On one side of the pink bus ticket issued free to women passengers in Delhi is a picture of its chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. His statement appears above it: “Main chahta hoon ki aap aur aapka parivar khub tarakki karein. Jab mahilayein aage badhengi, tabhi desh aage badhega.” (It is my wish that you and your family make progress. It is when women move ahead that the country moves ahead.) Some 2 million women ride Delhi’s public buses daily — of the 16 million residents of the city.
The campaign, transparently a build-up to the Delhi elections, due in February, reminds one of the pictures of Narendra Modi looking down at you with a self-satisfied smile from hoardings put up at 60,000 petrol pumps across the country. In a lower corner of the hoardings, women who have received subsidised cooking gas cylinders thank Modi, as though it is personal largesse. The hoardings had to be pulled down at election time in the summer, but are back.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) Kejriwal is a political alternative to Modi, at least in Delhi. But consider the many ways in which they are similar. The state government has introduced an all-costs-paid chief minister’s tirth yatra to sundry places of pilgrimage: Mathura-Vrindavan, Rishikesh-Haridwar, Anandpur Sahib, and Ajmer Sharif. You might think it is none of a secular state’s business to be sponsoring religious pilgrimages, and there would be howls of protest if Modi were to do something similar. In fact, the Congress spent money for years on a haj subsidy, which the Modi government scrapped last year — and just as well too. Still, we are into Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava, not a hard Western-style secularism. So everything goes.
Then, consider rival strands of populism. Where the Modi government offers free toilets, free medical insurance, and free doles to farmers, Kejriwal offers free electricity, and free bus and metro rides. Modi does not ask where his bankrupt government will find the money, and Kejriwal, who runs Delhi with three times the national per capita income, does not ask why such freebies are needed. Is it that he does not feel the need for more money? After all, property taxes in the city have remained unchanged for 15 years — without even any indexation for inflation!
Both leaders are prone to exaggerated claims. We have heard for five years about 1,000 mohalla clinics being set up, but their number totals fewer than 200 — or less than one a week! Sounds suspiciously like the claims about the country being open-defecation-free, or Aadhaar saving the government a tonne of money? As for the public buses on which women can now ride with free tickets, no bus has been added to the city’s 5,000-strong fleet since 2010 — apparently because the state government doesn’t know where it would park them.
As for operational style, while Modi has converted a cadre-based party into one that sings his hosannahs from sunrise to sunset, Kejriwal has converted what was a mass movement against corruption, and for a change in political culture, into a party over which he holds untrammelled sway.
In short, Kejriwal is almost exactly the package that Modi offers: Personal aggrandisement, the building of a personality cult through full-page newspaper ads day after day, populist schemes involving subsidies (whether affordable or required), abandonment of secular principles, exaggerated claims, and no checks on leadership. Is there a method to this careful mimicking of style and substance? Perhaps, because at the time of the last election, Kejriwal had mentioned that his voter base was the same as that of the BJP.
There is a difference, though. The hard edge to the BJP’s communalism is missing in AAP; there are no Pehlu Khans or Mohammed Akhlaqs being killed here. So perhaps Muslims feel safer with AAP — though, ironically, the police in the city are controlled by Amit Shah! Equally important, where the BJP’s education programme is occupied with such projects as wiping out the hated Nehru from history books, AAP has focused on improving the education imparted in government schools. We should celebrate that difference.