What is he thinking? Corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to challenge BJP titan Narendra Modi in the general election has political pundits scratching their heads. Is Mr. Kejriwal’s strategy to actually win–or to win by losing?
The David-and-Goliath race has captured India’s attention. Polls suggest Mr. Modi is the man to beat in the race to become India’s next Prime Minister. Mr. Kejriwal is heading straight into the Hindu heartland–Mr. Modi’s power base–by taking on the presumed front-runner in the holy city of Varanasi.
Mr. Kejriwal’s decision “cannot be interpreted in terms of winnability,” says Shashi Kant Pandey, professor of political science at Babasaheb Bhimrao AmbedkarUniversity in Lucknow. “It is a symbolic fight,” he says. By challenging Mr. Modi instead of a lesser-known (but perhaps more beatable) rival in a smaller race somewhere, Mr. Kejriwal gets the benefit of a prominent place on the national stage. Mr. Kejriwal himself has suggested he’s not in it to win it. “I’m not fighting for my victory or defeat,” he said on the NDTV news channel. “It is about saving the country.”
In any case his main political cause — battling corruption — has been “sidelined in Varanasi,” says Tej Pratap Singh, professor of political science at the BanarasHindu University in Varanasi. “The pro-Hindutva forces will vote in favor of the BJP,” he says, referring to voters who go to the ballot box with religious or ideological motivations. Mr. Kejriwal’s political strategies have been head-scratchers before. This past December Mr. Kejriwal, leader of the fledgling anti-corruption Aam Aadmi or Common Man Party, won a huge victory — and startled the nation — by briefly becoming Delhi’s Chief Minister, unseating Sheila Dikshit of the Congress party. But his call for a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman faced opposition, so he resigned in protest.
“The manner in which he deserted his Delhi seat has disappointed the public,” says Mr. Pandey of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University. On the other hand, though, it freed him to challenge Mr. Modi–using the general election as a platform to trumpet his views all over again. Varanasi, the sacred Hindu pilgrimage town, is in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends the largest number of lawmakers of any Indian state–80–to Parliament. Varanasi’s electorate of 1.5 million has chosen a BJP candidate every time since 1991, with the exception of 2004 when the national ruling Congress party won the seat. As India’s national economy has stuttered, Mr. Modi’s reputation for strengthening the economy in the western state of Gujarat has helped his candidacy. But at the same time he remains a divisive figure and has been criticised as doing too little to prevent religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died.
Mr. Singh says Mr. Kejriwal might be able to “put up an impressive fight” by winning support from Muslims, who make up 20 oer cent of the city’s population. “If Kejriwal manages to get a sizeable number of votes in Varanasi, it will be a huge blow to Modi and the BJP who are hoping of getting a landslide victory there.” he says. The race, he says, will be “riveting.” Which might just be Mr. Kejriwal’s strategy in a nutshell: Try to keep the nation’s eyes on his message, win or lose. Voting inVaranasi is scheduled for 12 May. India’s nine-phase general election which began on 7 April will end on 12 May. Counting of votes will take place on 16 May. n