Why Congress Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is bad news for Arvind Kejriwal

In the India Today Mood of the Nation Poll conducted in January 2023, 5.3 per cent of the respondents said that Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal is best suited to become the next prime minister of India. That’s obviously a very low approval rating and he is a distant third choice, with 53 per cent backing incumbent Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi getting the support of 14 per cent. But what is not so obvious in the first scrutiny is that, in recent times, he has been gaining more support than two of the top BJP stalwarts—Union home minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Till August 2021, both leaders scored above Kejriwal in the MOTN surveys, which are conducted every six months, usually in the months of January and August. But in the past three surveys, starting with January 2022, the AAP leader has emerged as a more popular choice than Amit Shah or Yogi Adityanath.
What also adds to Kejriwal’s rising stature in national politics is the finding that 24 per cent of the respondents—the highest—say that he is best suited to lead an alliance of Opposition parties against the BJP. In this race to become the leader of opposition alliance, he is ahead of West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee, who has the support of 20 per cent respondents, and Rahul Gandhi, who is backed by 13 per cent respondents. That’s not all. Kejriwal is also the second most popular chief minister in the country—rated by respondents across the nation and also within his home state Delhi. In fact, within Delhi, the percentage of respondents satisfied with his performance has surged from 59 per cent in August 2022 to 69 per cent.

And that’s where the challenge for Congress and AAP lies. AAP is primarily targeting the traditional vote share of the Congress in every state. Kejriwal’s arrival in national politics was propelled by the public outrage against the Congress-led UPA government towards its end. What also helped him earn more popularity was the negative perception about Rahul Gandhi. But the Bharat Jodo Yatra may have corrected that impression of the Congress leader. And that’s certainly not good news for Kejriwal.

More importantly, the Aam Aadmi Party faces two challenges—organisational and narrative-building. It is in the process of building an organisation in every state, while the Congress has an organisational network in place even in the states where it is the weakest. So, it will be a long-term project for AAP to organisationally outpace Congress. The Bharat Jodo Yatra has now energised the Congress organisation in several states, and if the party continues with further activities to maintain the momentum gained by the yatra, the hurdles for AAP will only mount.

As for a narrative, by trying to replicate BJP’s Hindutva model—Kejriwal was the one who wanted images of Hindu deities on Indian currency—AAP has isolated the minority vote, giving Congress and the regional parties an edge. In contrast, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress has made its position clear—it stands for an inclusive and secular India, as against BJP’s divisive politics. The objective is simple—to appeal to and capture all minority votes and that section of the Hindu vote that is not happy with BJP’s aggressive Hindu politics. Kejriwal’s political position remains vague to both groups.

At the same time, it is well-nigh impossible at this point for him to woo the voters of Hindutva politics as the BJP has positioned itself as the prime propagator of the ideology. The expectation that those who believe in Hindutva but are unhappy with the BJP’s governance and economic policies did not work in Gujarat. When it comes to good governance and freebies, the BJP already has a lead in consolidating the beneficiary bloc by highlighting the several welfare schemes of the Union and state governments.

AAP also has yet to formulate or articulate anything on regional or identity pride—the poll plank on which several regional parties operate. The party will have to fight several regional forces such as the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Jal, Bharat Rashtra Samithi, YSR Congress Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Shiv Sena apart from the BJP and Congress if it hopes to become a national challenger to the BJP. If not, it must become the pivot of the Opposition, a role the Congress has played in the past and hopes to continue playing. However, to be acceptable to other political forces, Kejriwal must have a vote bank in every state so that regional parties find value addition in an alliance with AAP. That’s one reason why several political parties often tie up with the Congress, because the grand old party has a traditionally loyal vote base in every state. If the Congress is finding it difficult to force such alliances after the 2014 debacle, it is because of its dwindling vote share. If Bharat Jodo Yatra results in a consolidation of the Congress vote share in some states, it may again become critical for an Opposition alliance. With a negligible vote share in almost all big states, Kejriwal will find it next to impossible to convince regional stalwarts to shake hands with him.

And a resurgence of the Congress, which the Bharat Jodo Yatra may facilitate, may shut the door on him completely. Kejriwal will, therefore, have to keenly observe the Congress moves post the yatra. How the two parties perform from this point onward will determine the future course of Indian politics.

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