They are roughly the same age, both have been lampooned mercilessly on social media and are hoping to oust the BJP from power. But the similarities, perhaps, are not the link between Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal, 49, and Congress president Rahul Gandhi, 47. What threads their fates together is that one man’s success could spell the other’s failure.
“Rahul Gandhi’s gain is Kejriwal’s loss,” said rebel AAP MLA Kapil Mishra. “Both parties vie for the same vote base.”
Delhi Chief Minister Kejriwal’s attempts to establish himself as an alternative to the Congress seem to be running into rough waters with the party’s improved performance in the recent Gujarat polls under the leadership of its president.
The two parties are vastly different, of course. The Congress is 132 years old; AAP has just celebrated its fifth anniversary. The former has a pan-Indian presence, while AAP rules Delhi and is present only in patches in the north.
But when AAP came to power in Delhi, it did so by engulfing Congress votes. In 2015, the Congress couldn’t win a single seat. Its vote share dipped to 9 per cent, whereas the BJP’s remained more or less the same.
Now a string of ignominious defeats has battered AAP’s image, posing a threat to the image of its leader, Kejriwal.
The chief minister’s influence now seems to be on the wane, while the Congress president’s is on an all-time high.
AAP’s success was linked to Congress defeat. Will the Gujarat elections, fought by the Congress leader with such vigour that it upped its 2012 tally of 61 seats to 78, spell bad news for AAP?
“Gandhi is yet to make a mark if you compare him with Modi’s electoral performance since 2014. But his rise will have an impact on Kejriwal,” said a former AAP leader.
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) director Sanjay Kumar points out that the AAP leader’s popularity has already taken a hit.
“Kejriwal’s ratings have already gone down drastically, as has his popularity in the last few months,” Kumar said.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center, a US-based fact-tank, states that in 2017, 39 percent of the people had a favourable view of Kejriwal, down from 60 percent in 2015.
Born out of the anti-graft movement, four years ago Kejriwal seemed to have captured the imagination of the people, fatigued by the corruption charges that mired the then UPA government led by Mammohan Singh and the Delhi government of three-time chief minister Sheila Dikshit.
The Congress’s vote share in the 2008 polls was 40.31 percent, which earned it 43 seats in the Delhi Assembly.
In 2013, when Kejriwal’s AAP’s stormed to power in Delhi, the Congress was down to eight seats. A year later, in the Lok Sabha polls, Gandhi’s party managed a mere 44 seats.
In the Assembly polls in 2015, AAP decimated the opposition, bagging 67 seats with a vote share of 54.3 percent. That it won from all the minority dominated areas in Delhi indicated it had ousted the Congress from its bastions.
Kejriwal’s visit to the Hyderabad University campus where Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula had committed suicide and a job offer to his brother in the Delhi government were also seen as moves to attract Dalit votes, traditionally won by the Congress, at the national level.
AAP’s strategy was to attack BJP leader and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and establish itself as an alternative to the Congress. But while Kejriwal took Modi on, his campaign sought to project Gandhi as an ineffective rival.
In an interview to NDTV, Kejriwal, attacking Modi over the turf war between the Delhi government and the Centre, had said, “Narendra Modi, get this that I am not Rahul Gandhi”.
At a press conference in 2016, he said, “Modi ji I am not Rahul Gandhi whom you can scare off.”
But then the tables turned. In 2017, the party had expected to do well in Punjab and Goa, which, AAP leaders believed, would help it in Gujarat and the 2019 elections.
But the party failed to make a mark in the states, and lost ground in Delhi — where it lost the Rajouri Garden bypoll and the MCD elections.
In the traditionally bipolar states of Goa and parts of Gujarat, Kejriwal campaigned hard to make AAP replace the Congress, but his attempts failed, with almost all candidates losing their deposits.
While Gandhi may be getting his mojo back after Gujarat, is brand Kejriwal, carefully crafted on the weakness of the Congress president, now under threat?
AAP leader Ashutosh does not believe Gandhi’s electoral success will impact Kejriwal’s national ambitions.
“We have a very competitive climate in our polity. Rahul’s rise will not have any effect on Kejriwal,” he said.