Will Kejriwal spark a regional wave?
Earlier this month, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) roped in ace political strategist Prashant Kishor for its 2021 assembly election campaign in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It's still early to gauge what this brings to the table for DMK president M. K. Stalin in a state where two Dravidian parties - the DMK and its principal rival, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) - hold sway by turns, reducing national players BJP and the Congress party to the fringe. What's certain is that no blueprint for state elections with strong regional interests at play can now be complete without a look at what Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) did, and did not do, to win the Delhi election.
The AAP landslide - 62 seats to India's ruling BJP's 8, in a total of 70 - is, undeniably, about development politics trumping divisive narratives the BJP pushed during its poll campaign. The Kejriwal model, as psephologists put it after the results, has revived talks around regionally centred parties that fight elections on local planks and their prospects in forming a nationally relevant, ideological opposition.
The AAP win signals potential of strong regional forces in countering the BJP when its principal adversary, the grand old Congress, has been blanked out. It has ended up without a seat in Delhi, 63 of its 66 candidates set to forfeit deposits. Crippled by a leadership crisis it has chosen to gloss over, the Congress is in no shape for revival. This is where Kejriwal could inspire challengers from other states. Rainbow coalitions at the national level haven't always returned the best results but these regional parties, individually, could form blind spots for the BJP.
The South, barring Karnataka where it's in power, is still uphill for the BJP. There's some real opposition taking shape in states not tethered to the party's politics of aggressive, one-note nationalism. Standalone ideologies pinned to local contexts and a dash of personality politics - the kind built around Kejriwal in Delhi and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal - is likely to shape the course for the Stalins and Jagan Mohan Reddys. It hasn't been long since Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was billed as last man standing in the liberal forces' fight against the Sangh Parivar. The BJP's campaign in Delhi, powered by national leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, did little to challenge AAP's key plank of governance or diminish Kejriwal's standing as a nonconformist leader. In terms of political nous, it's time the BJP looked beyond its weakened opponent and devised localised plans for these regional players in their own strongholds.
For those who had given up on seeing a formidable opposition at the Centre, the assertion of regional parties, and influential leaders of national parties, will revive possibilities of another shot at that alleged alternative called the Third Front.
Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, while stating that the Delhi result precedes more setbacks for the BJP, has already revisited possibilities of an alliance of anti-BJP regional parties. Former prime minister and Janata Dal (S) chief H D Deve Gowda has said the result validated the relevance of regional parties. Pawar and Gowda, of course, are only stating intent for fulfilling what has largely remained an elusive idea; a motley mix of ideologies with interests too diverse for it to hold up.
The Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh had all played important roles in national coalitions before the BJP's two big sweeps on its own - in 2014 and 2019 - decisively relegated regional parties in the national stakes. The party's recent setbacks in state elections could set off a revival. The progress made in renewed efforts toward this alternative coalition is still unclear. It's also too early to pit regional parties as an alternative solely based on the Kejriwal formula because what he did in Delhi - a largely non-ideological campaign limited to civic issues and welfare schemes - does not guarantee electoral gains elsewhere. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, identity politics and ideological resistance against the Sangh are likely to be key themes even in a state election. The idea of regional forces aligning when India's institutions are being systematically undermined, however, is still worth pushing for.
There is the argument that split-voting in states including Delhi and Maharashtra, where the voter followed different patterns in national and state elections, proves that the importance of regional parties is overstated but their sway in their own backyards - as strong, dissenting voices - could rejuvenate, at least, the idea of a vibrant opposition.
Any effort to forge a viable opposition also needs to factor in what Kejriwal did not do in Delhi. While the AAP founder is lauded for not responding to the BJP's divisive narratives, there's no denying that this strategic non-engagement - even with dangerously polarising statements on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Shaheen Bagh protests - was problematic. The defence is that AAP chose to fight the election under its own steam and not on what its rivals did or said. This is selective intervention which may or may not inspire regional parties standing up to the BJP. The takeaway from Delhi is the validation of a people-centric model of governance but without an ideological context, its scope as an inspiring national narrative could be limited.
- The writer is a senior journalist based in Bangalore