Is the Congress making a terrible miscalculation by hoping that Arvind Kejriwal's rise will hit the campaign of BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi? There seems to be a clear gap between the top leadership of the party and the rank and file on the issue.
The latter feel that the AAP’s phenomenal rise in positive perception is inimical to the ruling party’s interests in the coming parliamentary elections. However, the senior leaders believe that in urban constituencies the new party will eat into the anti-incumbency votes that would otherwise could go to the BJP or Modi, and thereby minimise the losses of the ruling party.
The party clearly has not learnt any lessons from the Delhi election results. The reason the Congress landed up with just eight seats, after securing a two-third majority in the Delhi assembly in successive elections, was due to increased competition between its two challengers, the BJP and AAP. It is now an open secret that the Congress virtually bent over backwards to give Arvind Kejriwal support, despite his harsh words about the party and its leadership, in order to curtail the BJP’s prospects in the event the Delhi assembly elections were held around the time of the Parliamentary elections.
The performance of newly appointed Delhi Congress chief Arvinder Singh Lovely during Kejriwal’s trust vote was telling. Lovely didn’t seem to be downcast over his party's complete decimation in the elections and being forced to play a subservient role. Instead in his half-hour-long speech, he spoke of the irony that the BJP couldn't come to power despite being the single largest party in the assembly. Many see his stance as an indicator of how Congress was shaping its policy for the upcoming general elections.
The BJP’s leadership and cadre are worried about the rise of AAP and the kind of attention that it has been getting since the Congress decided to support it to form a government in Delhi. The party is now trying to reformulate its electoral strategy and is also waiting for AAP to slip up.
Senior AAP leader Prashant Bhushan's statement seeking a referendum in Jammu and Kashmir on the Indian Army’s continued presence in Kashmir was perhaps the first real opportunity. The most articulate and urbane face of the BJP, Arun Jaitley went ballistic about it and other leaders also joined in.
The AAP also suffered some embarassment when its young Women and Child Welfare Minister, Rakhi Birla, pressurised cops to lodge and FIR and alleged a conspiracy by unidentified persons when the windshield of her car was accidentally broken by a child playing cricket. The child’s family had claimed that they had apologised to the minister on the spot.
And then came another contentious demand for hiking the quota for disadvantaged social groups from senior AAP leader Yogendra Yadav. Though other political parties would not comment on the issue for obvious reasons, it has sparked off a raging debate on social media. Interestingly, a substantive section of young AAP supporters and sympathisers are firm believers in abolishing such quotas.
Incidents like these do cast some doubts about the AAP’s thought process and ability to provide a long term governance model, but they would still be considered too trivial to adversely impact the party's rise.
The AAP’s decision to go national and talk about Arvind Kejriwal running for PM, though he has denied any plans to contest parliamentary elections, has made the run up to the elections even more interesting. There is a feeling among leaders of some political parties, most prominently the BJP, that the Congress knew that 2014 elections was a lost case for it. The party was routed in last month’s assembly elections in four north Indian states and could well predict its fate in the parliamentary polls. It was therefore focussed not so much about winning a third term at the centre, but to minimise the scale of its defeat and prevent Modi's victory to a level which might find potential allies gravitating towards the BJP.
However, the Congress leadership is perhaps discounting the fact that though AAP is gaining ground in the middle class, and also in a section of youth, which otherwise was presumed to be a solid Modi constituency, it is making deeper inroads in Congress’s social constituency of urban poor.
The Muslim community too is weighing AAP rise with great deal of curiosity. The Congress has so far been banking on the fact that the Muslim community would be against Modi and would therefore cast their votes in in their favour.
Though the AAP’s case is slightly different from its predecessors, the Congress leadership in the past has experimented by nurturing splinter groups and new political outfits to contain its rival’s prospects and boost its own. It has been successful in some experiments and failed it others.
Telugu super star Chiranjeevi forming a new party ahead of Andhra Pradesh state elections served as a boon to the Congress as it cut into the anti-incumbency votes, which could have otherwise gone to the TDP. The actor has since then joined the Congress and is the tourism minister in UPA 2.
It is widely speculated that the Congress and NCP supported Raj Thackeray’s ambitions and provided his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena the support to stand against the Shiv Sena. The split in the Shiv Sena's traditional support base has hurt the BJP-Shiv Sena combine's chances of winning for the last two assembly polls.
But in two other instances, in Punjab and in Gujarat, its flirtation with Manpreet Badal and Keshubhai Patel failed to have any popular impact. In the last Gujarat elections it was known to all and sundry that dissident Keshubhai Patel’s GPP was fighting a proxy battle for the Congress. The party had banked heavily on Kehubhai’s influence in the Saurashtra region to try and undermine Modi campaign for a third term, but it failed miserably.
Senior BJP leaders are of the opinion that since Modi had already gained a lot of traction among the electorate and created a buzz even in rural areas, it would be very difficult, if not impossible to undermine his campaign.
A close Modi aide said the BJP had already gained such a large lead that the AAP would not be able to play spoiler even if ate into Modi's support base. He cited the example of Delhi, where many in the party believe that if the party had announced Harsh Vardhan’s name as its chief ministerial candidate well in advance, rather than just a month ahead of the actual date of polling, the results would have been different. Modi has also already completed his first round of campaigning in almost all states before rivals could even start contemplating it.
The BJP is no longer taking AAP lightly and is consistently trying to highlight AAP’s mistakes, big or small. A case in point is the Prashant Bhushans' statement on a referendum in Kashmir. Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley has equated that with separatist anti-national stance.
"It is regrettable that for a party like the Aam Aadmi Party which nourishes national ambitions, should adopt a position hostile to India’s interests. The issues of national security cannot be decided by populism or referendum. They can only be decided on security considerations," he said in a statement.
However, for now, the Congress can take heart from one fact. Kewjriwal is making bigger headlines than Modi. The BJP is hoping that the coverage of the AAP’s will reduce after it reaches saturation at some point.