Sunday, 26 February was an eventful day in Indian politics.
In the morning, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Rajya Sabha MP Raghav Chadha, while speaking to a TV news channel in Delhi said, "The CBI-ED pressure on the AAP proves that the name of the person who the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is scared of is Arvind Kejriwal. His name is not Rahul Gandhi. It is Arvind Kejriwal and not Rahul Gandhi who terrifies the BJP."
In the evening, on the same day, senior party leader and Delhi's deputy Chief Minister, Manish Sisodia was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) over his alleged role in the liquor policy scam. Chadha's statement, in fact, was part of the street offensive launched by the party anticipating Sisodia's arrest.
Over 1,000 km away in Raipur, on that very day, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi while addressing the party's 85th plenary session, claimed that the BJP is "using" the investigative agencies to "target" the Opposition. "They call us for questioning, workers are kept in jails. Even at the time of the plenary, ED raids are underway in Chhattisgarh," Priyanka said without mentioning the CBI's questioning of Sisodia.
Interestingly, Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate while calling for a "proper investigation" into the liquor scam, asked where was the AAP when other Opposition leaders were being hounded by the agencies.
This sequence of events makes two things clear:
The AAP, with its wide presence in Delhi and Punjab, and a toehold in Gujarat and Goa, considers itself to be the primary opposition to the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre, and will leave no chance to attack the Congress — its biggest competition in the opposition space.
The Congress, after having lost considerable ground over the last eight years, is ready to shake hands with most parties — even those which do not ideologically align with them such as the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray faction) in Maharashtra and the Left front in West Bengal — but not the AAP.
In this article we try to dissect the political dynamics between the Congress and the AAP, Congress' silence on Sisodia's arrest, and how the equation between the two parties is likely to impact the upcoming state assembly polls and the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
India Against Corruption, The Fall of Congress, and the Birth of the Aam Aadmi Party
The AAP, popularly referred to as one of the most successful political start-ups of previous decades, was born in 2012 from Anna Hazare's India Against Corruption (IAC) movement. The IAC — an anti-corruption movement concerned with the introduction of the Jan Lokpal bill — was one of the key factors behind the fall of the UPA government in 2014.
The Congress party, never really recovered from there and has been losing ground ever since.
The AAP, on the other hand, consolidated its position in states such as Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, and Goa.
It is pertinent to note that while in its election campaigns the AAP directly targeted the BJP, results from big victories such as Punjab and Gujarat showed that it gained at the expense of the Congress.
AAP won 92 out of 117 seats and a 79 percent majority in the 2022 Punjab Assembly elections. Its gains were mostly at the expense of the Congress and Akalis.
Similarly, in Gujarat, the AAP won 5 seats and a vote share of 12.9 percent. The party polled more than 30 percent votes in 14 out of 181 seats it contested. In 12 out of these 14 seats the vote share of the Congress party shrunk significantly. The vote share of the BJP, in all 14 constituencies, remained more or less constant, fluctuating within a range of ± 5 percent. The biggest example of AAP gaining at the Congress' expense is Delhi. While BJP has retained a vote share of roughly 35 percent at both the state and municipal level, AAP seems to have taken over the Congress' base.
On Sisodia, Congress is In a Dilemma and It's Showing
Coming back to the arrest of Manish Sisodia.
Even as more and more opposition parties such as the Shiv Sena, NCP, RJD, and the JDU condemned the arrest, the Congress leadership toed a carefully curated line.
"The Congress has always held the belief that institutions like ED, CBI and Income Tax Department have become instruments of political vendetta and harassment under the Modi government. Opposition leaders are selectively targeted to destroy their reputation," party's general secretary Jairam Ramesh said.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who faces an election later this year, took a slightly different approach.
"Many Manish Sisodias have faced similar action and have been arrested. You and I don't know about them, but we know about Sisodia as he is deputy Chief Minister. Many journalists, writers and thinkers are in jail in this government," Gehlot said.
More recently, the Congress made its position in the BJP vs AAP fight clear even in Delhi's Mayoral elections. After four failed attempts, and multiple physical fights in the House between AAP and BJP councillors , the MCD elected a Mayor on 21 February.
While the BJP and AAP fought to show strength on the floor, the Congress abstained from voting and did not extend support to any party.
AAP's Expansion Plans Vs a 'United' Opposition in 2024
The core message that came out of the Congress plenary session in Raipur was that of the need for a "united opposition" to take on the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on ideological grounds.
"The emergence of a third force will provide advantage to the BJP/NDA," the Congress resolution from the session said.
It is clear that the Congress looks at itself as the face of the United Opposition, which so far has shown no signs of the AAP being a part of it.
The AAP, on the other hand, has successfully sold the 'Delhi Model' in several states to contest the elections alone. This model, however, has taken a hit with top party leaders such as Sisodia and Satyendra Jain landing up in jail on corruption charges.
The big question before Kejriwal now is if his party will let go of difference with the Congress and become a part of the grand opposition alliance to contest against the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.