Opinion: Opinion | With Kejriwal’s Arrest, Opposition Gets A Poll Plank On A Platter

Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convenor Arvind Kejriwal has been sent on a 15-day judicial custody in connection with an alleged liquor scam. Meanwhile, the issue has united the opposition, with the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) holding a protest rally at the capital’s Ramlila Maidan on Sunday, demanding a level playing field and the release of arrested opposition leaders. 

On the other hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was recently in Meerut, said his government would continue to take action against the corrupt. In doing so, he has once again framed the general elections as a battle between corruption and those fighting it.

A Newfound Momentum

In a strong show of unity at the Ramlila Maidan, leaders from the INDIA bloc came together for a ‘Loktantara Bachao’ (Save Democracy) rally and accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre of misusing the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and other central agencies to attack the opposition, jail its leaders, and seal the bank accounts of rival parties. 

The arrest of Kejriwal, the release of electoral bonds data, and allegations of quid pro quo deals have spurred the opposition. The INDIA bloc, which had been in disarray and was facing seat-sharing difficulties until now, seems to have been infused with a newfound energy and momentum. 

As a political player, the AAP has learnt the tricks of the trade from the BJP itself. The party is not Congress. It has strong communication and research teams and is also effective on social media. This is visible from the difference between the responses to Kejriwal’s arrest and that of Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren. 

The AAP has alleged that the entire case against Kejriwal is based on the statements of “accused-turned-approvers”. One such person is Sarath Chandra Reddy, who, says AAP, went from being the “kingpin” of the alleged Delhi liquor scam to “star approver”, and, subsequently, a “star donor” of the BJP.

International Reactions, More Media Time

Kejriwal’s arrest has also led to reactions from the international community. The US State Department called on New Delhi to ensure “a fair and timely legal process” for a fair legal process in the case, while Germany too reacted to the arrest, leading to a showdown where India termed these remarks undue external interferences. 

The arrest has brought the AAP significant media coverage in election time. The battle is being fought as much in public as in judicial courts. The INDIA bloc, which had been accusing the Indian news media of being biased, had its Ramlila Maidan rally telecast live across major channels. 

This is now a battle of perception, where the AAP is trying to create a narrative that the all-powerful BJP wants to finish off a newbie party. The reasons, the AAP implies, could be rooted in fear. Is the BJP afraid of Kejriwal? Does it see AAP as an emerging threat as the Congress weakens further in the 2024 elections?

In fact, a section of even BJP supporters have started questioning Kejriwal’s arrest, opining that the move only paints him as a hero. The party’s presence, after all, is limited to just about 20 seats in Delhi and Punjab. 

The problems for the BJP is compounded by the fact that the Delhi BJP is one of the weakest state units for the party and has failed to achieve a double-digit seat tally in the past two elections. The party doesn’t have a charismatic face to counter Kejriwal in Delhi.

What The Public Thinks

Both the blocs are largely speaking to the converted voters, or loyal voters who are likely to remain loyal to one party. But It is important to gauge the impact of the arrest on neutral, or, non-ideological voters, who vote differently in each election. A sizable chunk of such voters support AAP in assembly elections but side with the BJP in national polls. 

It’s not that Kejriwal’s arrest has not dented his image — it has. According to a C-Voter survey, 56% people in Delhi and 51% in the rest of India say Kejriwal’s arrest has dented his image. However, the fact that the BJP itself has welcomed a host of leaders with tainted credentials has marred Modi’s “na khaunga na khaane dunga” (won’t do corruption, and will neither let others indulge in it) pitch among neutral voters. As many as 46% of respondents in Delhi in the C-Voter survey and 49% in the rest of the country agreed that the Modi government is misusing central agencies. The electoral bonds data has also thrown open a can of worms. 

The already strong loyal vote base of the BJP cannot hand over a big win or a majority to the party. It’s the neutral voters who can do so. The BJP had been cruising along nicely towards its ‘Mission 400′, banking on the Ram Mandir inauguration, the pledge of making India the world’s third-largest economy in its third term, and the popularity of Modi. Kejriwal’s arrest might just have dented that run. 

A Large Section Is In Kejriwal’s Favour

Kejriwal is a popular leader, and as per C-Voter’s latest Mood Of The Nation survey, he along with Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi holds the second place in terms of who the public sees as best-suited to lead the opposition. While 48% people in Delhi say Kejriwal’s arrest shows that he is corrupt, almost an equal share of people, 46%, say he has been arrested due to Modi’s vindictive politics and because he is a threat to the Prime Minister. Numbers for the rest of India are not encouraging either for the BJP. Only 39% see Kejriwal’s arrest as a fallout of corruption, while over half (51%) see it as a product of Modi’s vindictive politics.

On the question of whether Kejriwal should resign or the run the Delhi government from jail, responses vary widely. In Delhi, there is a net 2% approval for his resignation, while in the  rest of India, there is a net 4% disapproval, with a higher number opining that he should run the government from jail. 

The survey shows that Kejriwal’s arrest has actually earned him brownie points outside Delhi, a much bigger area than his own backyard. 

Has Kejriwal’s arrest given a mudda (plank) on a platter to the opposition, and does it threaten to derail the BJP’s ‘Mission 400’? Only time will tell. 

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar, he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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