Analysts suggest that Arvind Kejriwal’s common man calling card and campaign for a corruption-free India have been appropriated by the leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaving the AAP headman little space to distinguish himself. Despite their wide economic and ideological differences, Mr. Modi does appear to have encroached on Mr. Kejriwal’s political ground in recent months. Let’s look at the evidence…
The capital of the world’s largest democracy, which has been under President’s rule for the best part of a year, is set for a fresh election. There’s no firm date yet for the high-stakes Delhi polls, but for one man the stakes are higher than for most. Arvind Kejriwal, former Chief Minister and anti-corruption activist, has what some analysts describe as one last chance to unite his fractious, young party and revive his own flagging political fortunes. Mr. Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party (AAP), which stormed Delhi’s political scene last year with its anti-graft slogans and innovative grass-roots campaign, has struggled to remain relevant since national elections in May, in which it won just four out of 543 parliamentary seats.
In part, analysts suggest, this is because his common man calling card and campaign for a corruption-free India have been appropriated by the leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaving the AAP headman little space to distinguish himself. Despite their wide economic and ideological differences, Mr. Modi does appear to have encroached on Mr. Kejriwal’s political ground in recent months. Let’s look at the evidence.
First, the broom. Mr. Kejriwal’s party made the tool of India’s army of sweepers a weapon in his political arsenal. As AAP’s symbol, the broom was a visual metaphor of the party’s aim to clean up politics in India. Mr. Modi has taken the metaphor and made it literal. With a broom in hand, he promised to literally clean up India. Everyone from Bollywood stars to opposition politicians has taken up brooms to join him in the sanitation program. Narendra Modi launched a campaign named ‘Swachh Bharat’ or ‘Clean India’ to promote cleanliness and better sanitation in the country on October 2.
Mr. Kejriwal’s party says it aims to win a majority in the Delhi elections. But riven by internal dissent and in the face of a surge of support for Mr. Modi who in turn has parked his tanks on AAP’s lawn, it could struggle to muster the kind of funds and volunteer support that powered its campaign the last time.
Second, anti-corruption. In the previous Delhi election in December, in which no party won a clear majority, Mr. Kejriwal, a former tax official, positioned himself as an anti-corruption crusader and a new breed of politician, determined to transform India’s political elite and drive administrative change. He repeatedly called himself a “regular, ordinary person,” saying he shared popular frustration with graft and Government opacity. With the support of Delhi’s rich and the middle classes who were clamoring for political change and corruption-free politics, he upended electoral calculations to win 28 of 70 seats in Delhi’s legislative assembly. The BJP won 31 seats.
Short of the half-way mark, his party formed a Government with support from the Congress party, which was squarely rejected by voters after three terms in office and a flurry of corruption allegations. But AAP’s popularity among these groups faded as his street-protester tactics intensified during his short term as Delhi Chief Minister. Forty-nine days after he took office, he resigned over his political rivals’ blocking of a tough new anticorruption law he wanted to pass. Like Mr. Kejriwal, the Prime Minister has also cultivated an image as a non-corrupt and disciplined leader, unwilling to shelter errant colleagues. In recent weeks he has made a point of highlighting his Government’s efforts to crack down on so-called “black money,” something Mr. Kejriwal has been talking about for two years.
And thirdly, the common man trope. As Chief Minister, Mr. Kejriwal dominated headlines for weeks, eschewing the trappings of political power such as plush bungalows and top-end cars for a more modest way of life. In one instance, Mr. Kejriwal and his cabinet organised an unusual sit-in in the national capital to demand greater accountability among the city’s federally-controlled police force. Mr. Modi, the son of a tea-seller, has also used his humble beginnings to connect with ordinary Indians, setting himself apart from India’s privileged political class. In his first few months in office, Mr. Modi has sought people’s views on economic and social reform– echoing Mr. Kejriwal’s calls for a more participative democracy.
Mr. Kejriwal’s decision to quit as Chief Minister irked some of his staunchest supporters, who advocated a more stable approach to governance. Others saw his move, which came a few months before national elections in May, as an opportunistic political gambit aimed at capturing higher office. The capital was then placed under President’s rule. In national elections, Mr. Kejriwal pitted himself in direct opposition to Mr. Modi in the race for the northern constituency of Varanasi, a decision that won him plaudits for his persistence and innovative outreach. But the AAP leader lost by a huge margin and his party fared poorly overall. It failed to win a single seat from Delhi.
Mr. Kejriwal’s party says it aims to win a majority in the Delhi elections. But riven by internal dissent and in the face of a surge of support for Mr. Modi who in turn has parked his tanks on AAP’s lawn, it could struggle to muster the kind of funds and volunteer support that
powered its campaign the last time.
In the fight for Varanasi, Mr. Kejriwal, who espouses a left-of-center ideology, focused on an area of wide divergence with Mr. Modi: economic policy. During his short stint in office, Mr. Kejriwal’s populist Government moved to slash electricity and water prices. He has criticised Mr. Modi’s strategies as disproportionately pro-business,
accusing him of being too close to tycoons and industrialists at the cost of India’s poor. He has also accused Mr. Modi of crony capitalism – a strategy analysts say he is likely to adopt again as he seeks to put clear water between himself and the Prime Minister.