Shikha Mukerjee | The K-factor forces the BJP to play catch-up'

Kejriwal's return adds fuel to election fire as BJP faces unprecedented challenge

There is nothing more dangerous than an injured prey, as every predator, huntsman or tiger knows. The instinct for survival urges flight or fight; Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal launched his fightback as he stepped out of Delhi’s Tihar Jail last week, with a promise to “defeat dictatorship”. The Delhi chief minister warned that Narendra Modi’s mission was to establish “One Nation-One Leader”, by locking up Opposition and even BJP leaders, whoever presented an alternative and challenge to the helmsman.

“Cry Havoc! And, let slip the dogs of war” is exactly what Mr Kejriwal’s opening salvo sounds like. The havoc Mr Kejriwal promises is a ferocious polarisation for and against the Prime Minister. The vehemence and speed of BJP organisational and strategic mastermind Amit Shah’s response to Mr Kejriwal’s provocative question — “Who will be the BJP’s prime ministerial face?” — and his equally irritating reply, “Amit Shah will be installed when Modi steps down in September when he reaches 75”, is a measure of the AAP leader’s impact and potential for disruption.

As the country voted in the fourth phase of the general election on Monday, the Kejriwal factor is exactly what the BJP and Mr Modi did not need. Even as voter turnout increased in Phase 3, the fact is there is no wave, not even a ripple for Mr Modi in the 2024 election.

His return to campaigning is exactly the morale booster that regional parties and leaders needed. His warning that Trinamul Congress founder Mamata Banerjee could be picked up by the “agencies” any time is confirmation of the West Bengal chief minister’s suspicions that Mr Modi’s strategy for winning the 2024 election includes picking up and deactivating regional leaders by sending them to jail.

By calling on regional party and locally influential leaders to strengthen their mobilisation and wage war against the BJP, Mr Kejriwal’s gamble is obvious; consolidation for the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance bloc parties to defeat Mr Modi and his champions. It also plays on the sentiments of aggrieved BJP leaders and their constituents who have been restless after Modi-Amit Shah-J.P. Nadda announced a list of candidates in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls that had a significant number of defectors from other parties, especially the Congress, succeeded in affronting the touchy Kshatriya vote and managed to ruffle tribal and Dalit communities who remain unconvinced that the BJP return will not mean dismantling reservation as they have known it since 1950.

As social media speculation picks up speed at the possibility of the BJP losing seats in its bastions from Gujarat to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, Mr Kejriwal’s dire warnings will feed into the sprawling network of information, both confirmed and verified and the unverifiable. It has already started with BJP reacting with a loud assertion that it will win 400-plus seats, suggesting the party feels it imperative to counter Mr Kejriwal.

Getting the pitch and the perception right in a campaign matters immensely; in 2014, Mr Modi’s pitch of “Sabka Saath-Sabka Vikas” and the “Gujarat model” of economic growth coupled with the Ram Mandir mesmerised voters. His aggressive masculinity embodied in the 56-inch chest claim contrasted vividly against the low-key persona of Manmohan Singh. In 2024, Mr Modi began with Viksit Bharat, a target with a meaningless end-date of 2047. From Phase 2, Viksit Bharat was abandoned as Mangalsutras-Muslims-Inheritance Tax and the Pakistan conspiracy took over.

The shifting narrative has to be reconfigured to take on Mr Kejriwal and the I.N.D.I.A. bloc or it has to face up to acknowledging it is running away from the verbal fight in what is now a boxing match without parallel in India’s electoral history. The BJP has never ever faced a challenge of this order, where it is neither in control of its own narrative nor of the wider political discourse. As it lumbers through the initial stages of playing catch-up, the BJP looks exactly like any other party, struggling to keep up with the competition.

The line Mr Kejriwal’s incarceration and release has drawn separates the anti-BJP from the BJP; in other words, the enemy is common to all the parties inside and outside the I.N.D.I.A. bloc. This is as crafty and as risky as it can get; but Mr Kejriwal seems confident of pushing his friends in the I.N.D.I.A. bloc, including the Congress, to fight harder in the remaining phases of the seven-phase election. It may be just the tonic required to push the alternative over the edge and to ensure that the AAP sweeps up more seats in Delhi than the BJP, which won all seven seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

The two big issues that the “K” factor has dragged out of the shadows and into the limelight are corruption-abuse of power and more and better public welfare measures. Rattled by the forced disclosure of which party got how much through the now-defunct electoral bonds, the BJP led by Mr Modi launched a damage limitation exercise. The reprieve that the Modi government had wrestled to acquire by front-loading religious identity politics and reverting to the BJP’s time-tested communally divisive agenda provoking majoritarian paranoia is over.

The political discourse had already begun slipping away from the BJP and Mr Modi before Mr Kejriwal’s re-entry as a wounded prey. Neither the BJP nor Mr Modi are setting the agenda in this election; with each phase the Opposition seems to be dominating the discourse with its own spiel pushing the ruling party into resorting to creative and far-fetched reconstructions of speeches and manifestos that only make it worse.

The “K factor” and its ripple effect across India has increased Mr Modi’s workload, amidst the absence of a wave and uncertainty over voter turnout. And, for two reasons: one, regional and smaller parties, especially those in power and those that have been in power in the states share a close connect with their constituents backed up by a lattice of relationships within which they are locally embedded; and two, their capacity to mobilise and get the vote out. The BJP is no match for the efficiency of regional parties and locally influential leaders.

It has also made it more difficult for the BJP and its star campaigner to bash the Congress as the greatest enemy of the people for 70 years. The unity within the Opposition, despite the rivalry between partners of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc, is a challenge. An Opposition gifted an icon is a problematic adversary. Mr Modi has to turn the “K factor” into a dud, an improvised explosive device that failed to ignite. We are now at a turning point.

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