, March 26, 2014 10:46 IST

Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi on March 25, 2014. Photograph: Sandeep Pal

'AAP's real value must be measured not by the number of Lok Sabha seats it wins in the election which may not exceed 10 or 15 and not even by the number of votes it takes from the BJP, but by its ability to deflate Modi's superhuman '56-inch chest' image and the charisma so assiduously manufactured around him by the corporate-controlled media,' says Praful Bidwai.

Over the past month, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal did something no other leader has so far done to the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi. He embarked on an 'inspection tour' of Gujarat, talked to hundreds of ordinary people about their experience of the state's hyped-up 'development record', and confronted Modi with more than a dozen questions ranging from corruption and sweetheart deals with big business, to starvation-level wages for workers, closure of small-scale industries and suicides by 800 farmers.

Kejriwal punctured Modi's bloated image, and exposed him as a cynical politician -- a crony capitalist who grabs land from poor farmers and gives it to the Ambanis, Tatas and the Gautam Adani group at throwaway prices. He highlighted the rampant corruption, rising unemployment, appalling state of government schools and crippling power shortages prevalent in Gujarat.

Kejriwal continued his broadside against the Krishna-Godavari gas deal, on which Mukesh Ambani is highly vulnerable, and also asked how Adani could dramatically multiply his wealth 12-fold during Modi's tenure, bypassing environmental, industrial and labour regulations.

He accused Modi of transferring a free public hospital built after the 2001 Kutch earthquake to the Adani group, which has now become a corporate for-profit business enterprise.

The AAP hit Modi hard where it hurts big-time corporate cronyism and corruption. The audacity of Kejriwal's attack left the BJP speechless the more so because he and other AAP leaders have recently declared communalism a 'greater danger' than corruption.

True, the AAP is still not zeroing on the 2002 pogrom as a pivotal issue, nor questioning the respite Modi got from a Gujarat court in the Zakia Jafri case. But nor is any other party, including the Congress.

Truth to tell, no other party has assailed big business and its capture of the political system like the AAP. In the recent past, only the Left parties (notably, Communist Party of India MP Gurudas Dasgupta) exposed the collusive Krishna Godavari gas-pricing arrangement, but they did so within a limited parliamentary framework. The AAP is making an issue of it on a broader terrain as part of a sustained anti-Modi campaign.

This signifies a major shift in AAP strategy. It is no longer solely targeting the Congress and United Progressive Alliance, as it did for long months. It recognises that the main attack must be directed against Modi because the UPA is on the run. This hopefully marks a departure from the trajectory that India's anti-corruption movements have followed since the 1970s, when they aligned with the Hindu Right against the Congress.

If Kejriwal sustains his anti-Modi campaign, bases it on solid factual evidence (plenty of which is available), focuses it sharply on the absence of rule of law under Modi, and his systematic undermining and corruption of institutions in Gujarat, he will inflict far more damage on the BJP than AAP's electoral victories possibly can.

AAP's real value must be measured not by the number of Lok Sabha seats it wins in the election which may not exceed 10 or 15 and not even by the number of votes it takes from the BJP, but by its ability to deflate Modi's superhuman '56-inch chest' image and the charisma so assiduously manufactured around him by the corporate-controlled media.

Kejriwal has a lot to contribute to such image deflation, and carries more credibility than any other leader/party. That is why he must be careful not to make reckless statements against the entire media, accusing it of being funded by big business, and threatening to put journalists in jail. Such intemperate statements can only antagonise honest professional journalists and potential supporters.

AAP has its limitations and flaws, including a summary rejection of ideology, lack of emphasis on secularism/communalism, poverty, inequality and gender justice, and absence of a larger framework/vision from which to derive discrete positions.

Yet, AAP is a product of specific social circumstances and a political conjuncture marked by a long-term decline of the Congress and the non-emergence of a credible centrist or Left-leaning alternative to it.

AAP cannot be wished away. Nor should its potential capacity to evolve into a progressive Left-of-Centre force be dismissed -- despite its obsession with morality and corruption.

AAP can bring about a major shift in the outcome of the coming election precisely because of its audacity to take on giant corporations and to target Modi as their chosen representative.

The election is extremely delicately poised: Just 30 to 50 (perhaps 40) seats can make a dramatic difference, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but also in some other balancing states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, Karnataka and Orissa.

Although the BJP appears on media accounts set to emerge as the largest single party, nobody expects it to win a majority of Lok Sabha seats (272). If it can be stopped at 160, 170 seats, Modi will probably be unable to lead the new government. Many potential allies will find him too polarising, and would prefer another leader -- even if that means forming a minority government.

But if the BJP reaches the 190 to 210 mark, Modi could stitch together a bare majority with other parties joining the National Democratic Alliance, including the All Indian Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Telugu Desam (why, even the Telangana Rashtra Samithi or the YSR Congress), and a few other rag-tag groups. It is not inconceivable that Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navanirman Sena or the Biju Janata Dal could lend an NDA government 'outside' support, even if it doesn't last long.

Regrettably, the BJP's traditional opponents aren't well placed to break its momentum. The Congress is not putting up a spirited fight. The party is in a grim leadership crisis. Sonia Gandhi is withdrawing from active leadership, but her son is unable to replace her; he has neither strategy nor dynamism.

The BJP's principal opponents in the cow belt the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in UP, and the Janata Dal-United and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar are not in good health for a variety of reasons. Their old social bases have become shaky. They are plagued by dissensions, factionalism and the 'dynasty disease' (especially the RJD). All of them lack imaginative policies or programmes.

The Samajwadi Party is danger of losing at least some of its Muslim support because of the Muzaffarnagar riots.

The BSP is unable to extend its base beyond the Jatav Dalits, themselves restive.

The JD-U is on the defensive as the upper castes move away after its split with the BJP.

The RJD's revival after Lalu Yadav's release from jail is jeopardised by splits and internal strife.

Ram Vilas Paswan's defection to the NDA camp is a setback to the RJD-Congress coalition.

More important, the deeper social processes that threw up and sustained these parties including Dalit aspirations for self-representation, and the forward march of the backwards seem to have all but run out of steam.

These parties can longer deliver on their constituents' demands or generate new energies to trigger an emancipatory social mobilisation. They aren't fighting the BJP ideologically.

The Left parties, a bulwark against communalism and an icon of progressive radicalism, are in poor shape. Traditionally, their electoral politics was based on, and followed, grassroots people's mobilisations. Now they are groping for an electoral strategy detached from popular mobilisation.

Their attempt to put together an 11-party non-Congress-non-BJP national front has come a cropper, with the AIADMK, BJD and Samajwadi Party walking out. Former CPI general secretary A B Bardhan terms this front a 'big mistake'. The Left's 2009 tally of 24 seats in the Lok Sabha is forecast to fall.

Image: Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi on March 25, 2014. Photograph: Sandeep Pal.

Praful Bidwai