Delhi Election Result 2020: Transformation of Arvind Kejriwal from a 'combative CM' to a statesmanlike leader has ensured this third term

  • Whether Kejriwal had taken to streets for the right cause or whether there was merit in his agitations, perceptions driven by optics play a significant role in electoral politics

  • The 'protester CM' provided his critics an opportunity to dub himself an activist, someone who had still not graduated to become a full-time politician, and thereby was unfit to lead a state as crucial as the National Capital

  • In March 2018, he issued apologies to several rival politicians he had accused in the past to get rid of the defamation cases hanging over his head. And, more critically, he stopped attacking Narendra Modi

In the run up to the Delhi elections, a reporter asked Arvind Kejriwal why he hadn’t visited Shaheen Bagh. "What will I do there?" he replied. "I am the chief minister of Delhi. I have been elected to preside over the state’s education, electricity, health, roads and so on."

This was a stark departure from the Kejriwal of November 2016, who had reached the police station in Mayapuri to ensure the release of Fatima, mother of Jawaharlal Nehru University's missing student Najeeb Ahmad, or the Kejriwal of 2018 who sat on a dharna protesting against the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi.

The transformation of Kejriwal from a combative chief minister at the start of his second term to a more statesmanlike leader towards the end of it is as obvious as daylight. But it has been a critical factor in ensuring he gets a third term as the Chief Minister of Delhi.

Traveling through several constituencies for almost a month ahead of Delhi Assembly elections, I observed that voters across the spectrum had welcomed the change in their chief minister’s attitude.

Sanjay Bhargava, a trader from Chandni Chowk, wasn’t an AAP voter, but he appreciated Kejriwal’s approach. "You come on the road when you are desperate," he said. "A sitting chief minister should not be doing that."

In the predominantly Dalit area of Shadipur, Manju said that Kejriwal is doing the pragmatic thing by staying away from dharnas. "As a resident of Delhi, I feel he is focused on work when he is in his office and not on the streets,” she said. Her daughter goes to a government school that has seen a major makeover in the past three years. “That is what he is capable of so why waste time fighting with people,” she added. “He appears chief ministerial now.”

Whether Kejriwal had taken to streets for the right cause or whether there was merit in his agitations, perceptions driven by optics play a significant role in electoral politics. The 'protester CM' provided his critics an opportunity to dub himself an activist, someone who had still not graduated to become a full-time politician, and thereby was unfit to lead a state as crucial as the National Capital.

 Delhi Election Result 2020: Transformation of Arvind Kejriwal from a combative CM to a statesmanlike leader has ensured this third term

Voters across the spectrum had welcomed the change in their chief minister’s attitude. Getty Images

Perhaps recognising it worked against him, Kejriwal made a few critical decisions that resulted in the image makeover. Not wearing the muffler, like he used to, is not one of them.

In March 2018, he issued apologies to several rival politicians he had accused in the past to get rid of the defamation cases hanging over his head. And, more critically, he stopped attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After BJP won seven out of seven Lok Sabha seats in May 2019, Modi virtually disappeared from Kejriwal’s Twitter timeline, unlike earlier, where he used to attack the prime minister quite frequently.

In fact, when Pakistan’s minister Fawad Hussain ridiculed Modi, Kejriwal sprung to his defence, and said, Modi is "my PM", and, “Delhi elections are an internal matter for India and we will not tolerate interference of the biggest organiser of terrorism in this.”

According to Census 2011, 82 percent of Delhi’s electorate is Hindu, which is, by and large, charmed by Modi. A large chunk of Kejriwal’s voters are those who vote for Modi/BJP in Centre. According to the CSDS survey, 24 percent of BJP’s 56 percent voters in 2019 Lok Sabha elections said that they preferred Kejriwal for the state elections.

Him staying away from Shaheen Bagh, singing Hanuman Chalisa, or even targeting home minister Amit Shah instead of the prime minister, was aimed at not making that voter uncomfortable. When he was asked about his reservations with CAA and NRC, Kejriwal made it into an economic issue. That strategy was a bit of a gamble, because it paved way for the Congress to regain its Muslim voteshare. Had the Muslim vote been split between the two parties, the results would have been much closer.

The discontent among Muslim voters against Kejriwal was palpable. They blamed him for not doing enough for secularism. He, too, probably knew it. But he hoped the welfare politics will override that sentiment when the Union Territory went to polls. An elderly shopkeeper in Seelampur, Naseer Ahmed, said that if Muslims vote on the basis of work, Kejriwal will sail through. But if they cast vote on the basis of sentiments, Congress will gain.

"What Kejriwal is doing is politics," said Naseer. "The image of a common man suited his politics back then so he roamed around with a basic shirt that was not even tucked into his trousers. That image no longer pays dividends so he has broken away from it."

Seelampur is a constituency where Delhi police had used brutal force to quell protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The Congress candidate Mateen Ahmed, too, was locally popular. For a while, it seemed like AAP might be in a bit of a trouble. But on Tuesday, Seelampur turned out to be the first seat declared in favour of AAP.

While the counting of votes is underway and so far the Election Commission has announced results in 19 seats (AAP has won 18 out of them), AAP's voteshare (so far) also corroborates that Kejriwal’s gamble paid off. AAP has so far won 53.62 percent of the votes. In 2015, AAP's voteshare was 54 percent. From 32 percent, BJP has gone up to 40 percent and the Congress has been decimated further to 4 percent from 10 percent five years ago. (All these numbers will change as counting is still underway).

The first impression from these emerging numbers suggests that BJP has gained at the expense of Congress. However, it is unlikely that a Congress voter of 2015 voted for BJP in 2020. The more likely explanation is that BJP managed to get back some of its vote from AAP, while Congress voters moved towards AAP, for it was the better bet against BJP. A large chunk of that vote could be Muslim.

However, even though the Muslims have supported AAP wholeheartedly, Ovais Khan, an activist in Seelampur, said, "It is ironic that a man who launched his political career through people’s movement is now staying away from it."

For the Muslims blatantly targeted by the ruling party, Kejriwal ran an evasive campaign. For the more privileged, he propagated a truly secular narrative by speaking about schools, health, electricity and water as opposed to BJP’s vicious and despicable call for a genocide against those protesting the government policies.

To that extent, it is a victory for secularism, for the voters rejected BJP’s communal campaign. But that is largely because the alternative had a track record of good governance. In principle, most of the AAP voters are not against the policies that the BJP is bringing in at the Centre, they remain opposed to Shaheen Bagh, and believe the "Left" students of JNU are to be blamed for what happened on 5 January. In that sense, Kejriwal’s victory is not exactly a slap in the face of Hindutva as many of us would like to believe.

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2020 17:15:04 IST