As Arvind Kejriwal completes a hattrick of wins to retain chief ministership of Delhi, the stage is set for Aam Admi Party supremo to pitchfork himself again as Narendra Modi's national alternative. This time, however, we may see a different approach from Kejriwal. Past defeats have chastened the politician but also honed his survival instincts. Kejriwal's ambition has not lessened, only made sharper by experience. To understand why such a trajectory is inevitable, we need to look closely at his political graph.
In 2015, Kejriwal could do no wrong. Aam Admi Party had just swept Delhi Assembly elections with an incredulous 67 seats, leaving BJP reeling with just three — that too just a few months after the Narendra Modi tidal wave had crashed onto the national stage. While the Opposition was yet to recover from the demoralising defeat inflicted on them by a Modi-led BJP, Kejriwal emerged as the oasis of hope. Modi baiters saw in Kejriwal an alternative in the making.
Kejriwal, too, got taken in with the narrative. Perhaps a little too earnestly. And why wouldn't he? His was no less a stunning rise. The India Against Corruption movement had given birth to the babu-turned-activist-turned-politician Kejriwal, and within a span of two years AAP had maximised its gains in Delhi from 28 in 2013 to 67. In his second stint as the chief minister, after the abortive 49-day first attempt, Kejriwal seemed to have shed his activist avatar to take his political career a little more seriously.
That crucial span between his resignation as the chief minister in 2014 to winning a second term in 2015, we learnt an important lesson about Kejriwal. He is capable of learning from mistakes. While resigning, he had famously quipped: "chief ministership is no big deal." Just a few months later while campaigning for a second term, Kejriwal said: "The one lesson I have learnt is that I will never resign." That 67-seat win came on the back of profuse apologies.
Kejriwal's volte-face has been variously described, praised and even derided but it is an important pointer to his mindset and political acumen. Soon after winning handsomely in 2015, Kejriwal installed Manish Sisodia as the deputy chief minister of a Union Territory — that some dismiss as a glorified municipality — and set about the twin tasks of expanding AAP's national base and framing himself as the "liberal" alternative to Modi.
In the next two years, Kejriwal put AAP on steroids, undertaking a project of stunning national expansion. It was evident that Kejriwal had national ambitions, and he needed to make AAP a national outfit to break free of his geographical constraints. In the next two years since 2015, AAP tried to break new ground in Punjab, announced that it will fight in Goa, took part in Gujarat Assembly polls and even made its debut in Karnataka in 2018.
As Saba Naqvi argued in this Times of India op-ed in 2016, "…other than BJP, AAP is the only growing political force in contemporary India. Congress and Left are in decline while regional parties are powerful in specific geographical zones outside which they do not have bases. If AAP does perform well in Punjab 2017, less than five years after the party was formed in 2012, they would have made one of the quickest political expansions in our electoral history."
Rapid expansion has its downsides. In his hurry to swell base, Kejriwal was perhaps guilty of spreading AAP too thin. Kejriwal's party came a cropper everywhere, including in Punjab where Congress sprang a surprise under Captain Amarinder Singh.
On personal front, Kejriwal was actively working to counter the 'Narendra Modi factor' in Indian politics. He knew that Modi's popularity remained sky-high despite setbacks in state elections and had duly noted how the prime minister kept himself above the daily political humdrums and never engages with his rivals except during poll campaigns. For the next few years, Kejriwal tried to drag the PM down from his stratosphere by pitting himself against Modi and making relentless provocative statements.
Modi is a coward and a psycopath
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) December 15, 2015
These outrageous remarks were aimed at busting the 'Modi myth' politically, while ideologically he took on BJP's 'nationalism' plank by questioning his steps on national security such as demanding proof of the surgical strikes.
Kejriwal's aim, through his combative posturing against Modi, was to ensure headlines in national media and associate himself with the Modi brand as an alternative. On the party front, he established the 'cult of Kejriwal' by chucking out the founder members.
On the administrative front, Kejriwal took a confrontationist path with the Centre and used every opportunity to lock horns with the NDA government. He made victimhood into an art form, claiming repeatedly that Modi "doesn't let him work".
The political upstart perhaps misjudged his own abilities, miscalculated on the ideological battle and failed to understand the psyche of the Indian voter. He soon got a reality check. In 2019 Lok Sabha elections where prime minister Modi was seeking a second term, AAP suffered a veritable rout. It managed to win just one seat among the 40 it contested across the nation over nine states and Union Territories.
Its voteshare was dismal. The AAP managed the highest vote share in Delhi at 18.10 percent. In Uttar Pradesh, it had 0.01 percent, 0.36 percent in Haryana, 7.38 percent in Punjab, 3.02 percent in Chandigarh, 0.06 percent in Bihar, 1.37 percent in Andaman and Nicobar, 3.01 percent in Goa and 0.03 percent in Odisha. The most humiliating of all statistics was that in Delhi, where it still ruled, AAP was wiped out in all seven Lok Sabha seats and came third behind Congress. This was worse than its performance in 2014 when it had won four Lok Sabha seats.
As noted earlier, however, Kejriwal's biggest strength is his ability to learn from mistakes. The resounding defeat in 2019 unleashed a fascinating political and ideological revamp of Kejriwal.
Politically, during the campaign for Delhi elections, Kejriwal ran a focused campaign highlighting the achievements of AAP during his five-year tenure. He refused to take the Shaheen Bagh bait laid by the BJP. Not only did he avoid visiting the protest site, he even refused to raise the topic for once during campaign. In focusing on welfare economics, Kejriwal made a deliberate attempt to not let the terms of debate be dictated by the BJP.
On the personal front, he avoided attacking Modi altogether. The more BJP tried to make Delhi elections a contest between Modi and Kejriwal, the latter (mindful of PM's popularity and aware of past mistakes) responded by stonewalling all attempts. He reminded voters that Modi won't be resigning as PM to become the Delhi CM. Perhaps under the tutelage of political strategist Prashant Kishor, Kejriwal fashioned himself as the "elder son" of Delhiites.
The biggest change, however, was ideological. A street-smart politician, Kejriwal understood that the median of Indian politics has perhaps shifted from minority-ism in the form of faux secularism to comparative Hindutva politics, and he dutifully appropriated BJP's poll symbols. He was found reciting Hanuman Chalisa before media, visiting Hanuman temple and he posed himself as a "kattar desbhkat" (staunch nationalist).
It might be misleading to assume that Kejriwal has overnight became a proponent of Hindutva politics. A more likely explanation is that he was refusing to let BJP run away with the nationalism and Hindutva planks. He reinforced the message by shunning the skull cap, and arranging for party candidates to be seen performing pujas and havans. Simultaneously, he extended support to the government on issued such as abrogation of Article 370 and building of Ram Temple on disputed site, and took a leaf of out Modi's playbook when it came to tackling contentious issues.
"I say schools, they say Shaheen Bagh, I say roads, they say Shaheen Bagh, I say hospitals, they say Shaheen Bagh," Kejriwal was quoted as saying by Barkha Dutt in an article for Hindustan Times. This is the AAP chief appropriating another of Modi's strategies — voters are more interested in a positive campaign based on ideas instead of personal attacks.
Now that AAP has sealed another comprehensive victory — the final figures are perhaps a shade less than what it achieved in 2015 — Kejriwal will now look to implementing the lessons of Delhi elections to renew his thrust on national stage. That he has already started doing even before the final Delhi results are out points to the fact that Kejriwal hasn't taken his eyes off the prime minister's seat.
Two interesting developments have taken place within hours of AAP's win becoming clear. Posters have been put up by AAP outside its headquarters calling for "inputs for nation-building".
— ANI (@ANI) February 11, 2020
More importantly, in his winning speech, Kejriwal called AAP's victory a "win for Bharat Mata", and also credited Lord Hanuman for "showering Delhi with blessings". The subtext is clear. Kejriwal is Hanuman's chosen one. This blatant attempt to usurp the nationalism plank and identify with the Hindu symbols indicates the lessons that Kejriwal has learnt and the path he will adopt from here. Kejriwal's vaulting ambition is intact, biding its time.
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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2020 21:09:20 IST