Why Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi love to hate each other

Does the prime minister really fear a serious challenge from the Delhi chief minister?

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal resorted to hyperbole when he called Prime Minister Narendra Modi “a coward" and "a psychopath.” His formulation was not only uncivil but also deeply flawed. This is because there is always a method to a politician’s brinkmanship, a precipitous action that others are inclined to perceive as irrational or obsessive.

From this perspective, it is conceivable that the Union government was searching for evidence, based on a tip-off, to implicate Kejriwal’s principal secretary, Rajendra Kumar, who is already facing serious allegations of corruption. It is also possible that the stout, and strident, opposition of the Aam Aadmi Party to the raid might see it end up with egg on its face, as it did after the arrest of party member, former state law minister Jitender Singh Tomar, who was accused of obtaining fake educational degrees.

Given India’s messy, and increasingly combative, politics, it is also conceivable that the conflict between the Centre and the state will only sharpen further. Judging from Kejriwal’s comments, it is possible the raid will trigger a commission of inquiry into the functioning of the Delhi Cricket and District Association, over which the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley of the Bharatiya Janata Party has presided for several years. From Indian spinning great Bishan Singh Bedi to former all-rounder Kirti Azad, who is a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament as well, just about every former Test player believes the Association has nurtured a culture of corruption.

The build-up

Regardless of the aim the Central government had in ordering the Central Bureau of Investigation (nobody believes it has autonomy) raid on Kumar, it has been, and will continue to be, seen as political motivated. This is because the raid on Kumar, and the sealing of Kejriwal’s office during the search, has come against the backdrop of deteriorating relationship between the AAP government and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre.

From the time Kejriwal-led AAP government assumed power, over the last 11 months, Delhi and the Centre have clashed over jurisdiction. They have fought over who has the right to oversee the anti-corruption bureau, whether or not Kejriwal has the right to choose his bureaucrats, and the extent of power the Delhi Lieutenant Governor enjoys in vetoing the state government’s decisions.

In addition, the Delhi Police has demonstrated remarkable enthusiasm in arresting AAP members of the legislative assembly for violation of laws not deemed grave. It is as if the Delhi Police wants to show to AAP supporters and voters that their government, from which they have tremendous expectations, commands little power and is, at best, a civic entity enjoying the tawdry trappings of the state government.

Who has ever heard of a police commissioner asking a chief minister to engage in a public debate, as Delhi’s police chief BS Bassi did a few months ago? Or, for that matter, Lt Governor Najeeb Jung denying the chief minister the bureaucrats he wanted? Both Jung and Bassi were seen to be acting at the behest of the Centre, seemingly keen to ensure the AAP government didn’t settle down to govern.

Modi vs Kejriwal

For many, the Centre’s stonewalling of the AAP government was initially perceived as an outcome of what is described as Modi’s unforgiving nature and his idea of power. This school of thought says the resounding defeat Kejriwal handed to Modi in the Delhi Assembly election was the latter’s first electoral setback since 2002, that it eroded the aura of invincibility around him, and diminished him just a bit as a political personality towering over the rest.

Not accustomed to eating humble pie, Modi took to wreaking vengeance on Kejriwal, denying him the Centre’s cooperation to govern Delhi, goes the argument. But politicians, Modi included, rarely embark on a course unless they stand to gain from it or, alternatively, damage their rivals.

It was Kejriwal who positioned himself as Modi’s rival after quitting as Delhi chief minister in early 2014. He dashed into Modi’s den of Gujarat, scrambled around the state before declaring that the development model of Gujarat was deeply flawed, accused him of favouring big business, and landed in Varanasi to contest against him, scripting a David versus Goliath battle.

As Kejriwal raised a veritable tempest, Modi remained silent, refusing to engage the challenger in the belief that doing so would enhance Kejriwal’s stature. It was Modi’s way of communicating to the nation that he did not think of Kejriwal as a rival who merited attention as, say, Rahul Gandhi did. Through the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign Modi referred to Kejriwal only once – that was when he described him as AK-49, which was promptly decoded to read: Arvind Kejriwal or AK who fired for only 49 days, a reference to his first term when he resigned.

However, the Delhi Assembly election altered Modi’s attitude and strategy to Kejriwal. He directly referred to Kejriwal as a Naxalite, and the BJP advertisements vituperatively targeted him. It was thought that, as always, the bitterness would be forgotten with the announcement of election results.

This wasn’t to be. No doubt, Modi lapsed into silence all over again, rarely responding to Kejriwal’s occasional provocative tweets. But then the pinpricks from the Centre began, culminating in the raid on Kumar and Kejriwal’s belligerent responses to it. A chill will now set into the relationship between the Centre and Delhi, freezing the Kejriwal government to a great extent.

Perceived threat?

Ostensibly, it seems a mystery why the Centre raised obstacles in the smooth functioning of the AAP government from its very inception. Some have argued that this has something to do with the possibility that Kejriwal could institute corruption cases against BJP ministers and embarrass the Modi government. This could be one reason why there was such a tussle over who should man the Anti-Corruption Bureau, according to this school of thought. Regardless of the reasons, this much seems clear that the Centre was concertedly working to ensure the AAP government did not succeed in Delhi.

Some suggest that the antipathy could be explained by the apprehension that in an increasingly personality-driven politics, Kejriwal’s success could see him emerge as a leader of nationwide eminence. On the face of it, any such suggestion could be dismissed as a case of paranoia. AAP, as of now, remains confined to Delhi, which sends 7 MPs, and is said to be a serious contender only in Punjab, which sends 13. It barely has a countrywide structure, is strapped of financial resources, and doesn’t have a network of cadres of the kind the BJP possesses.

What perhaps alarms the BJP is that AAP not only has a strong appeal among the lower classes, but has a lure for sections of the middle class as well. It is the class which has some of the BJP’s diehard supporters. Even AAP’s own opinion polls in Delhi in 2013 had shown that a large number of respondents intended to vote Kejriwal in the Delhi election, but for Modi in the Lok Sabha election. Then again, AAP is an urban phenomenon. Urban India is where the BJP is the strongest.

Since AAP’s home turf is Delhi, it enjoys certain advantages not available to other regional outfits. For one, Delhi is the country’s media hub, and AAP’s actions, even missteps, acquire a national resonance. This enables AAP to hog media space and time disproportionate to its size and history.

For another, its political language, unlike that of regional outfits, has a national perspective. Class, not the politics of identity, still drives AAP, consequently having an inherent appeal for urban Indians. Its leaders who are mainly urban middle class, connect to the ethos of the city, and are adept at handling social media.

The Delhi advantage

Here are two recent examples to illustrate the significance of AAP having Delhi as it home base. The raid on Kumar was framed between the occurrence of a tragic event in the immediate past and another scheduled to take place in three weeks.

The tragic event pertains to the death of a child during the demolition of a slum in Shakurbasti in Delhi, undertaken at the time the mercury dipped. There have been poignant accounts of people left homeless in the harsh winter, prompting the Delhi High Court to describe the demolition as “inhuman.”

As such, it was Indian Railways which undertook the demolition of the Shakurbasti slum. The extensive media coverage of the demolition and the High Court’s remarks conveyed the impression that the Modi government favours the rich, not the poor slum-dwellers who live in inhospitable conditions. By contrast, Kejriwal’s presence at Shakurbasti at 2 am projected him as sensitive to the suffering of the poor, and bolsters the view that the Modi government consciously prevents him from working in the interests of the downtrodden.

What frames the raid on Kumar is also a future event, namely, the decision of the AAP government to allow vehicles with odd-even numbers to ply on alternate days, in an experiment to reduce the pollution in Delhi. The announcement was initially greeted with derision, but over the days a furious debate has seen a consensus emerge that the experiment is worth trying, not the least because it will be confined to the first 15 days of January.

As was true of the Shakurbasti episode, the AAP government’s even- odd policy has dominated media space, stoking a curiosity national in scale. Should this policy succeed in reducing pollution, which is easily verifiable, it could very well become the norm for other cities to emulate. It would come as a boost for AAP and Kejriwal, leading to comparisons between him and Modi, whose Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Make in India can be judged to have yielded results only after a considerable period of time.

Much of India’s political battle today is a battle of perception involving personalities. It is to win the battle of perception that it becomes imperative for Modi, as also the BJP, to ensure Kejriwal doesn’t succeed, and that doubts about his ability to govern and deliver on AAP’s promises, including the rooting out of corruption, persist. AAP’s footprints are still small, but national parties always take a long-term view of the challenges ahead.

Otherwise too, it is neither necessary nor inevitable for Kejriwal to become a direct challenger to Modi. But a successful Kejriwal will certainly enhance the credibility and clout of the anti-Modi, anti-BJP coalition, the outlines of which are already visible.

In fact, it could well be argued that it is for this reason alone that Kejriwal chooses to bring Modi directly into the picture – and his confrontationalist stance and language is only an attempt to project himself as the face of this emerging coalition.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.

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