One leader is tweaking Modi's populism to defeat him. Will it work?

Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP is playing a canny long game. If he succeeds, he will have changed Indian politics

Leader of AAP, Arvind Kejriwal. AFP
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On Thursday, India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party secured a seventh consecutive term in the western state of Gujarat. It came as little surprise, considering Narendra Modi, India’s very popular Prime Minister, is from the state and ran its government for 13 years before moving up to national politics in 2014.

The BJP’s ability to withstand anti-incumbency in Gujarat for more than two decades is undoubtedly impressive, but what’s more intriguing about the results is the emergence of a new opposition force in the state. Aam Aadmi Party, in existence for just nine years, already governs the northern states of Delhi and Punjab. On Thursday, it won five seats in Gujarat’s 182-seat legislative assembly. It’s a meagre tally, well below its own expectations, but for a small party contesting its first legislative election in a comparatively large state, securing about 13 per cent of the vote is notable – for three reasons.

First, in the early 1980s, a brand-new BJP opened its account in the Gujarat election with a similar vote percentage, before gradually improving its tally in subsequent elections to eventually become the state's pre-eminent party. AAP can take lessons and plenty of inspiration from its history.

Second, AAP is, state by state, continuing to chip away at the political space occupied by the Indian National Congress, the country’s premier opposition party. Its objective is to gradually displace Congress, which governed India for more than six decades, across the country before it can eventually challenge the BJP. That future is a long way away and there are many who want the party to grow faster, but AAP is going about its business in an "inch by inch, life’s a cinch" manner.

And third, by taking on the Prime Minister in his home state and getting close to 15 per cent without any prior grassroots presence there, AAP’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, is strategically positioning himself as the politician most capable of challenging Mr Modi in the years to come.

At this stage, he cannot match the Prime Minister’s immense popularity. According to the India Today magazine’s authoritative Mood of the Nation poll released in August, 53 per cent of Indians want Mr Modi to secure a third term in 2024. Which explains why the Prime Minister makes most elections, including some state elections, a referendum on his leadership.

But Mr Kejriwal, a canny political operator, is playing the long game. Ever since he tried, and failed, to pit himself against Mr Modi in a presidential-style face-off in the 2014 parliamentary election, he has switched gears. For now, he is focused on building the party he founded in 2013 while running a tight ship in Delhi, as its Chief Minister.

In the meantime, however, he is carefully cultivating a political image that stands him apart from Mr Modi in subtle ways.

Having risen from the non-partisan India Against Corruption movement of 2011 and 2012, which played an important role in unseating Congress from power in 2014, Mr Kejriwal began his political career as something of a rabble-rouser. But his bellicosity cost him along the way, with unsubstantiated allegations against various politicians landing him in court on a few occasions. While in power, he also led regular demonstrations over myriad issues through Delhi’s busy streets that were becoming a public nuisance. His unmistakably anti-politician, anti-establishment rhetoric that had initially captured the voters’ imagination was fast losing steam. And the only way to temper his populism was to infuse it with competent governance.

Mr Kejriwal has in subsequent years created the impression of being an able administrator whose greatest achievement is to improve government delivery in Delhi, including providing good-quality education and health care, and free electricity. And he has done this while recording budget surpluses. While it’s true that Delhi gets allocated a generous budget from the federal government, AAP has strenuously attributed its ability to balance the books to its focus on reducing wasteful spending and tackling corruption – key issues for Delhi’s voters. All this has burnished Mr Kejriwal’s image and helped to bring in hundreds of thousands of voters to his party.

Why is this instructive?

It’s worth remembering that during the 2014 parliamentary election, Mr Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, had portrayed himself as a man of the people who disdained the elite. Creating a powerful narrative around his humble beginnings in a small town, as the son of a tea seller, he appeared, quite consciously, to be the antithesis of then prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Dr Singh was the ultimate technocrat – an accomplished economist whose greatest legacy remains reforming India’s economy as finance minister in the early 1990s. In 2014, however, Dr Singh’s 10-year-old government had been riddled with scandal and infighting. His tired, and arguably detached, demeanour didn’t help to assuage an angry public. Sensing the mood on the street, a charismatic Mr Modi used populism and performative politics to present himself as the best alternative to Dr Singh.

In a similar move to stand apart from the current incumbent, Mr Kejriwal, it seems, has decided to present himself as an amalgam of Mr Modi and Dr Singh. By adding a layer of technocratic competence to his populism, he might effectively be implying that he is more serious about governance than Mr Modi is. That he will defer to the experts, unlike Mr Modi (or so the charge goes). And that he will abstain from making rash, populist decisions, such as the 2016 banknote demonetisation, which, instead of tackling corruption, as the government claimed it would, dealt a severe, long-term blow to India’s informal economy.

Mr Kejriwal’s bet is that, as the leader of a party that has neither an overarching ideology nor a vote bank, he will appeal to the aspirations of all Indians, but particularly the poorer sections of society, by placing a greater emphasis on providing public goods, levelling the playing field and growing the economy. He is doing this by promising a slew of sensible and, in some cases ill-advised, welfare schemes, specific to each state, in his attempt to challenge other parties into a debate on the very issue of welfarism.

It’s a seductive call to voters but one that’s complicated by the long-acknowledged truism that Indian politics is shaped and reshaped first and foremost by identity – religious, ethnic, linguistic, caste-based, regional, or a combination of these.

It's not that Mr Modi doesn't partake in the politics of welfarism. And he, too, has a development model – one that focuses on improving India's infrastructure and its industrial sector. But with the country gradually moving away from its secular foundations, as majoritarianism continues to grow, the Prime Minister's greatest assets are his unabashed Hindu-ness and his Hindu nationalist politics. The caste group he belongs to is also an important factor albeit in a more understated way. How does one, then, take on such a figure?

That Mr Kejriwal, moreover, has felt compelled on some occasions to remind voters of his Hindu-ness, recite verses on television, and promise pilgrimage schemes for worshippers of all faiths proves that he will find it challenging to expand AAP's reach entirely on the basis of his technocratic-populist image and on the party’s emphasis on good governance (with religion and nationalism thrown in for good measure). This was the case in Gujarat, where caste equations and alliances proved vital. This will almost certainly be the case in even larger states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

If, on the other hand, Mr Kejriwal does succeed in expanding his party using an ideology-agnostic approach, far beyond this serving his ambitions, Indian politics will have taken an important turn.

Published: December 12, 2022, 11:56 AM
Updated: December 14, 2022, 2:40 AM