The quiet genius of Arvind Kejriwal: How AAP stormed Delhi

by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy

The first batch of Delhi voter polls are in, and Arvind Kejriwal appears to be sitting pretty. According to the new C-Fore survey, the Aam Aadmi Party is poised to make a sparkling electoral debut by capturing 20 percent of the vote — which adds up to 7-12 seats. Yes, that is still a distant third in an election dominated by the Big Two, but as CNN-IBN anchor Rajdeep Sardesai tweeted, "If AAP gets over 20 percent vote, it will be the most impressive debut of a party since NTR swept to power in Andhra." All the more so, since Kejriwal is no movie idol who has played God, with a ready-made legion of supporters.

Arvind Kejriwal. AFP

Arvind Kejriwal. AFP

Most remarkable is Kejriwal's own personal popularity. He is number two on the list of preferred chief ministers, with 22 percent of those surveyed picking him ahead of BJP's Vijay Goel (18 percent) and Sheila Dikshit, who still comes in at number one at 29 percent. So how did Kejriwal create a viable political party out of the ashes of a failed anti-corruption movement, and turn it into a real political contender in the nation's capital — without deep pockets and in less than a year? There are numerous reasons for this astonishing feat, but the biggest is perhaps Kejriwal himself. Looking back, it is easy to identify five critical decisions that paved the way to success. And each are a testament to Kejriwal's greatest political asset: His willingness to recognise a mistake, learn, and change course. Political self-awareness combined with agility have made him a formidable political strategist.

One, dumping Anna-ji. When Arvind Kejriwal announced the formation of the AAP, and his formal split from Anna Hazare, many saw it as a last-ditch effort to salvage a sputtering political career. After all, Anna was the rock star and Kejriwal his tour manager, sometimes lauded as a genius, other times dismissed as a controlling stage-mom. No one thought he had the charisma to take centre-stage.

But Kejriwal was quick to realise that Anna's star power was far outweighed by his diva-like behaviour: the continual media gaffes, erratic statements, attacks on Team Anna members. The Lokpal movement was hemorrhaging credibility and relevance. Hence the decision to launch a political party with a consciously humble image, from its Aam Aadmi name to its symbol, the lowly jhaadu. Those 'I am Arvind' topis never quite took off, but the broom is now poised to sweep a number of political Goliaths out of office. Choosing political discipline and focus over media celebrity is the first and most decisive choice Kejriwal made.

Two, staying mousy. “A small man with a black moustache” is how Mehboob Jeelani described Kejriwal in the opening paragraph of a 2011 profile for Caravan Magazine. It perfectly captures how non-descript Kejriwal was when he first appeared on the national scene.

To his great credit, Kejriwal the politician has remained true to his mild-mannered, somewhat dour but dogged self. He didn’t try to become the new Anna Hazare once the two parted ways. He’s never indulged in overt mudslinging about old comrades whether it’s Hazare or Kiran Bedi whom he asked to be the party’s candidate for CM, calling her his “elder sister”. Unusually for a politician, he is willing to concede that his own thinking evolves – whether it’s about joining retail politics or on the Lokpal bill.

Columnist Kanchan Gupta once described Kejriwal as “darkly sulking” which is about as colourful a description of the man as you can find anywhere. Kejriwal understands his colourlessness is his asset. That's what makes him the aam aadmi of his Aam Aadmi Party. Sincerity can count for more than charisma sometimes. That’s why even when he is grandstanding about electricity bills in Delhi he does not come across as a fake, a charge that sticks easily to a feel-your-Dalit-pain-for-a-night Rahul Gandhi.

Three, going beyond corruption. The C-word propelled Kejriwal into national attention, and there was a moment when it seemed that a single anti-corruption movement would irretrievably transform Indian politics. Kejriwal's first post-Hazare foray into political activism tried to capitalise on the defining template of the Lokpal agitation: tapping into anti-corruption anger through high-profile media-worthy events. Big press conferences announcing big 'exposes' of big names became the AAP modus operandi. Robert Vadra, Mukesh Ambani, Nitin Gadkari, the targets were carefully chosen to cash in on the news cycle.

But corruption fatigue eventually set in. The national press moved on, and so did the urban middle class who propelled the media frenzy. News cycles are fickle and pass in an instant. Political relevance, as Kejriwal realised, required a sustained presence on the political stage. Seeing the diminishing returns of successive stings, Kejriwal moved from C to G, as in Governance. Rather than rant about big-ticket scams, AAP was now all about electricity bills and onion prices — not in Nagpur or Madurai or Hisar, but in the nation's capital. By winning the local stage in November, AAP will ensure that it will never be out of sight or mind on the national stage.

Four, focusing on his own backyard. In the heady days following the anti-corruption movement, Kejriwal ran the risk of believing in the Messiah of the Middle Class hype. Given that corruption in India was all-pervasive, a party determined to root out corruption ran the risk of trying to be everywhere at the same time, battling a hydra-headed monster, making everything about itself, proclaiming the Hisar by-poll “a referendum for Jan Lokpal Bill.” Like Mamata Banerjee who thought her thumping victory in West Bengal made her a force to contend with in Uttar Pradesh or Tripura or Arunachal Pradesh, Kejriwal could have easily spread himself too thin.

The AAP may not occupy the chief minister's gaddi anytime soon, but its laser-like aim is clear: Kejriwal wants to be a player in the seat of power, Delhi. Next on the agenda, after the Delhi elections this year, is the plan to contest all Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra in 2014. That’s less a statement of grand ambition as it is of shrewd pragmatism. The aim is to maximise the chances of gaining a foothold in that ultimate bastion of power: Parliament. Kejriwal does have plans to expand beyond Delhi, but only to its immediate neighbour — and his home state — Haryana, where AAP will contest Assembly elections next year.

Five, take his volunteers seriously. Breaking with long Indian tradition, Kejriwal created a political party ruled by committee, as in a Political Affairs Committee rather than the usual hierarchy of president, vice-president and general secretary.

Such commitments to democratic decisionmaking may erode in a system where parties tend to turn into personality cults. But for now, the small, spunky, if a little preachy Aam Aadmi Party has crafted an image that appeals to the mood of a nation tired of outsized political egos. In the Delhi elections, AAP members court votes through door-to-door canvassing rather than grand rallies and speeches.

To prove its transparency, it uploads all donations onto its website. It puts its time into not just raising money but sending volunteers out, incognito, to find out what people on the street think about the AAP according to the Indian Express.

The AAP created an impression of being more resourceful than a party rich in resources. As party worker Vikas Kumar told Indian Express: “We have been given a list of flyovers and foot overbridges. Every two hours or so, we take our banner that measures about 8 ft by 4 ft and stand there, hanging it down the side. If a policeman asks us to move, we take it down and come back when he leaves.”

Even Sheila Dikshit was spotted craning her neck to see these pop-up banners as her cavalcade passed underneath a flyover — perhaps trying to assess the risks posed by her perilously innovative rival who persuades three-wheeler autos to carry AAP posters instead of trying to buy billboards.

But there are no guarantees in politics. And 12 seats do not a giant-killer make. In order to leverage this initial success, Kejriwal will have to turn his party into a lean, mean fighting machine that delivers effective opposition — irrespective of who is in power.

That said, a fourth term for Sheila Dikshit is likely better for AAP than a new term for the BJP. It gives Kejriwal five years to build a bigger, stronger party that can offer a real alternative to a by then exhausted Congress Party, which is likely to emerge significantly weaker from the 2014 elections. If Kejriwal can combine a strong showing in the Delhi elections with a handful of prominent Lok Sabha wins in 2014, he may well indeed be the number one choice for Chief Minister come 2018.

That said, the AAP remains an untested party, and no one knows how its members will perform once they actually enter the political establishment. Kejriwal knows how to challenge the establishment, but the big question remains: Does he know how to work within it?

Advertisement