When Delhi’s muffler man gave up his first political success within two months of achieving it in the hope of going national, few believed his theatrics carried the weight to prolong his career. But Aam Aadmi Party convener Arvind Kejriwal is nothing if not a quick learner. The man who is synonymous with dharna politics realised his mistake and fought his way back to power with a thumping majority in 2015, wiping out the Congress and leaving a measly three seats for the BJP in the 70-member assembly.
True to his style of politics, Kejriwal’s “magic” ebbed and flowed in the five years of his rule in Delhi. But ahead of the assembly election, it seems to have settled on the gloomy side, where his chances of returning to the chief minister’s chair look grim. The BJP’s chances of scoring a victory, on the other hand, seem much brighter, not least because of how the Congress, helped by a leadership crisis since the passing away of Sheila Dikshit, has virtually ruled itself out of the contest. Not that it would have made much of a difference to the BJP. Triangular contests more often than not help the party. Now, it’s only the swing vote that will decide the AAP’s fate.
So, how did it come to this?
Arvind Kejriwal’s ideological leanings are often unclear. The man who could not stop bad-mouthing BJP’s Narendra Modi promptly went to congratulate him after the latter returned to the Prime Minister’s Office with a resounding win in May 2019. A meeting that was supposed to be a ten-minute courtesy call turned out to be a half-an-hour rendezvous. It is moments like these that make people look at Kejriwal and see a man who ultimately only aided Narendra Modi instead of harming his politics in any way. The Jan Lok Pal Bill and the anti-corruption movement merely ensured the Congress was booted out of power from the Centre and in Delhi. The BJP was unaffected, mostly because the issue never surfaced again with the same intensity. The party sat on it for five years, appointing an anti-corruption ombudsman less than a month before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But if anti-corruption was Kejriwal’s war cry before 2014, it was not even a footnote in the years leading up to 2019.
Another problem with Arvind Kejriwal is his mercurial behaviour. From his Jan Lokpal days with Anna Hazare, Kejriwal has loved and hated the same people. He picks faults in those who are closest to him and becomes the greatest enemy of his own allies. Anna Hazare, Prashant Bhushan, Kumar Vishwas, Yogendra Yadav, Kapil Mishra – Arvind Kejriwal managed to push away everyone who was instrumental in his rise. This tendency has also affected how the AAP’s alliances have panned out.
Kejriwal has also tried to bite more than he could chew. Even before he could establish himself firmly in Delhi’s politics, he began nurturing prime ministerial dreams. His attempts at taking Narendra Modi head-on in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and fighting on 400 Lok Sabha seats displayed how overly ambitious he was. When that didn’t turn out well, he turned his attention to Punjab. But things soon began to fall apart in Delhi. Arvind Kejriwal had spread himself thin and AAP supporters were grumbling over his absence.
By 2019, the one-man army party seemed to be out with a begging bowl in search of alliances to strengthen Kejriwal’s flailing position. Maybe it was too late by then. The BJP not only swept the 2019 elections nationwide but took the wind out of the AAP in Delhi too, where Kejriwal had done an incredible amount of work.
Is it curtains on Arvind Kejriwal?
No one can deny Arvind Kejriwal is the only politician who talks about real issues like health and education in a nation that, since 2014, has only obsessed over Hindus, Muslims, temples and Pakistan. Add to that his concern over Delhi’s air pollution and his odd-even scheme to combat it, and you have a leader who is not just politicking but governing too.
Even the greatest critics of Arvind Kejriwal will concede that the man has gall. The slaps, chappals and ink smears have not deterred him. Some call these incidents ‘staged’. But you can almost certainly believe that Kejriwal would still react the same way if an incident ‘indeed’ happened. That’s because Kejriwal doesn’t mind being attacked, literally or figuratively, which truly solidifies his image as an ‘aam aadmi (common man)’. Arvind Kejriwal isn’t another ‘lal batti’ entitled, Z+ security demanding politician. He may be a bit hyperactive at times but that is also his strength. He is a pro-active politician who isn’t allowing himself to stagnate or become contained. He has the guts to put himself out there, speak his mind, embarrass himself, apologise, and get back to business – the kind of political alternative many in India are looking for (and perhaps need).
And Kejriwal knows this all too well, which is why he is on a mission. A self-marketing blitzkrieg is on – from being on TV fighting dengue in 10 minutes to spreading himself all over digital media with his NaMoesque AK mobile app. The interactive medium allows people to leave suggestions and questions for him that he then personally responds to. On Saturday, he inaugurated 100 newly constructed mohalla clinics. Auto-rickshaws in the city are plastered with “I (love) Kejriwal”. The AAP seems to have taken a leaf out of the BJP’s playbook, hero-worshipping their main leader to retain power in Delhi.
It will be known in a few months how much it has benefitted the AAP to live under the shadow of Arvind Kejriwal. Manish Sisodia may have made a name for himself in the past couple of years but the credit of revamping Delhi’s public education system together with Atishi Marlena still falls into Arvind Kejriwal’s lap to a great extent. As do the failures.
This also shows what Arvind Kejriwal has done for Indian politics. He has ushered in a trend where politics is now being seen as a career by young professionals. Engineers, bankers, chartered accountants — people who never looked at Indian politics see this mechanical engineer from IIT Kharagpur without a dynastic surname make a space for himself and realise it’s possible, after all. Raghav Chadha, Ankit Lal, Atishi Marlena, Durgesh Pathak, Nihal Kirnalli, Dilip Pandey – the Aam Aadmi Party is spilling with professionals, which has led the Congress and the BJP to promote their own “professional cells”.
Whatever the outcome of Delhi’s assembly election, Arvind Kejriwal will continue to remain an alternative in India’s political arena where most parties and leaders are turning into fossils.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.