The Bharatiya Janata Party is sitting on an awkward dilemma ahead of next year’s assembly polls in Delhi. And that is delaying its strategy. This, even as its main competitor the Aam Aadmi Party and its chief Arvind Kejriwal have actively and visibly started to announce a slew of freebies and launch ubiquitous advertising campaigns.
To take on brand Arvind Kejriwal, the BJP knows it needs a heavyweight — something it lacks in Delhi. But if it were to fight the polls entirely on Narendra Modi’s image, as it has done in many crucial state elections, it exposes the invincible Prime Minister to the vulnerability of losing in a direct Modi-Kejriwal contest.
Given the current politically unstable state of the Congress — which ruled the national capital for three straight terms before the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — the BJP knows it is only Kejriwal who poses the big challenge. But the party — known for its well-oiled election machinery and before-time preparedness — seems to be in two minds about what approach to take in Delhi in 2020.
In the 2015 Delhi assembly polls, the BJP took an atypical gamble by fielding former Indian Police Service officer Kiran Bedi as the party’s chief ministerial candidate.
The decision was a colossal disaster – and led to an unequivocal sweep for the AAP and a rout for other parties.
Many in the party later realised that Modi’s popularity could have helped salvage the lost opportunity to some extent, especially considering how the BJP has since performed in states where it fought entirely in Modi’s name — Uttar Pradesh and Tripura being the most notable ones.
In 2017, the BJP did well in Delhi’s municipal corporation elections when Modi’s face was plastered over all its campaigns.
Moreover, Modi is far stronger and more loved now than he was five years ago when Delhi elections were held. And in these last five years, Kejriwal’s sheen has somewhat waned.
Using Modi in Delhi is easier than it sounds. Kejriwal has belligerently and consistently challenged the Prime Minister, an attempt to punch above his weight of just being a chief minister and still project himself as an opposition leader who can match up to Modi.
Remember what can only be described as an amusing outburst calling PM Modi a “coward and psychopath” on Twitter?
Modi is a coward and a psycopath
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) December 15, 2015
Or remember his several run-ins with the Modi government over division of powers between Delhi and the Centre? A virulent tendency that he seems to have now temporarily put on hold ever since the BJP’s stunning performance in this year’s Lok Sabha elections.
Moreover, Kejriwal is no Rahul Gandhi. He will put up more than just a fight in the elections, on the basis of flaunting his five-year record, announcing freebies, engaging in refreshing brand of street politics and hold over crucial constituencies. The BJP knows the Delhi elections might not be a walkover for Modi and even the possibility of losing in a straight fight with Kejriwal can be a huge embarrassment to him, causing a dent in his Teflon-coated image and giving the Delhi chief minister a serious reason to gloat and shine.
Delhi isn’t going to be like Uttar Pradesh, where it was Modi versus a gathbandhan that he sought to portray as one that came together only to bring him down. It also won’t be like Tripura, where Modi was trying to dismantle a decades-old regime in a state where the BJP has no base. In fact, it won’t even be like West Bengal in 2021 where the ‘Mamata Banerjee versus Narendra Modi’ fight still gives the latter more room to justify not winning, given it is a state where the BJP has never ever held ground.
Merely making a good attempt against Kejriwal won’t be enough. He isn’t any naamdar (entitled dynast). He also isn’t perceived to be corrupt. Both Modi and Kejriwal have risen on their own and built their politics as well as popularity through their unique approach. So, losing to Kejriwal would mean Modi has been decisively defeated by someone who is absolutely on the same level, but has just managed to play the game better.
Lack of options
Besides other bottlenecks, the BJP also has fewer faces (if any) in Delhi.
Union Minister Harsh Vardhan, who is a Member of Parliament from the Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha constituency, had failed to deliver a decisive win as the BJP’s chief ministerial face in the 2013 polls. He is affable, but hardly the mass leader the BJP needs to counter Kejriwal.
Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari is all colourful and newsy, with a strong Poorvanchali vote base, but little else. It’s other Delhi MPs — like Meenakshi Lekhi who may have done well for herself by defeating Congress bigwig Ajay Maken, but has little else going for her.
Former Delhi BJP president Satish Upadhyay is also a lightweight in the current context.
Delhi is no Rajasthan, or Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra or Haryana, where the BJP has powerful regional leaders it can count on. In the national capital, Modi seems to be the BJP’s best bet. And yet paradoxically, it is Modi who could end up exposing its biggest weakness if Kejriwal manages to trounce the unconquerable Prime Minister.