news analysis

Battle royale: Why Modi has launched such an energetic attack on Kejriwal and AAP

At the heart of the confrontation lie contrasting ideas of politics and power.

Regardless of the quality of evidence that the Central Bureau of Investigation has gathered this time round against Rajendra Kumar, principal secretary to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the decision to arrest him seems to be a warning to Aam Aadmi Party leaders of the perils that await them as they seek to expand into Punjab, Goa, and Gujarat.

Kumar was arrested this week for precisely the same corruption charge for which he had been detained last year. A special CBI court subsequently pulled up the bureau for its lackadaisical inquiry into the charge against Kumar, chose to de-freeze his bank account and of those belonging to the companies accused of corruption, and sent a reference to the Delhi High Court to initiate contempt proceedings against CBI officials.

Given this backdrop, it wouldn't be wrong to presume that the CBI have gathered fresh evidence to re-arrest Kumar. However, the tenability of evidence will take weeks, if not months, to prove. Meanwhile, the message to Delhi government officials has been conveyed – that enthusiasm at work could be penalised either through transfer orders or a spell in jail.

This seems clear from the bumps the Modi government has created for Kejriwal's AAP. Out of 300 posts sanctioned for officers belonging to the Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Services, 135 are vacant, including the 11 who were transferred on the day Kumar was arrested.

Out of five senior officers in the Chief Minister’s office, two are under arrest, one was transferred on July 4, while another is away on study leave, leaving just one person to do all the heavy lifting.

Bills stalled

The Home Ministry has yet to approve nine Bills that the Delhi Assembly has enacted over the months. One of these dates back to March last year. Most of these relate to significant issues as education, Lok Pal, minimum wages, and timely delivery of government services.

There are 11 cases pending in court regarding disputes over the jurisdiction between the lieutenant governor and the chief minister. The Delhi Police has either booked or arrested eight of the 67 AAP MLAs in the 70-member Delhi Assembly, besides one who was booked by the Punjab Police this week.

On Wednesday, AAP leader Ashish Khetan was booked by the Amritsar Police on Wednesday for hurting religious sentiments in Punjab, after he compared the party’s youth manifesto to the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.

It is hard to tell whether AAP is encountering a blowback because it handed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi his first electoral defeat of his career – even more ignominious than France’s over Iceland in the Euro Cup. Or is it because the BJP and Modi see AAP and Kejriwal as potential rivals whose growth need to be stunted before they become a bigger challenge? It is perhaps a combination of both.

It is now considered common knowledge that Modi is unforgiving of those who have the temerity to cross swords with him. For instance, activist Teesta Setalvad has been a victim of precisely this personality trait of Modi. Kejriwal, no doubt, became an affront to Modi in the months before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, barging into Gujarat to claim that the benefits of its model of development were grossly exaggerated. He then swooped down on Varanasi to contest against Modi in the Lok Sabha elections.

Modi largely ignored Kejriwal and his swipes, probably working on the assumption that any response would only enhance his rival's stature. But as Delhi inched closer to the Assembly election last year, Modi decided to pull on the boxing gloves, perhaps sure of his own invincibility and aura after having led the BJP to power at the Centre and in three states – Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand.

Historic victory

It is this self-image of Modi that Kejriwal shattered through AAP's enormous victory in Delhi in Feburary 2015. The significance of AAP’s sweep was best underscored by political psychologist Ashis Nandy, who told the Business Standard, “Even if disillusionment sets in with AAP…Kejriwal’s place in history is assured. By the time Kejriwal goes, Modi will be cut down to size. In fact, he has already been cut down to size.” Nandy proved prescient, as Bihar did not fall into Modi’s net later that year.

But it isn’t in the electoral arena that Modi and the BJP have been diminished. Some of the sharpest rhetorical attacks against them have come from AAP – remember Kejriwal’s rude tweet that dubbed Modi a “coward” and a “psychopath” and how Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was pushed on the backfoot because of the charge of misgoverning Delhi cricket.

Nor is it just about Modi’s unforgiving nature. To fathom the confrontation between Modi and Kejriwal requires understanding their ideas of politics and power from their actions. For the prime minister, acquiring power entails not only winning, but also the acquiescence of others, whether in his own party or outside it. Respect bordering on fear has a greater significance for him than the fondness and friendship of his comrades.

Kejriwal has become an excruciating headache for Modi because the AAP leader thrives on a style of politics that revels in disrespecting those considered powerful, sniping at them incessantly, in language often adopted in the streets and drawing rooms to criticise the political class. Though Kejriwal himself belongs to this class now, he remains an outsider, not only because his origin lies in popular protests and is relatively a newcomer, but also because he appears so unafraid, so indifferent to the consequences that might befall him, a common person’s fantasy.

This is why Modi needs to tackle Kejriwal. It is an absolute imperative of Modi’s idea of power – he must compel Kejriwal to abandon his style of politics. Modi can only do this though constant attempts at stalling the AAP government’s administration.

This is because Kejriwal is a newcomer to the Indian political class, precisely the reason why his past has no black marks which need to be effaced. It is an advantage that just about no top leader of mainstream political parties enjoys, barring perhaps a few from the Left.

Therefore, to make Kejriwal sue for peace and acquiesce, the only tool Modi possesses, as of now, is to project the AAP leader’s administrative ineptness. Though his constant pinpricks, Modi hopes to give credence to the perception that Kejriwal is a demolition man, an anarchist.

Perhaps Modi could have forgotten Kejriwal had he not been the chief minister of Delhi, which is the media hub of India. As a consequence, every measure undertaken by the AAP government – for instance, the odd-even driving policy pursued in January and April – gets magnified, as is every confrontation between the BJP and AAP, leading to further escalation.

New battlefronts

The confrontation has acquired new momentum as AAP marks out its flight path in Punjab, Goa, and Gujarat. Though these are still early days, AAP is predicted to perform quite well in next year's Assembly election, indicating that the campaign will be ferocious and unseemly there. A triumph for AAP in Punjab will most hurt the Akali Dal, which is the BJP's ally both in the state and at the Centre, and the Congress.

Obviously, Modi will not want an ally to lose even though a defeat for the Akali Dal will not change the configuration of the Lok Sabha. But what is of greater importance to him that Punjab could give AAP access to greater financial resources and manpower to make a bid for power elsewhere.

AAP’s possible rise could also be inimical to the BJP, which, like all parties, take a long term view of politics. Other than the BJP and the Congress, all parties in India are confined to one state or, as in the case of Left, two. AAP has been a Delhi-based formation. Should it win or perform well in Punjab and Goa, it could start posing as a quasi-national party.

AAP’s sensibilities are national, it engages in issues that have pan-India resonance. It has supporters, in whatever numbers, spread across India. It has a following on social media second only to the BJP. Rather than let AAP become an incurable headache in the future, Modi and the BJP have decided to take preventive measures in the present. This is why the confrontation between Modi and Kejriwal, BJP and AAP, is bound to continue until one of them gives in.

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

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