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Optics or Pragmatism? The Opposition's Dilemma Over Arvind Kejriwal's Arrest

‘An enemy’s enemy, is a friend,’ is a guiding adage. But here's one more — ‘Once an enemy, can never be a friend.’

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‘An enemy’s enemy, is a friend,’ is a guiding adage that has brought major Opposition parties in India to form the INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc against their common enemy, the ruling BJP. But the complexity is that many of these new friends have for the longest time been each other's enemies too, and circumstantially continue to remain so.

This complexity has been witnessed primarily during the seat-sharing talks where varied yardsticks have been noted for alliances in different states and between different partners and for general and assembly elections.

Amidst this, the Opposition bloc finds itself balancing the two adages: ‘An enemy’s enemy, is a friend’ and ‘Once an enemy, can never be a friend.’

This balancing is currently in play in the aftermath of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest on 21 March by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in an alleged corruption case linked to the Delhi liquor policy case.

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Kejriwal’s Arrest Was an Opportune Moment but Has the Opposition Capitalised on It?

“A scared dictator wants to create a dead democracy. While capturing all the institutions including the media, breaking up the parties, extorting money from companies, and freezing the account of the main Opposition party was not enough for the 'devilish power', now the arrest of the elected Chief Ministers has also become a common thing. INDIA will give a befitting reply to this,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi (translated from the original tweet in Hindi).

Nowhere did he mention Kejriwal in this tweet or any subsequent tweets thereafter. Earlier in the day on 21 March, when the bank accounts of the Congress party were frozen, he addressed it via a press conference. West Bengal CM Mamta Banerjee “vehemently condemned” Kejriwal’s arrest and announced the INDIA bloc’s decision to meet the Election Commission to voice their objections. 

Similarly, the likes of M K Stalin, Sharad Pawar, Akhilesh Yadav, Sitaram Yechury and various other Opposition leaders have condemned and raised their concerns through social media posts and media bytes. But the only Opposition protest on the ground and in the public sphere has come from the AAP leaders and their party workers.

No Opposition leader from any other party has joined these protests or organised one for a show of unity in support of one of its friends against their common enemy. The only anomaly has been witnessed in Kerala where Shashi Tharoor led a protest in his constituency of Thiruvananthapuram and CPM led a protest march of LDF workers in Kannur.

A singular protest in Kerala against the arrest of Delhi CM in Delhi doesn’t gain much traction. What was expected was a coming together of all the leaders of the Opposition alliance on the streets of Delhi, the epicentre of Kejriwal, his arrest, the media and the government. But alas, AAP is left alone to fight on the streets on its own. The Congress party, even with its dwindling electoral fortunes, still possess the strongest cadre amongst the alliance parties. One could imagine what a strong show of strength could be if the cadres of Congress and other Opposition parties joined in protest with the AAP cadre.

Kejriwal’s arrest was an opportune moment for the Opposition alliance to galvanise and jump-start its campaign. While the time hasn’t completely run away, it’s running away fast for the Opposition. It is reported that the INDIA bloc has announced a mega protest rally at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan next Sunday (31 March), ten days after Kejriwal’s arrest. This could just be another case of too little and too late from the Opposition.

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Kejriwal and AAP Pose a More Direct and Near-future Threat to Leading Opposition Parties

Why, one wonders, is the Opposition slacking in its response to Kejriwal’s arrest? Here is where the principle of the second adage fits in: ‘Once an enemy, can never be a friend.’ Kejriwal and the AAP’s birth and rise are linked to their Opposition to established parties, primarily the Congress which was part of the establishment in 2012-13.

The India Against Corruption Movement (IAC), AAP’s formation in 2012, and AAP’s Delhi election campaign of 2013 and 2015 were all aimed at Congress’ mismanagement and corruption. While this fueled AAP’s and Kejriwal’s growth while simultaneously tainting the Congress, it inadvertently helped the BJP and its rise. Hence, the AAP has been regularly called the BJP’s B-team.

AAP’s rise has impacted the Congress strongest in the battle zero of Delhi, where after having been in power for three successive terms, today they find themselves with zero MLAs. Even in the 2022 Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) elections, AAP managed to break the BJP stronghold to emerge victorious. Thus, sustaining the bi-polar dynamics of Delhi politics but now replacing the Congress as the principal competitor of the BJP. But Delhi is not the only example. The 2022 Punjab assembly elections saw the AAP storm capturing 92 seats while dismantling the incumbent Congress government to a mere 18 seats.

This victory propelled AAP’s then Punjab-in-charge and now Rajya Sabha MP, Raghav Chadha, to announce that “AAP will emerge as a national and natural replacement of Congress.” Gujarat is another state where the AAP is on the rise after having garnered approximately 13 per cent votes and 5 seats in the 2022 assembly elections. The party’s rise has not only threatened the Congress’ long-occupied Opposition seat in the state but has also put the BJP on high alert.

Along with the AAP’s rise, Kejriwal’s popularity has also been on an ascent. Similar to Modi’s growth plank of the ‘Gujarat model’ of governance when he was the CM, Kejriwal has been projecting his own Delhi model’s success. As per the recent India Today Mood of the Nation (MOTN) Survey, Kejriwal is the second most popular CM in the country after BJP’s Yogi Adityanath and is almost 11 per cent ahead of Mamata Banerjee thus making him the most popular Opposition CM.

On the survey’s question on ‘Who is best suited to lead the INDIA bloc’, Kejriwal is tied second with Banerjee 4 per cent behind Rahul Gandhi (21 per cent). It is important to note that the increase in Gandhi’s popularity is in the aftermath of his ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ and two previous MOTN surveys of August 2022 and January 2023, on the same question, Kejriwal topped as the first choice.

A strong alternate model of governance; a competent charismatic leader; a constantly growing, battle-ready party; political astuteness; lack of past political baggage and practitioner of soft-Hindutva politics - these are some of the key traits of Kejriwal and his party. The BJP has understood these traits and views Kejriwal as a threat to its future based on which it is attempting to cut down Kejriwal’s wings before his bigger flight on his core issue of initial competence: corruption.

But Kejriwal and AAP pose a more direct and near-future threat to the Congress and other leading Opposition parties. In a probable post-Modi future, leaders like Gandhi and Banerjee see themselves as alternative faces but are slowly and steadily facing the looming shadow of Kejriwal over them as a probable alternative. AAP’s rapid rise to becoming the only third national party in India at present in 11 years since its origin has raised its national stakes. 

Thus, optics will require the Opposition bloc to practice the adage of ‘An enemy’s enemy, is a friend’ to keep the block united for the upcoming general elections. But pragmatism from the perspective of the future would probably drive the Opposition bloc and especially the Congress to keep in mind the adage ‘Once an enemy, can never be a friend’, and let Kejriwal and AAP fight their own battle. 

(Ashutosh Nagda is a German Chancellor Fellow at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) in Berlin and researches and writes on India’s foreign policy and domestic politics. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:   Arvind Kejriwal 

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