[A version of this published in Huffington Post India]
There are no knockouts in Indian politics. No matter how hard you have been hit, you can always bounce straight off the ropes and back into the ring.
Take the Aam Aadmi Party. It seems just yesterday that they were wiping their brains off the sidewalk after being hit by the Modi Express, and yet here they are, back for the Delhi elections, swinging hard and strong.
It’s well deserved this resurgence.In the last few months, they have brought their A-game. The AAP have ceased positioning themselves as a movement of Manoj Kumarian angels, or at least less aggressively so. No more the sanctimonious “Hum bangla naheen lenge, hum security naheen lenge” and other overt promises of piety. No more self-flagellating apologies about business class travel and of enjoying the fruits of celebrity-hood. No more the weekly dramas of exposes and press-conferences and other egregious attempts to hog the headlines. No more the excess flab of fortune-seekers who had quickly hitched themselves to the AAP bandwagon only to abandon the party during adversity or when not given tickets. No more the brand dilution in the form of Anna. No more spelling mistakes in Ashutosh’s tweets.
No more Roadies for Raghu Ram, which means he can fully concentrate on his future as an AAP ‘ambassador of youth.’
Okay maybe not the last one. That’s definitely a strike for the AAP.
Jokes aside , AAP seems to have learned their lessons for now. Why wouldn’t they? Mr. Kejriwal is a smart man. No man who is not smart could have come from a Dipak Tijori support-to-the-hero to the chief minister of Delhi in so short a time, reducing his once-mentor to a footnote. Smart men are greedy as much as the next guy but they learn their lessons better, more than those that are not smart. I doubt Kejriwal will make the mistake of “getting high on his own supply” (apologies to “Scarface”) and fall off the horse, in his obscene hurry to rush the gates, as he did so spectacularly during the General Elections.
This time, it seems he is deliberately going easy on the mayonnaise, staying away from the TV shows and debates and thinkfests, and concentrating more on fund-raising (ironically from the same NRI collective their supporters in the media deride as “Sanghi”). In his stead, he has let the redoubtable Ashish Khetan, once “independent” journalist , emerge as the media face of the party. And by God, he is a force of Nature, outshouting and out-sanctimonious-blustering Arnab Goswami in his own show. With Mr Khetan and Mr. 83B Droid leading the media assault, Mr. Kejriwal is free to do what a good party supremo should do, pull the strings from behind. Some may balk at his continuous support of Somnath Bharti, currently facing charges of molestation, rioting and wrongful restraint, but it is a smart political move. It shows the party rank-and-file that well-executed populism and unquestioned loyalty, and yes Mr. Bharti’s hounding out of innocent African women was immensely popular among local residents, will be backed. It’s rather hypocritical to call out Kejriwal for being unprincipled because every political party supports their most-effective rabblerousers, no matter what they do. Perhaps not movements but definitely political parties. Also smart has been the AAP’s shift from being “against both BJP and Congress” to “BJP is the devil incarnate”, a fact evidenced by the sidelining of the more Hindu-right-friendly elements like the Kumar Viswases in favor of staunch anti-BJP-RSS voices like Ashutosh and Ashish Khetan. This pivot allows them ideological space to strike up opportunistic alliances with Congress and regional parties, either overt or covert, poach from the grand old party, and project themselves as a “secular” and “urbane” alternative to BJP.
The Modi storm in the last few months has left a vacuum in the Indian political spectrum. If anyone tells me that the Congress is an effective opposition, all I would say is “Are you serious, are you serious?” The Ammas are fighting to stay out of jail and the Didis have been cornered and the Mulayams are cutting their seventy-five foot cakes. The space has never been more open for a new populist (yeah free Wifi) , socialist-communist, more-government-is-the-solution, urban, “secular” party, without the baggage of communal riots ,corruption and Azam Khan, to emerge.
But for Kejriwal to step in and be the primary challenger to Modi, he has to, at the very bare minimum, capture Delhi. Else he is a lord without a hold-fast, to be inevitably faced with desertions of bannermen and sellswords, from which he might take a lot of time to recover.
The stakes in Delhi have never been higher.