Image Credit: ANI

Arvind Kejriwal’s call for including Hindu religious iconography in Indian currency notes is a classic BJP-like polarising move. It is a dead cat on the table: nobody can ignore it. Everyone will support or oppose it. From BJP to liberals, everyone will comment on it. Whether you support or oppose, you have made sure you talk about the Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal.

This is how agenda setting works. Until now it seemed only the BJP knew this art. The Congress only complained the media doesn’t amplify their boring press conferences.

This is an example as good as any that the BJP has failed to contain the Aam Aadmi Party by trying to use the same playbook against them as they did with the Congress.

Out of syllabus

Over the years the BJP tries humour and ridicule against the AAP. They thought that just as they had managed to discredit Rahul Gandhi with ridicule, they would succeed in doing so with Kejriwal. They ridiculed his muffler so he owned it. They ridiculed his coughing and he got medical treatment (doctors found his tongue was too big). They called him Maoist/Naxal/anarchist and he replied all these charges politically.

Delhi CM has asked Prime Minister Modi to consider using pictures of deities on India's currency Image Credit: Supplied

In the 2020 Delhi assembly election campaign, they falsely tried to label him as a supporter of anti-CAA protests, in an attempt to label him pro-Muslim. The strategy perhaps helped increased the BJP’s seats from 3 to 8 in a 70 member assembly. After the elections there were Hindu-Muslim riots in Delhi.

The result was that the AAP finally took a position on the communal-secular divide and chose the ‘communal’ side. The AAP has decided it can play the Hindu card, too. The BJP doesn’t know how to deal with this. It is ‘out of syllabus’ for them, as an Indian student might say after writing a test.

The playbook that has worked for the BJP against the Congress is not working against the AAP. The AAP is not a 137 year old party with historical baggage and an indecisive leadership.

Revealing your mind

Making a bad situation worse, the BJP has gone after AAP in Gujarat in a way that suggests the BJP is rattled by them. This disproportionate response is giving non-BJP voters in Gujarat the signal that this election is BJP vs AAP. That’s exactly the signal the BJP needed to avoid. The BJP needed the election to be BJP vs moribund Congress, letting the AAP silently cut votes.

The raids and arrests in the alleged excise scam in Delhi and Punjab have come on the eve of the Gujarat elections, thus giving the signal that the BJP is worried about AAP. Even if the purpose of this legal action was only to cut off AAP’s funding, it should have come much earlier or waited till the Gujarat results.

We have seen how the AAP sounds almost eager to see Manish Sisodia arrested in the alleged excise scam, in contrast to opposition leaders who calm down at the thought of jail. But AAP is different: they are brazen because they understand the language of power.

Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia
Manish Sisodia of the AAP is on record saying BJP is pressuring Delhi government officials Image Credit: ANI

Under-estimating a disrupter

The first mistake the BJP made in dealing with the AAP is that they underestimated them after 2014. The BJP thought the AAP is just a Delhi party, unable to even replicate their success in Delhi’s municipal elections in 2017, the same year when the blew their chance at winning Punjab.

The second mistake was that they thought that can contain the AAP merely through the office of the Lt Governor of Delhi, by curbing the elected government’s powers as Delhi is only half a state. This only freed up the Kejriwal government. With little work and responsibility, they focus on politics and propaganda. The administrative restrictions didn’t stop them from a selling a ‘Delhi model’ of governance.

The third mistake was that the BJP has done very little to expose the hollowness of this Delhi model of governance. The BJP today seems to be more interested in attacking the AAP for “freebies” as if Indian voters are expected to say ‘No I don’t want freebies’. When the BJP itself boasts about giving free cooking gas cylinders, ration, housing, toilets and what not, how can it possibly oppose free electricity by AAP?

What the BJP needed to have done better is to expose the false claims by AAP in Delhi. How can a party with very little power claim to have come up with a whole new ‘model’ of governance?

For example, the BJP could have made a big campaign out of the underperforming students who are kicked out of Delhi government schools because if they fail the board exams they might spoil the AAP’s ads claiming how well their students do.

The BJP could have attacked the AAP on failing to do anything about air pollution in Delhi, asking why they no longer advocate ‘odd-even’ car rationing given that they claim it was a success? Why don’t they do a big protest asking Kejriwal to resign over air pollution?

BJP needs Congress to stop AAP

The BJP will say it does all of the above, but it gets little traction because the Delhi unit of the BJP is particularly bad. The joke within the BJP is that even their Tamil Nadu unit is better than their Delhi unit. The BJP has failed to produce a strong Delhi city leader who would appear better than Arvind Kejriwal. The Delhi BJP needs a face who can marry a mass appeal with an urban bent.

The Aam Aadmi Party is a disrupter and the BJP is now the establishment. Big companies poach start-ups or at least their talent. The BJP poaches leaders from old establishment parties like the Congress. It is a mystery why the BJP has failed to poach leaders from the AAP, which is anyway a party of two and a half men.

Perhaps the biggest mistake the BJP has made with AAP is that they have created space for them by weakening the Congress to the point of near-death.

Today, the BJP needs the Congress to do well if it has to stop a potential disruption by AAP in national politics. This means the BJP should take the Congress seriously, rather than unleashing the agencies.

How about the BJP president having tea with the new Congress president for starters?