Why Narendra Modi need not fear the rise of Arvind Kejriwal

Should the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi fear Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi party in 2014? Should he recalibrate his General Election campaign in response to AAP’s spectacular debut in Delhi? The simple answers are no.

For perennial Modi baiters, the Aam Aadmi’s performance is being interpreted as a snub to Modi’s Prime Ministerial aspirations. This is a false interpretation for several reasons. Sure, the BJP did not win a clear majority in Delhi despite Modi’s active campaign. But there is an alternative interpretation to Modi’s influence in Delhi. Could it be that it was the Gujarat Chief Minister who denied the AAP a fairytale ending on political debut?

Remember that it was Modi who forced his party to drop Vijay Goel as the face of the Delhi campaign. If the tainted and unappealing Goel had led the BJP, AAP would almost certainly have won a majority; even Congress may have done better. Remember also that the voters of Delhi knew only too well that Modi was not a candidate for Chief Minister. The genial Harsh Vardhan --  Modi’s chosen alternative -- just didn’t have the charisma or appeal of Arvind Kejriwal. He also had very little time to establish his leadership. In the circumstances, Modi’s intervention in the leadership stakes and on the ground (he certainly fired up the rank and file), may have actually contributed greatly to the BJP emerging as the single largest party ahead of AAP.  It saved an otherwise moribund and infighting Delhi unit from political suicide. So while it is plausible to argue that Kejriwal halted Modi, it is equally plausible to argue that Modi halted Kejriwal and his own party from self-destructing.

 Why Narendra Modi need not fear the rise of Arvind Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal after his victory. Agencies.

It is also important to recognize that Modi has already positioned himself as the anti-establishment candidate of “change” (at the national level) for 2014. This is exactly how Kejriwal and AAP package themselves so successfully in Delhi. Harsh Vardhan, for all his sincerity, never came across as a radical outside who would change the system.  Modi does. That is why the CNN-IBN CSDS post-poll survey for Delhi (which admittedly under-estimated AAP) revealed that almost 50 percent of AAP voters would switch their vote to BJP and Modi in the 2014 General Election.

Of course, it would be grossly unfair to rule out Kejriwal and AAP from a national role, but it isn’t going to happen in 2014. It takes a long time to build political parties. All the prominent leaders of AAP have invested heavily in Delhi over the last 12 months. It has paid dividend. It will take at least 1 year if not 5 or 10 years for the party to establish a similar presence in other pockets in the country. Of course, Delhi was always uniquely suited to a new party which stood against power and privilege – its citizens have to suffer the brunt of insufferable VIPs because the Government of India is located there.  For other places, AAP will have to develop a broader agenda for governance.

There is another reason why AAP cannot scale up in time for 2014. The hung assembly outcome in Delhi, and BJP’s refusal to form a minority Government, likely means that Delhi will have another election in six months, probably with the General Election. That will force Kejriwal and AAP’s top leadership to invest all their time in Delhi. For now, the goal of winning a majority in Delhi (quite realistic in a repeat election) will take priority over establishing a light footprint all over India. Modi and the BJP will have to address the AAP challenge in Delhi’s 7 seats but need not worry about other cities and states.

What about the argument that Modi can longer rely on the assumption that an anti-Congress wave alone will see him home to 7 Race Course Road?  People angry with Congress may in fact vote for other “third” parties. If indeed the Modi campaign is banking on an anti-Congress wave alone, it will falter. But then both Modi and the BJP know that their fate will be determined by Uttar Pradesh and Bihar more than other states. In neither state (which account for 120 Lok Sabha seats) is the Congress the main opposition. In UP, Modi needs to defeat the SP and BSP in addition to Congress. In Bihar, he needs to defeat JD(U) and RJD. Anti-Congressism alone cannot deliver UP and Bihar.

What Modi needs to do, sooner rather than later, is to move from a negative campaign (which was necessary, but isn’t sufficient) to outlining the positive, constructive parts of his agenda for governance. That is where he can really score over AAP and other brash new challengers, who are brilliant campaigners, but lack a coherent, convincing agenda for governing India. He has a track record in Gujarat. He talks about that. But he needs to scale it up for India.

The wind is still in Modi’s favour. But to win power, he needs to whip up a storm.

Updated Date: Dec 10, 2013 07:24:03 IST