In many ways, Mr Kejriwal and Mr Modi are both modern politicians of the 21st century.
The overwhelming victory of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for the second time in the Delhi Assembly elections on Tuesday is comparable to that of the Narendra Modi-led BJP in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Delhi is, of course, a tiny place compared to the rest of the country, and only narcissistic Delhiites can presume that they are at the centre of national politics. They are not. Whatever the pretensions of Delhiites about the importance of the Assembly election’s outcome, the result provides a fascinating insight into political trends.
This has turned out to be a contest between two right-wing parties, one of them — AAP — a sensible and moderate one, and the other — the BJP — a rogue. The results show that the people of Delhi weighed their options between these two right-wing parties as the voting percentage shows that the AAP polled about 53 per cent of the votes and the BJP around 39 per cent. The Congress polled a measly 4.2 per cent. The other parties, including the Bahujan Samaj Party and the two Communist parties, have got less than one per cent of the votes. The AAP’s victory is not an ideological win over a belligerent right-wing BJP.
The liberals, leftists and secularists should not feel too elated over the defeat of the BJP. The AAP has shown that people are not averse to right-wing parties but that they will judge them on governance and not on the basis of imagined enemies. It should be noted too that the BJP had won all seven of the national capital’s Lok Sabha seats. The AAP has also shown that it is not necessary to be belligerent and look out for enemies all the time in all corners or to conjure xenophobic ghosts. The defeat of the BJP in Delhi does not mark the return of liberal politics. Political right-wingers rule the roost in Delhi, with AAP dominating the Assembly and the BJP the Lok Sabha.
The BJP had tried to make the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act, anti-National Population Register and anti-National Register of Citizens protest at Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood, into a major poll plank. And it has failed to derive any political mileage out of it as its leaders had imagined. Mr Kejriwal and AAP did not fight against the BJP by defending the concerns of the anti-CAA, anti-NPR and anti-NRC protesters at Shaheen Bagh. He sidestepped the issue. He did not take a stand. And to be fair to the AAP, even the Congress Party did not fight this election on the Shaheen Bagh protests issue.
Former BJP president and Union home minister Amit Shah, who had spearheaded the toxic campaign, had clearly failed to force the AAP, its main opponent, into the opposite corner. Mr Kejriwal had outwitted Mr Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on this issue by refusing to be drawn into a debate over the issue. We do not know what the stance of AAP is over CAA, NPR and NRC. Mr Kejriwal is as much a master of political theatre as Mr Modi is, but this time round the AAP leader kept his histrionics on leash. He talked about the achievements of his government in sober tones.
The BJP has much to learn from AAP about how to be a good right-wing party. Mr Kejriwal and AAP have proved that it is possible to be a decent right-wing party and win elections without indulging in negative rhetoric. Interestingly, Mr Kejriwal and Mr Modi are right-wing populists who believe in welfare measures. This is also a clear reminder that welfare measures and concern for the poor is not the prerogative of the enlightened liberal brigade.
Mr Kejriwal, like Mr Modi, did not go out of his way to woo Muslims and other minorities, nor did he shy away from showing up his religiosity by chanting the Hanuman Chalisa. What then is the difference between the two right-wing leaders? Mr Kejriwal does not feel the compulsion to wag a threatening finger, indirectly, at religious minorities as do BJP leaders.
It would, however, be naive to believe that Mr Shah, Mr Modi and other BJP leaders will do a rethink after the Delhi Assembly elections about their gratuitous aggression towards liberals and leftists. Faced with an intransigent situation in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir over the lockdown and the anti-CAA protests in Assam and an intractable economic malaise, the BJP is left with no other option but to raise the decibel levels over illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and persecuted religious minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and indirectly against the religious minorities in India. Top BJP leaders may refrain from speaking against the religious minorities in the country but they will allow their lackeys in the party’s lower rungs to spout venom. The BJP will continue to revel in its role as a rogue right-wing party.
The model of good behaviour on the part of a right-wing party provided by the AAP will be confined to the national capital. It is unlikely that the AAP will succeed in spreading its footprint outside Delhi as it had hoped to do some years back. But the AAP’s success raises the flicker of hope that cultural conservatism and political populism are not incompatible, and that people are looking beyond the established political parties of the right, left and centre. There is room for the rise of “Kejriwals” in other parts of the country. Arvind Kejriwal has combined intense nationalism with a fierce desire and determination to fight the entrenched and corrupt system. He is not a liberal, leftist or a secularist, but he is an idealist — one with steely ambition who would deal ruthlessly with rivals in his own party.
In many ways, Mr Kejriwal and Mr Modi are both modern politicians of the 21st century. Mr Modi emerged from an established RSS system that nurses political talent and Mr Kejriwal from a Jayaprakash Narayan-type popular anti-corruption movement. India is moving forward in its own chaotic manner, and creating new leaders as it moves on.