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As Kejriwal Heads To Gujarat, He's Showing Many Modi Traits

8 July, 2016 4:21 PM
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As Kejriwal Heads To Gujarat, He's Showing Many Modi Traits

Just watch this video tweet by one of the many followers of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal and you will do a triple take. The sound of a bugle, just like the one that sounds in the opening bars of the Mahabharata serial made by Bollywood's inimitable producer BR Chopra, accompanies the words, in Hindi, "Arvind Kejrwal is coming to the Somnath Mahadev temple."

Perhaps that's the idea AAP leaders want to put out. That there's a war in the offing between itself and the BJP. No prizes for guessing that they're the ones on the good side.

What is fascinating in this public standoff between the two parties is that Kejriwal & Co are beginning to sound, at least in their public pronouncements, more and more like Narendra Modi and his cadre-based party.

The ad described above with the overlaid baritone is only one example. Another is Kejriwal's own tweet a few days ago announcing that despite the "cancellation" of his recent Surat programme by Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, he is going tomorrow to Somnath because "Lord Shiva has called".

Does that sound a little too familiar? Remember then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi announcing his imminent arrival in Varanasi on the eve of the 2014 general elections with the words "Ma Ganga ne bulaya hai (Mother Ganga has called me)"?

Both AAP and BJP are fundamentally similar in the sense that both parties are woven around one centralizing figure. In the past, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, Prime Ministers and chieftains have been the "first among equals". Modi is certainly cut from a different cloth, notwithstanding the intimate proximity of Amit Shah.

Arvind Kejriwal is exactly like Modi in this sense - a man for all seasons in AAP. If an AAP leader has to be shown breaking the Eid fast, it's him. If an AAP leader has to be shown praying at the Golden Temple, he's the one. No prizes for guessing which AAP leader's photo, with a crown of flowers on his head, was splashed across the news media during his visit to Goa late last month.

And now Mr Kejriwal is headed to Gujarat. Right into the lion's den. No matter Anandiben Patel is holding the fort. Fact is, AAP's head honcho is daring to go where no other man has been in the last few years, notwithstanding the impolite challenges made by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi some years ago with comments like "maut ka saudagar" (the trader of death) as she campaigned to displace Modi in 2007.

The AAP leader's ability to expand the niche over the last two years or so is nothing short of incredible. Since he returned to power in Delhi last February, Kejriwal has been in attack mode, day after day, month after month. (That is another similarity with Narendra Modi.)

If it's not one confrontation, it's another. Between attacking Lt Governor Najeeb Jung as the mouthpiece of the BJP - and accusing him of doing Modi's bidding in exchange for an elevation to the Vice-Presidentship when Hamid Ansari goes in 2017 - or attacking the Delhi Police for arresting AAP MLAs without reason, or attacking the CBI for being a handmaiden of the centre, Kejriwal has kept up the pressure on the BJP.

Whether or not governance has been a casualty is difficult to say, especially because with 20 million people and growing, Delhi is a microcosm of India and its million problems. For this precise reason, Kejriwal and his 67 MLAs (out of 70) could have shone like the proverbial North Star. The city remains so desperately poor in parts it compares with the worst recesses of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Even the slicker parts, like supposedly posh South Delhi, has terrible roads - from a recent trip to Bihar, I can vouch for the fact that Nitish Kumar's state is determined to keep its promises.

Of course, other promises have been fulfilled, like 'Swasthya slates' (low-cost computer tablets) in some 'mohalla clinics' which give patients a full reading of their health parameters at a fraction of the cost of private hospitals. The water tanker mafia has been controlled to a great degree. Delhi's electricity consumption is so high, especially during the sweltering summer-monsoon months, but there has been little load-shedding across the city.

Truth is, Kejriwal revels in his "outsider" tag. He is the Chief Minister of Delhi, which would normally mean that you make nice with your opponents, in this case the BJP, because you want to get the work done. (Delhi's union territory status means it is not a full state and more than partially run by the centre.) But not Kejriwal. He would rather battle than harmonise, skirmish rather than conciliate.

At least he has the courage to stand on the edge of the precipice. He has shown that AAP, increasingly, is the real challenge to the BJP, notwithstanding the grand, old Congress party's grandiose claims to being omnipresent in all the nukkads (corners) and kasbahs (city centres) of small and big town India.

The current state of the Congress party, in fact, is nothing short of plaintive. There is the recently-returned-from-his-holiday Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and then there is the will-she/wont-she commentary around his sister and putative Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi - whether or not she will campaign in Uttar Pradesh outside the family pocket boroughs of Amethi-Rae Bareli.

Kejriwal's daring foray into Gujarat tomorrow, ostensibly to answer the call of Lord Shiva at Somnath temple, can only be marvelled at. On the eve of the 2014 elections, Kejriwal and a few friends travelled through parts of Gujarat, exposing the myth of the state's elevated socio-economic indicators. He then followed that up by threatening to lay siege to the erstwhile Chief Minister's office. Not that he was able to amass significant local support on that trip. But Kejriwal learnt that TV eyeballs and attention-getting is definitely part of the DNA of a political leader.

From his perch in Delhi - which he, astoundingly, got a second chance to rule - Kejriwal realized that Punjab next door was like a ripening fruit ready to fall. What Congress leader Amarinder Singh should have put into the bag a long time ago - considering how fed up people are with the Badal-BJP alliance - is now a tightly contested battle with the AAP. Between Kamal Nath and Asha Kumari, the Congress is losing favourable ground everyday. Reports are that AAP could get first past the winning tape.

As he kept up the heat against the BJP in Delhi, Kejriwal moved into Goa. A recent rally hardly set the paradise state, with its 10 lakh voter population, on fire, but the Delhi Chief Minister remains undaunted. Whether AAP comes a distant second or a close third, it has made its mark there.

And now Gujarat, where the Patel community is aghast that one of its leaders, the young Hardik Patel, has been jailed for sedition by none other than one of its own caste-sister, BJP Chief Minister Anandiben Patel.

Just like in the opening bars of the Mahabharata serial, the electoral bugle is sounding loud and clear - Punjab, Goa and Gujarat will all go to the polls in 2017. (So will Uttar Pradesh, where AAP is unlikely to pitch a foot forward, as it seeks to conserve its energies for the other states.) Whether or not the AAP leader manages to wrest even one of these states and expand his party's footprint is moot. He must be given credit for, at least, trying.

Just like Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal is making a simple point: Ambition is not a gift, it must be fought for. The inheritance of gain, or loss, is entirely besides the point.

(Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for several years and retains an especial passion for dialogue and debate across South Asia.)


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