If Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has a ‘magnificent obsession’, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He taunted the PM with being ‘scared’ (of the Aam Aadmi Party) earlier this week, but the boot is actually on the other foot. It is Kejriwal who is showing increasing signs of desperation after the arrest of his number two, Manish Sisodia, in the liquor scam.
Under mounting pressure, Kejriwal has responded by lashing out at the PM. His tiff with the Centre is long-standing, but after a brief cessation of hostilities, relations have deteriorated to the point that he stood by posters proclaiming ‘Modi hatao, desh bachao’ and responded to the subsequent arrests of the perpetrators by accusing the PM of being ‘insecure’.
The feisty, irrepressible Kejriwal has reason to be anxious, and not only because the charges against Sisodia are extremely serious in nature — serious enough, if they are proven to the satisfaction of the courts, to devastate the AAP. The public airing of the allegations and AAP’s failure to respond beyond the usual bluster has already done some damage. Kejriwal is also facing a near-impossible job in Punjab, with insurgency rising and the state’s economy collapsing.
Swinging like a pendulum, he accused the PM of conducting a political vendetta against AAP leaders (like Sisodia) and sabotaging the Delhi government by delaying its budget out of sheer ‘ego’, then described himself as Modi’s ‘younger brother’ who needs his ‘love’.
The fact is that Kejriwal has overextended himself in his impatience to become a match for PM Modi. Since 2014, he has sought to ride on the latter’s coattails to boost his own stature. Hence the decision to contest against the PM in Varanasi. He was fighting to lose, so that he could win renown.
The same logic applied to his campaign in Gujarat — if only he could make a large enough dent in the state Assembly elections, he could somehow be on par with Modi. Unfortunately for Kejriwal, although he won commendable five seats, the sheer scale of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) seventh consecutive victory in the state — an 85 percent seat share — overshadowed everything else.
A clear indication of the anti-corruption activist-turned-politician’s overweening ambition was a placard waved by an AAP supporter outside the party office after the 2020 Delhi Assembly polls: ‘Kejriwal vs Modi 2024’. He sees himself as a contender, however unlikely that may seem. Kejriwal constantly posits himself against Modi. At the height of the second wave of Covid, he could not resist publicising a private meeting he had with the PM. When he says he is a ‘small man’ with no prime ministerial ambitions, he means the opposite.
Like Modi, he wants to be the king of social welfare. Unlike him, he has never understood the distinction between wasteful freebies and constructive welfare policies. Like Modi, Kejriwal wants to be seen as ‘vikas purush’. But unlike him, he doesn’t have the capacity for long-term strategic planning. Indeed, one of the reasons for the delay in the Delhi budget was the excessive allocation for publicity and not enough towards development.
AAP has responded to the Sisodia imbroglio through deflection, misdirection and aggression. Rather than presenting contravening facts, the party has played the victim card, charging the BJP with seeking to co-opt Sisodia by strong-arming him. It has alleged ill-treatment in prison and sought to turn public attention away from the liquor scam and towards Sisodia’s excellent work in education.
The fact is that Sisodia has been in court-ordered remand for almost a month and the apex court has not offered any relief. Nor are answers to the startling disclosures of shortfalls in excise revenues and windfall profits for private liquor licensees forthcoming. Instead, Kejriwal has trained his guns on Modi, projecting himself as a David battling Goliath.
Kejriwal is aware that direct attacks on PM Modi do not serve to enhance his stature. But the imperative of seeking the support of other Opposition parties has forced him to adopt a strident anti-Modi stance. The Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Janata Dal-United (JDU) are not sympathetic to the AAP. And the only reason why other parties have come to his aid is the fact that the daughter of Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) boss and Telangana CM K Chandrashekhar Rao has also been implicated in the excise policy investigation. Kejriwal is smart enough to know that he cannot hope to take on Modi by himself.
Born of an anti-corruption movement, AAP’s USP was a clean government, but the Modi government lays claims to the same plank, in addition to providing the vision of ‘Amrit Kaal’. Now, with AAP’s moral superiority in question, Kejriwal is on the back foot. But trying to turn the tables on PM Modi is likely to hurt rather than help him.
Bhavdeep Kang is a freelance writer and author of ‘Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas’ and ‘Just Transferred: The Untold Story of Ashok Khemka’. A journalist since 1986, she has written extensively on national politics. Views expressed are personal.
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