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  Opinion   Columnists  15 May 2023  Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | As 2024 looms, Kejriwal is looking ahead to 2029

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | As 2024 looms, Kejriwal is looking ahead to 2029

The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi-NCR. His latest book is 'The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India', and he’s also the author of 'Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times'. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.
Published : May 16, 2023, 12:30 am IST
Updated : May 16, 2023, 12:30 am IST

The Congress cannot bask in the glory of the Karnataka sweep and the AAP can’t focus only on its long-term pursuits.

 Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. (PTI file photo)
  Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. (PTI file photo)

In the aftermath of Assembly elections in a state, albeit numerically not very significant, which had the nation’s attention riveted to the outcome, it may seem odd to begin with a reaction to a minor bout in the round — namely the Lok Sabha byelection in Punjab’s Jalandhar. But before detailing the response to the verdict there — the bypoll was necessitated as the sitting Congress MP suffered a cardiac arrest walking alongside Rahul Gandhi on the Bharat Jodo Yatra — we need to clarify why Karnataka is deemed not numerically substantial. The state elects 28 Lok Sabha members, which is barely five per cent of the House, yet the battle here had almost everyone glued to the developments.

To return to the side story: the lead intervention was by another stormy petrel of Indian politics: Arvind Kejriwal. Noticeably buoyant after his comeback following last year’s debacle in Sangrur (Bhagwant Mann’s Lok Sabha seat), after successive victories in 2014 and 2019, relief was writ clear on Mr Kejriwal’s face when AAP candidate Sushil Kumar Rinku emerged victorious. To recall last June’s electoral disaster, barely three months after the AAP swept into power in the state, the party lost the byelection for the Lok Sabha seat vacated by the CM. To make things worse, the party nominee was vanquished by SAD (Amritsar)’s Simranjit Singh Mann, who last won in 1999 when residual elements of militancy were still present in Punjab politics. It was particularly worrisome as the former IPS officer and militant sympathiser got re-elected to Parliament barely a month after the controversial rapper and aspiring politician Sidhu Moosewala was gunned down. With the victory in Jalandhar, the AAP appears to have put behind the ghost of militancy, which appended itself to the party.

This being the background to the Jalandhar bypoll, and the added fact that the Congress not only had been winning this seat since 1999, but also put up the deceased MP’s widow to fill the vacancy, Mr Kejriwal’s joy at the breakthrough victory was understandable. But his words were extremely significant: “The people of Jalandhar have approved the work of Bhagwant Mann’s government. We only do politics of work. We have entered the Lok Sabha and very soon we will get a majority in the Lok Sabha.” A majority in Parliament? Did Mr Kejriwal actually claim that his party would be forming the Union government and he will be Prime Minister? Barely a year before the 2024 general election and at a time when his second-in-command in the Delhi government as well as the party, Manish Sisodia, is in jail on multiple corruption charges, is this not a preposterous claim? That too just after he sent out placatory signs to other Opposition parties he was earlier not particularly warm towards — and this includes the Congress.

No credible political leader makes non-serious assertions although context and timeline can be read differently from what appears initially.

Certainly, with his post-Jalandhar victory statement, Mr Kejriwal made it unambiguous that his party will not be content with limiting its presence to Delhi, Punjab and Gujarat, plus a few other states where it has already made a foray. But, by simultaneously warming up to other Opposition parties, making common cause on the recently-failed petition in the Supreme Court on the issue of Opposition parties’ and leaders’ frequent harassment by the investigative agencies, Mr Kejriwal has let it be known that his objective is bifocal. On one hand, the AAP indicated it was willing to cooperate on forging a common platform with other Opposition parties in order to weaken the BJP and damage its electoral prospects next year. But on the other, the Delhi chief minister signalled that the party has not abandoned its initial intention of emerging as a nationwide alternative to the either the existing national-level parties, or a coalition stitched to form a government at the Centre. This, however, is a long-term goal and it makes sense given the constant murmur that Mr Kejriwal is “looking at 2029” (and 2027 in Gujarat) in the hope that by that time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have in all probability demitted office, one way or the other, and in the power vacuum that will follow, space would be created for the AAP to emerge with an all-India base. The proponents of this theory point to “age being on his side” — he will turn 55 in August and by Indian standards, health permitting, has several years left in public life.

At the moment, it is a necessity for the AAP leader to be a part of the Opposition’s efforts, unless it is abandoned, to cobble together a loose Opposition association that minimises splitting the anti-BJP vote in as many states and seats as is possible. Unless Mr Kejriwal is seen as being on board for making this project a success, the charge of being mainly interested in ensuring a Congress-mukt Bharat is going to stick and that would pin the label of being the “BJP’s B-Team” on the AAP. Its hopes for the future will vaporise in such a situation.

Efforts to get several Opposition parties to work in tandem informally, if not forming a formal alliance, will gather ground in the wake of the Karnataka verdict. This is because, for the moment, the Congress is back in the game after handing the BJP one of its worst electoral humiliations since 2014, comparable only to the 2015 defeat in Bihar and the 2021 loss in West Bengal. The last occasion was also when the BJP tried to whip up Hindutva sentiments, the way it did in Karnataka, but it was met with the voters’ rejection.

The spring in the Congress’ feet, however, cannot be used to walk over other Opposition parties. Instead, its galvanised energies need to be first directed towards the states where the party faces immediate an electoral challenge, and those where it has electorally receded in recent years. There is much ground work to be done, at least in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, as winning both is essential for the Congress regaining its position as India’s principal Opposition party (the party appears on surer ground in Chhattisgarh). The Congress cannot bask in the glory of the Karnataka sweep and the AAP can’t focus only on its long-term pursuits. In the BJP there is an adversary which not only has the State mechanism at its disposal, but in the years that it has been in power, it has expanded its cadre network and imparted skills required for a game where winning is the only objective.


Tags: 2024 general election, arvind kejriwal, bhagwant mann