Prime Minister Narendra Modi will go down in history as a politician who understood better than any of his predecessors and contemporaries that politics is not a game of reality but a battle for perception. Since he became Chief Minister of Gujarat, he has successfully projected himself as Superman with an answer to all the problems the country faces. He labelled this the 'Gujarat Model'. His popularity remains unmatched today despite many problems that remain unsolved including the economy. Arvind Kejriwal is now pitching the 'Delhi Model' to the entire country, claiming AAP's handling of Health, Education, and Electricity is worth replicating in state after state. He may not have spelled it out, but he's now working towards running for Prime Minister himself. His supporters and party workers are already selling the idea.
With his big win in Punjab this year, Arvind Kejriwal's claim to PM can be seen as more substantial than any other Opposition leader's. Among the galaxy of big regional leaders in the Opposition camp, none run two states. Rahul Gandhi, as the backseat leader of the Congress, has a few governments but Arvind Kejriwal knows that there is enough room for him in a PM vs Rahul Gandhi contest. AAP has made it clear that it wants to be seen as the main Opposition party. "The Congress is finished," Arvind Kejriwal said last week.
HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral were consensus candidates for PM. But, Arvind Kejriwal, like Narendra Modi, is a polarising figure. He has either friends or enemies. There is no middle path with him. Even a minor disagreement is not entertained or tolerated by him within AAP. Within his own party, he is not the first among equals, he is the party. The BJP and the Congress have institutional memory and structures, but in AAP, party institutions are only on paper and remain powerless. The party has not even written the guiding principles to define its public stand on several national issues. The leader's word is final.
Arvind Kejriwal is not like an old-school politician who networks with others despite major differences. Mamata Banerjee is perhaps the only leader with whom he has a close equation. And since he himself is not in the habit of accepting criticism or questioning, he will find it difficult to join any group or accept someone else as the leader within the Opposition camp. Since he is not a product of the political ecosystem but an outlier, many leaders are sceptical of him. They are not confident of his political reflexes, are unsure of his political moves and stands, and for them, he is an enigma. So, for him to emerge as a consensus candidate in the Opposition camp is a remote possibility. For all practical purposes, he will not join any group or front before 2024. At the most, he can extend outside support if the opportunity arises.
There is no denying the fact that apart from Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal has a national footprint. In every nook and corner, one can find AAP supporters carrying the party's message but can it translate into electoral success is the big question. Amid the projection that Arvind Kejriwal is the only leader who can take on Narendra Modi, consider that Kejriwal and his party are surprisingly poor performers in Lok Sabha elections. In 2013, when AAP formed the government in Delhi, it was perceived as a unique phenomenon which could surprise nationally too. AAP then contested more than 400 seats in 2014. AAP in its enthusiasm had fielded its two best candidates. Arvind Kejriwal and Kumar Vishwas, against Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. Arvind Kejriwal used to say that if AAP could defeat Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, then the politics of the country would change. That did not happen. Arvind Kejriwal was a poor second in Varanasi and Kumar Vishwas lost his deposit in Amethi. Most surprisingly, AAP lost all parliamentary seats in Delhi. Punjab was the only saving grace where it won four seats.
2014 was a serious jolt to AAP's national ambition. Within six months of the general election, it rewrote history by winning 67 of 70 seats in Delhi. But in the next general election, it did not win a single Lok Sabha seat. What is most astonishing is that AAP in its strongest burrow was not even second choice: the BJP won all seven seats again with a whopping 56.86% votes, and the Congress was second with 22.51% votes; AAP, despite Kejriwal's hard work, could muster only 18.11% votes. Again, in the assembly elections in 2020, AAP got 53.57% votes and 62 seats. The BJP was a poor second with 8 seats and 38.51% votes. But nationally, AAP could win only 1 seat. Only Bhagwant Mann, who went on to become Punjab Chief Minister, retained his Lok Sabha seat in Sangrur constituency. So, in 2014 AAP, had four MPs, and in 2019, it won just one of 543 Lok Sabha seats. And in 2019, the AAP vote share dipped drastically by 14% in comparison to the 2014 election in Delhi.
A similar story has played out in Punjab. In the 2019 general election, AAP was a distant fourth with meagre 7.38% votes (a drop of 17 percent compared to 2014). Its vote share was even smaller than that of the BJP, which is a marginal player in Punjab. But in the 2022 state election, AAP swept the state though it lost the Chief Minister's Lok Sabha seat, Sangrur, in a by-election within three months of its magical state victory.
Three conclusions can be drawn:
1) AAP is a regional force with strong presence in two states, but nationally, it is not taken seriously.
2) AAP's national ambition is a smokescreen for assembly elections. It is again trying hard to win people's confidence in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
3) Arvind Kejriwal is no threat to Narendra Modi nationally. AAP's campaign that Narendra Modi is scared of Arvind Kejriwal is a classic case of deception and smart marketing to sell Kejriwal to voters for local elections and create a pitch for the future.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.