Let’s start by tweaking an old aphorism: When reality knocks on the door, idealism goes flying out of the window. And if that idealism is called Arvind Kejriwal, it flies towards the right, because this is where he can hope to fulfil his dreams and ambitions.
To discuss Kejriwal’s political evolution, predict his future, address the question of his acceptability as a national leader, we need to understand how India’s politics has evolved over the past few years, and where it is headed. This is important because Kejriwal has anticipated the arc of India’s future politics and is trying to occupy a prominent place on the curve that’s currently vacant, and uncontested.
Since the beginning of electoral politics, India’s multiplicity of culture, religion and demography has mandated a large political bandwidth, starting from the far Left to the hard-line Right at the other end. At the time of Independence, the Congress represented the middle ground, the Hindu Mahasabha the right and the Communists were the other extreme. Over the next few years, the Ram Rajya Parishad and the Swantantra Party became the parties that represented the right-wing, only to be subsumed by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh which, in turn, became the BJP a few years later.
For several decades since Independence, electoral mandate was reserved for parties that occupied the middle ground; those at the extremes were left to play minor roles, at least in Indian Parliament. For almost fifty years, even when the voters wanted to boot the Congress out, they primarily voted for an alliance headed by a leader representing the middle ground—for example, VP Singh in 1991 and Morarji Desai in 1977.
That the extreme-right would never be acceptable to the electorate was clearly understood by the architect of the modern BJP, LK Advani. So, even when he ran the BJP with as its ideological figurehead, in spite of being solely responsible for making it leap from just two seats in 1984 to 88 in 1991, Advani went out of his way to project Atal Behari Vajpayee as the party’s popular face. (BJP leader KN Govindacharya famously called Vajpayee the BJP’s mukhauta.)
Why did Advani prefer to take the backseat when the BJP needed to project its PM face? This was mainly because he understood the nature of the Indian voter—he believed that to be successful, a party had to project someone who was not seen as an extremist, that the average Indian voter preferred a moderate face and was wary of hardliners.
But, this changed with the advent of the Narendra Modi era. For a variety of reasons, the Indian voters, especially in the Hindi heartland, started identifying with the hard-line Hindutva of the BJP, shifting its voting preference more and more towards the extreme right. Another interesting development coincided the rise of Modi’s BJP—as a counter-reaction the opposition shifted more and more towards the left, or at least in public perception.
As a result we have parties occupying the extremes on both sides, and the middle-ground has become vacant. You can argue that the Congress is still the party that represents this middle ground, or what the political pundits call the left of centre. But, the BJP has been successful in denying this space to the Congress in public perception by continuously talking about the Gandhi family’s eclectic background and, thus, questioning their loyalty to the Hindus, and by arguing that the Congress represents the interests of the minorities and the secular liberals.
Another important fact to remember is that for a long time, the BJP had the option of claiming the middle ground through the so-called moderates like Vajpayee in its rank. But, by first bringing Modi to the fore and then by projecting Amit Shah as his heir apparent—or at least the second-in-command—the BJP too has left the middle ground open.
Kejriwal has sensed a vacuum has emerged in Indian politics. And he is trying to occupy the middle ground that exists between the BJP on the right and the Congress on the Left. He is, if you remember Arun Shourie’s famous words, trying to make the AAP, BJP minus the cow. In the Delhi elections, Kejriwal proudly displayed his religious beliefs. On cue, his cadres co-opted Lord Hanuman as their icon, pitting the deity against the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ brand of BJP’s politics. Simultaneously, he maintained an uncharacteristic distance from the Shaheen Bagh protests, and actually argued that Shah is free to end the protests through use of government machinery if he wants.
In essence, Kejriwal tried to assert his Hindu identity, stayed away from protests against the amended citizenship laws and eschewed words or actions that could make him look sympathetic to Muslims. In essence, he projected himself as a Hanuman Bhakt (thus a Hindu) who doesn’t want to get into any ideological debate around Indian Muslims. His brief celebration after the victory was also instructive: he first went to a Hanuman temple and then, at the party headquarters, chanted ‘Vande Mataram’ as his cadres waved the Tricolor.
Over the next few months, you would notice Kejriwal position himself as a soft, liberal Hindu who agrees with the BJP on broader issues but doesn’t want to victimise the minorities.
There should be absolutely no doubt in anybody’s mind that Arvind Kejriwal has ambitions that go far beyond Delhi. A series of setbacks starting with the 2017 elections in Punjab had made Kejriwal reconsider his strategy and concentrate on Delhi. But, with the national capital in his pocket, he would be tempted to try his luck again in arenas outside his home ground. On Friday, the AAP announced its intention to contest elections for local bodies in other states, indicating its desire to go national.
Kejriwal’s next target would be Punjab, a state he would have won in 2017 but for some last-minute blunders and the reluctance to project a Sikh face. Once he gets his act together in Punjab, Kejriwal would target Haryana, where the decline of both the BJP and the Congress indicates space for a new player.
For this plan to succeed, Kejriwal knows, it is important to remember that the axis of politics has changed—it now revolves around politics of majoritarianism, on slogans of patriotism, on ideas of nationalism. At the moment the BJP is monopolising this space. But, Kejriwal will try to claim it by representing a different version of this politics. His aim would be to take some of the Modi voters away with a moderate version of identity politics even if deep inside he is not what his politics would suggest.
In 2014, Kejriwal had read the political wind wrong. He had assumed that the conditions were right for a politician who could step into the space abdicated by the Congress. On the basis of this flawed assumption, he had rushed to Varanasi to take on Modi in the general elections.
Now he knows the time is right for a leader who could step into the space abdicated by the BJP under Modi and Shah. In a few months from now, we’ll start noticing Kejriwal’s efforts to become the Atal Behari Vajpayee of the opposition.