Modi vs AAP's guerilla war: Has BJP misunderstood its opponent?

Yesterday's violent events involving the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) offer a classic case study in what happens when a heavily armed conventional army is forced to fight a war with lightly-armed and mobile insurgents. The BJP made every possible tactical mistake it could while AAP did what it does best. If the BJP brains trust does not have an effective counter to Arvind Kejriwal's tactics, it will start losing a battle that appeared almost won.

Delhi Police said more arrests are likely. PTI

Delhi Police said more arrests are likely. PTI

Fighting goes out of control when the combatants misread the other party's intentions. In this case, the BJP seems to understand AAP far less than the AAP does BJP. Moreover, AAP misreading BJP does not matter; it is not playing to win this battle; it is playing for brand recognition, the right to fight the next battle. But the BJP is fighting to win the current electoral battle of 2014. If it misreads AAP, it can damage itself when it has most things going its way.

It is worth analysing why AAP is doing what it is, and why BJP has done what it has so far - and how the latter’s strategy may need some redirection.

AAP’s strategy is that of the classic disrupter who has to break the mould in order to have a chance of succeeding. To expect it to follow the normal rules of politics does not suit it at all. It is here to change the rules. This is why it abandoned Delhi so that its tactics are not constrained by the basic needs of decorum and governance norms. Out of government, regular tantrum-throwing can be a part of its arsenal.

We also have to understand AAP's DNA and tactics by looking at where it came from: it was the product of the Jan Lokpal movement. It is a street-fighter, not a party of government. Its success is not the result of what it stands for but what it stands against. Just as Pakistan defines itself as ‘Not India’, AAP defines itself as ‘Not the Establishment’; its politics is anti-politician. To sustain itself on a diet of Not-the-Establishment rhetoric and keep its cadres motivated, it needs a solid enemy to define as the establishment.

Till December 2013, the Congress was the establishment. After the Congress was demolished in Delhi and three other states, Arvind Kejriwal found that the establishment had vanished. This is why he had to invent a new, mightier enemy in the Narendra Modi-led BJP. Without erecting a Goliath, David would be a footnote in history. Martyrdom is gained against lions, not mice.

If we understand this, we know why Kejriwal acts the way he does. Congress turned out to be a hollow card-board box, while BJP is the one looking muscular. Kejriwal's idea is not to defeat the BJP but to define himself as David - the frail muffler man heading off to fight Gigantic Evil. He is anti-BJP because BJP is the party to beat.

This is why suddenly all the scams of the Congress do not matter. This is why Kejriwal heads to Gujarat, where his party has no chance whatsoever. If he fields lots of candidates in Gujarat, the resultant split in the anti-BJP vote may end up giving Modi a clean sweep - maybe all 26 seats. Kejriwal is in Gujarat to position himself as ‘Not Modi’, not to even try to win. His goal is to provoke, engineer a disproportionate response, and position himself as the victim - the Christ whom everyone wants to crucify.

Kejriwal's strategic goals in this election are the following: establish himself and AAP as the party of opposition by positioning himself against the stronger BJP rather than weak Congress; rattle the BJP by regular tantrum-throwing and street fights so that the latter ends up making strategic errors and gives AAP a martyr’s halo; and use the media to build Kejriwal’s image into a larger-than-life reality.

Kejriwal’s strategy is not about 2014 – but to occupy the left-of-centre space now occupied by the Congress. He is a bigger long-term threat to the Congress than the BJP, but the BJP hasn’t quite understood this.

Now let’s understand the strategy from the BJP side, and why current tactics are inadequate to fend off Kejriwal. As we said before, the BJP is like the conventional army fighting a conventional force – the Congress. That fact that it seems to be winning has blinded it to the reality of an insurgency in the backyard. It got a rude awakening when it failed to win Delhi in December, but the party has built a sense of entitlement about the next elections, and hence tends to see AAP as a spoiler about to rain on its party.

The fact is the elections are not in the bag, and to ensure it does not lose its footing in the coming 50 days, the BJP has to be ready for Kejriwal's unconventional war.

While the feelings are understandable, it does not help that the BJP reacts angrily to AAP’s tactics - as many BJP spokespersons did on TV last night. As a guerilla force, AAP will always have the advantage of choosing the time and place to embarrass the BJP, while the BJP cannot change strategy every day.

The world over, conventional armies have never won against guerilla forces. The only way to win is to have a dual strategy – attack-cum-defence – by keeping the army to do the heavy hitting, and launching guerilla counter-attacks of your own. The Khalistan movement was defeated by KPS Gill this way. The Andhra Pradesh Greyhounds defeated the Naxals, not the conventional police forces or the army.

In marketing strategy, when a big brand is attacked by a new unconventional entrant, the standard counter-strategy is to launch a fighter brand that is more directly positioned against the interloper so that the conventional war is kept separate from the guerilla war.

America and the former Soviet Union never fought a conventional war; they only used fighters to fight proxy wars. Indira Gandhi used Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to take on the Akalis (with tragic consequences later), but the general principle is valid nevertheless.

So if Kejriwal’s tantrums and guerilla tactics are taken as a given, what is the best strategy for the BJP to counter-attack?

There are two possibilities. It must have one strategy to win the main battle against the Congress and regional players – which Modi and BJP are executing quite well, and a second tactical plan to keep AAP off balance in the short run. It must pay back AAP in its own coin – but in a plausibly deniable way.

A few examples of what this could be: if AAP’s strategy is to stay in the news everyday by doing something outrageous all the time, the BJP must have a separate day-plan that also distracts the media. This needs out-of-the-box thinking.

Example 1: Right now AAP strategists have abandoned Delhi to strike out elsewhere. BJP could do a simple thing: stake a claim to form the government in Delhi with the Lt Governor. There are two possible outcomes: the Lt Governor will say no, in which case BJP should go to town yelling Congress-AAP fixed match. This is the most likely scenario, for the Congress does not want the BJP to get a place in the sun in Delhi.

If, on the off chance that the Lt Governor says, okay, try your luck, and prove your majority in 10 days, the BJP should push in a heavy hitter like Arun Jaitley (Harsh Vardhan is a good guy, but not a fighter) to stake a claim, suggest some interesting legislation, get AAP and Congress to play spoilsport, and get AAP members back into the assembly to show them up. Quite obviously, this is only a short-term tactic (Jaitley does not even have to contest an assembly election for this), but it will give the party at least two days of headlines – exactly what AAP does not want.

Example 2: Send a guerilla force after AAP – though time for this is short. How? It could be possible to engineer a public spat between the BJP headquarters and a maverick like Subramanian Swamy over anti-AAP strategy where Swamy is “expelled” from the party to take on AAP in the streets and in courts. The party has deniability, and Swamy is enough of a maverick to hound AAP too. A variant would be to get some of BJP’s street-fighting women to launch an Aam Aurat Morcha to protest against AAP’s misogyny and haunt AAP offices. The goal should be to target everyone but Kejriwal – so that Kejriwal spends more time defending his colleagues rather than attacking the BJP. The likes of Somnath Bharti come to mind for targeting.

And what should the main Modi bandwagon do? Stick to his gameplan, ignore AAP, etc. Modi should stay above the battle. In fact, party spokespersons should be coached to adopt an indulgent attitude towards AAP, making sympathetic noises about how they are greenhorns, mock them, patronise them, and generally not take the AAP too seriously. By staying above the battle in the next 50 days, the BJP could conceivably fend off the Kejriwal attacks. Responding with muscle power to the attacks is the wrong strategy.

Consider this analogy of the mosquito and the elephant. The goal of the mosquito is to get inside the elephant’s ear and make the pachyderm go mad and run amok; the goal of the elephant is to keep flapping its ears to prevent this. The BJP must keep flapping its ears and tut-tut over AAP’s Kejri-tantrums. Throwing its own tantrum will not work.