Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal
Delhi Chief Minister and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal Image Credit: PTI

Kaun banega challenger (Who will be the challenger) in 2024? Who will be the national opposition face to take on Narendra Modi in the next general election? Will it be Mamata Banerjee? K Chandrasekhar Rao or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal?

The decline of the Congress, along with the AAP’s stunning win in Punjab last week and the two seats it won in Goa, shows how the political start up has expanded its footprint to a major state and made Kejriwal a serious contender at the national level.

It has been a remarkable journey for a party that was founded barely a decade ago, with no cadre, no base, just on the back of a peoples movement against corruption against the then UPA government.

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In a short span, AAP has emerged as a force to reckon with. It is the only regional party to have a government in two states. And they are now setting their sights on Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and even Karnataka.

While their ambitions are high, it won’t be easy to replicate a Punjab elsewhere so soon. The party fancies its chances in states where the Congress is on a weak wicket. Indeed Delhi showed how Congress voters drifted to AAP.

Gujarat is a case in point where the Congress has weakened and the AAP did pretty well in civic body polls. Himachal is another state they’ve set their eye on.

Long road ahead for AAP

But it’s still early days. Till a few months ago, it was Mamata Banerjee who was being hailed as the giant slayer after resoundingly defeating the BJP in the Bengal elections. But her party, the TMC, learnt the hard way that it’s not easy to expand to new areas.

It didn’t do well in the Tripura civic polls last year, despite much hype, winning only one seat. Only a few months ago, the TMC jumped into the Goa campaign but scored a big zero.

This is why Arvind Kejriwal fancies his chances now. But the opposition space is crowded. Mamata is already there, and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao has been busy trying to put a non Congress front together. Sharad Pawar is a stalwart deft at political negotiation.

But for the AAP too, it’s a long road ahead. Over confidence can kill its ambitions as it happened when they first tried to venture on to the national stage. Buoyed by a victory in Delhi in 2013, they contested 400 plus Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and won only 4.

In 2017, they were super confident of winning Punjab and were stunned by the Congress’ decisive victory. The good thing was they learnt from that and built the party again over the last five years. Today, the AAP has two chief ministers in India. And so does the Congress. Imagine that.

Kejriwal’s clever politics

Kejriwal has been clever with his politics. He changed course long ago after realising that personal attacks against Prime minister Modi don’t work, and adopted a more conciliatory tone with the centre. He kept away from contentious polarising issues, even if it meant keeping quiet when minorities were clearly being targeted.

He visited temples and made grand promises of pilgrimages to the Ram temple at Ayodhya. All of this, appealing very much to his vote base. He spoke only of governance.

And now, like the BJP which is riding on the success of its welfare schemes, Kejriwal is hoping the hype over the “Delhi model” sees him through. “Inquilab (revolution) came to Delhi first and then happened in Punjab. This revolution will spread across the country,” Kejriwal declared in his victory speech after the Punjab win. Will he succeed?

He may just do that but not so soon. It will be a long, hard road to replacing the congress. But if anyone can do it, it may be the audacious Arvind Kejriwal.