities Summit to showcase the Delhi model of urban governance. AAP's Delhi Health Minister and campaign-in-charge for Himachal Pradesh, Satyendra Jain, is in jail, as the state nears elections. AAP's excise policy is now the subject of an Lieutenant Governor-ordered probe. And there is the distinct possibility of a CBI investigation against Kejriwal's deputy, Manish Sisodia.
Actually, the Gandhi family-led Congress is not the real enemy of Modi-led BJP; the real enemy of the saffron party is the Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party.
Let's face it: the Gandhi-led Congress is a pushover for the BJP. Remember in the 2019 general election, the BJP won all but a handful of the 185 seats in which it was in direct competition with the Congress. In the Hindi heartland, the BJP won most seats against the Congress by huge margins. The Grand Old Party is a no-contest for the saffron juggernaut. Rahul Gandhi has always been Modi's Perfect Enemy, the 'naamdaar' Lutyensland prince who is the perfect foil for the 'kaamdaar' chaiwallah's son. In fact, in 2019, and in assembly elections since, regional parties have put up a much fiercer challenge to the BJP than the Congress.
But today, the regional satraps are bogged down in their own problems. A year ago, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee won big in Bengal and saw herself as the principal challenger to Modi. Now, she is locked into her own challenges. At the moment, the Trinamool needs to get the central agencies off its back in Bengal, the latest imbroglio being Bengal minister Partha Chatterjee's corruption case. The Trinamool also faced a reality check in the Goa election of 2022 where the party made a high profile entry but drew a blank, revealing the serious limitations of regional parties attempting to expand to other states. TRS leader K Chandrasekhar Rao rules supreme in Telangana, but Telangana has only 15 seats, and KCR himself has zero national impact. DMK supremo MK Stalin has preferred to remain focussed on Tamil Nadu. NCP strongman Sharad Pawar might have emerged as the builder of an opposition alliance for 2024, but his own fortress has crumbled in Maharashtra.
With most Opposition parties at sixes and sevens, enter Kejriwal and the AAP. The Modi government denied permission for Kejriwal to visit Singapore begging the question of whether Naveen Patnaik or Jagan Mohan Reddy would be similarly stopped via recourse to a ludicrously arcane bureaucratic line of CMs-can't-go-to-mayoral-meetings? Delhi's excise policy has been in existence for the last six months and experts believe that a revenue-generating excise model is well-suited to modern realities and modern cities. But suddenly, a new Delhi Lieutenant Governor, a long-time Modi supporter who calls Gujarat his 'second home' and took office only two months ago, has raised the possibility of investigations into AAP deputy CM Sisodia.
So why is the BJP so threatened and worried by Kejriwal and AAP? First, the AAP, a new and nimble political start-up, is not confined to one region. By scoring a big win in Punjab, AAP has shown it is not a one-state wonder and can scale up its anti-corruption-health-and-education model beyond Delhi. In Goa 2022, the TMC failed to score, but AAP won two seats. The PM's recent attack on the culture of 'revdi' or freebies was aimed at Kejriwal. Modi can rail against freebies, but the service delivery model of Kejriwal has won him two big victories in Delhi and one in Punjab. AAP has also shown that it understands modern electioneering, using technology and social media for campaigns and sending workers into micro localities.
Importantly, the IIT-educated Kejriwal and Aam Aadmi Party leaders are not dynasts, many of them hail from educated middle class backgrounds, and many are young. In fact, Kejriwal is targeting the same middle class metropolitan demographic that once gravitated towards Modi. Of all the Opposition leaders today, Kejriwal is a contender for the same Hindu middle class that once powered Modi to Delhi. That is precisely why he is considered such a threat by the BJP.
Kejriwal has also been conscious of not being painted into any 'minority appeasement' trap, and had been careful not to alienate the conservative Hindu vote. He backed the Modi government on the nullification of Article 370 and his role in the Delhi riots has been called into question. Where once he started out as a strident anti-Modi voice, calling Modi a 'coward' and 'psychopath', he has since greatly moderated his tone and sought to widen his appeal by carefully speaking only on governance needs and priorities. AAP is not a family party, it attracts middle class youth, Hindus, as well as the anti-establishment vote, or the vote of all those angry with Modi, thus making it the saffron party's potential Challenger No 1. The Hindi-speaking, Hanuman Chalisa-reciting Kejriwal could also be poised to take on the BJP in its citadel of the Hindi belt.
The electoral battle now shifts to Gujarat, which is the BJP and Modi's fortress. AAP has set up an energetic campaign in Modi's home state and the BJP is trying to wean away Gujarat AAP members. At the moment, polls show the Kejriwal way behind in Gujarat, but AAP could well catch up fast by targeting the Congress's shrinking vote base.
As a political start-up which is less than a decade old, scaling up nationally isn't going to be easy for AAP: in Punjab itself, as recent by-elections have shown, the party remains vulnerable in an intensely competitive environment. But Kejriwal is only 53 (just a year older than Rahul Gandhi) and time is on his side.
(The writer is senior journalist and author of two biographies on Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.