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Why Congress Rose To Kejriwal's Defence

By Shekhar Gupta
April 03, 2024 16:29 IST
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The Congress now knows that it is the only force -- however weakened it might be -- that stands between the BJP and India's evolution into a single-party Republic.

Because, once it is out of the way, the BJP could sort out the other regional powers: Co-opting some, demolishing others, asserts Shekhar Gupta.

IMAGE: Congress Parliamentary Party Chairperson Sonia Gandhi at the Save Democracy rally at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi, March 31, 2024. Photograph: Kind courtesy INC/X

In her first response on the arrest of her chief minister and party leader, Atishi, a key minister in the Delhi government, said that Arvind Kejriwal isn't merely an individual.

He is, instead, an idea.

It follows that she means his arrest, or temporary removal from the scene, won't mean a crippling blow to his politics, party or government.

That's a good and interesting point. Let us take it at face value to begin with. We will know in the next few days what it means for his party and the two state governments it runs, in Delhi and Punjab.

The more important discussion, however, is the implications this will have for national politics.

Theoretically, if the Aam Aadmi Party is able to withstand this blow, and persevere till Mr Kejriwal is eventually released, it could emerge stronger.

Mr Kejriwal could then return as a leader with his charisma burnished by time spent in the Bharatiya Janata Party's prison.

If your basic credibility remains intact, and your 'base 'is immune to corruption charges against you, spending some time in a rival government's jail never hurt an Indian politician.

On the other hand, if your government flounders in your absence, your party lapses into disarray and is crippled further by defections -- which the BJP will be working quite assiduously to bring about -- it will send your politics into terminal decline.

That's the juncture at which the party now stands.

If Mr Kejriwal is today an idea, the 'idea' he and his politics grew around was a no-holds-barred fight against corruption.

That is the reason the Modi government has now tarred him, his entire party, and his government with the same brush: Corruption.

It isn't the individuals they are after. It is the idea once synonymous with Mr Kejriwal. That everybody in public life and debate -- politicians, corporations, the media, judges, everybody -- is corrupt and complicit.

Or, as the India Against Corruption (IAC) war cries went: 'Sab chor hain' (

It followed that the only one truly fighting them all was Mr Kejriwal.

That's how he became an idea, which the Modi government now wants to destroy with corruption charges: 'Look, look now, who has been talking all these years.'

IMAGE: Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal being brought to appear before the Rouse Avenue Court in connection with the alleged money laundering case linked to the Delhi excise policy case, April 1, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Over the past decade, the BJP witnessed that idea of Kejriwal gain ground. It won Punjab and got some votes in Goa, but more importantly, won five seats even in Gujarat.

It polled about 13 per cent of the vote in the Modi-Shah BJP's pocket borough, showed some growth in municipal elections and set alarm bells ringing.

This BJP may run its politics on grievances of the past, but it doesn't fight today's battles today.

Like any true superpower, it fights the day after tomorrow's battles today, and ideally far from its own territory.

The 2022 state elections showed AAP growing in the most valued part of the BJP's territory, its heartland of heartlands.

That is when the die was cast and the AAP was marked out as the rival of the day after tomorrow, to be finished now.

If the BJP succeeds and the idea of Kejriwal now declines, it will reaffirm a larger trend in national politics.

That all the efforts made by popular powerful and ambitious leaders to expand their political geographies have failed.

Over the past three years, we have seen Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress invest time, energy and money in Goa, Tripura and Meghalaya in the hope of acquiring a national footprint, and fail.

If the TMC's failure was spectacular, former Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao replacing the T (Telangana) in his party's name with B (Bharat) turned out to be a ridiculous disaster.

None of the other state parties can even dream of growing beyond their ethnic boundaries.

The Left, once the only other pan-state power, is grateful enough to hold on to just one state.

The AAP became the only party that succeeded in expanding its presence, and rose to be the only party in the country other than the BJP and the Congress to rule in more than one state.

This is precisely why the BJP has decided to cut it to size. It is fighting a threat for a distant future today.

IMAGE: Aam Aadmi Party supporters stage a protest against Arvind Kejriwal's arrest outside the Patel Chowk metro station in New Delhi, March 26, 2024. Photograph: Rahul Singh/ANI Photo

To understand the significance of the political shift caused by Mr Kejriwal's arrest, one must look at the political party that has risen to his and his party's defence with the greatest alacrity.

It is the Congress, the party Mr Kejriwal and his 2010-2014 campaign destroyed through its anti-corruption movement.

It routinely demanded the arrest of its top-most ministers.

Why is the Congress then the party most vocal and active in his defence, and now merrily rolling in schadenfreude? Two other factors matter besides the partial alliance in Delhi and Gujarat.

IMAGE: Leaders of the INDIA bloc of parties at the Save Democracy rally in New Delhi, March 31, 2024. Photograph: Kind courtesy INC/X

The first, that the Congress, like any other anti-BJP party today knows what is happening to the AAP today could happen to it tomorrow.

Its chief ministers in Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh are watching this very closely.

They are particularly interested in seeing what kind of fight their own party, especially its legal talent, is able to put up.

The second factor is that the Congress now knows that it is the only force -- however weakened it might be -- that stands between the BJP and India's evolution into a single-party Republic.

Because, once it is out of the way, the BJP could sort out the other regional powers en passant: Co-opting some, demolishing others. The Congress knows it will be its turn next.

IMAGE: AAP workers show black flags and raise slogans against former AAP lawmakers and newly-joined Bharatiya Janata Party members Sushil Kumar Rinku and Sheetal Angural in Jalandhar, March 29, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The key takeaway is that the assault on AAP has made India a nation of two political forces, the BJP and Congress. Never mind the power differential between them.

It is safe now to say that in years to come, at least till 2029, the Congress will be the BJP's only national rival, however weak it is.

Despite its serial defeats, it still retains (at least it did until 2019) its vote share of nearly 20 per cent.

As long as one out of five Indians votes for you despite your many failings, waffling leadership, and near-zero hope of victory and return to power, you stay in the game.

If that 20 per cent even becomes 25, the game changes.

Good point, you might say if you were from the Congress, and even steal a smile for a moment. Then comes the reality check.

The first thing to do is to protect yourself from similar assaults from the BJP in months to come.

And for that, as the BJP is doing, fight your battles of the day after tomorrow today.

That is why the Congress has risen so spiritedly to the AAP's defence.

It is fighting for its own survival, to still be in the ring and up for a fight, with the inevitability of a two-party system in the country.

By special arrangement with The Print

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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Shekhar Gupta
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India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024