The Arvind Kejriwal who will seek re-election in Delhi on 8 February will be very different from the maverick, no-holds-barred political newbie who sought votes in 2013 and 2015 on the promise of standing up to the establishment and questioning the system.
This is a new version of Aam Aadmi Party chief Kejriwal — painfully safe, carefully worded and almost hypocritical, a sort of a cop-out for those who voted for him because he was ‘different’ and stood apart in a sea of ‘politically correct’ politicians.
Two recent instances best define this sea change in Arvind Kejriwal, whose claim to fame was his courage and tenacity. The Delhi chief minister’s reactions to protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the unprecedented violence in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Sunday night show his desire to compensate for his earlier confrontationist avatar, which stopped yielding political dividends. He has now ended up diluting his brand and the very core that made him Indian politics’ biggest success story of the decade.
The play-it-safe Kejriwal
The Delhi CM has largely steered clear of commenting on the contentious CAA-NRC issue, even as several other opposition leaders have been vocal in their opposition to it. For instance, as Kejriwal presented a detailed report card of his government’s five-year performance on 25 December — in the midst of the massive protests and furore in Delhi — he carefully chose to skirt the topic, choosing safer subjects instead.
Kejriwal knows this could be a double-edged sword among a voting bloc like in Delhi where on the one hand, the BJP can use it to polarise the voter and whip up sentiments and on the other, the cosmopolitan voter may get turned-off with any degree of sympathy for the issue.
With JNU, as well, Kejriwal has chosen to play it safe. Despite the perturbing visuals coming out of the campus, all the Delhi CM did was put out a tweet expressing shock. This, at a time when many were requesting the CM to show up at JNU and stand with the students.
Imagine a politician, whose politics has been based on street protests and dharnas, choosing to remain within the safe confines of Twitter to outrage against a shocking and unparalleled incident in the heart of his territory.
The sea change
This is a marked difference from the earlier version of Arvind Kejriwal — bold and outspoken, almost to the extent of looking immature and amateur. Remember his reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a ‘coward’ and ‘psychopath’.
Kejriwal was the quintessential anarchist, the anti-corruption crusader who built an entire party and his initial politics on being the persistent street fighter. He was the perpetual confrontationist, not afraid of being an odd combination of attacker and victim. But as he tried to spread his wings outside Delhi, and as Modi became increasingly loved by the masses, Kejriwal’s obstructionist and forever-fighting persona began to cost him both politically and electorally.
He began losing elections embarrassingly in states where he had tried to gain a foothold, his trusted soldiers deserted the Aam Aadmi Party and he increasingly came to be seen as forever sulking, unnecessarily combative, non-performer.
The current image-makeover is a carefully thought-out strategy, the transformation into a ‘mature’, ‘sensible’ politician perhaps a political necessity. Kejriwal had to project the image of being a doer and not just a whiner.
A diluted opponent
In that process, however, the non-conformist Kejriwal has now turned into what his voters had perhaps never imagined — a sanitised, cautious and sticking-to-the-norm politician.
While there is little doubt there was a need for Kejriwal to focus more on administration and less on calling everyone names, what we now have is a bland leader.
Among the opposition leaders in India who seemed unperturbed about giving it right back to the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine were Kejriwal and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. While Mamata still retains that fire inside her, Kejriwal has begun playing it so safe that one might even forget his vociferous opposition to the BJP — the party in power at the Centre as well as his primary rival in Delhi.
It is a tad disappointing to see a leader who wants to be in the national imagination not speak up on CAA-NRC or the unacceptable violence in university campuses.
The BJP is worried about the Delhi polls, it has no face to match up to Kejriwal. And in playing it safe and projecting only a positive approach, Kejriwal may have played his cards right for now. But in the larger scheme of things, Arvind Kejriwal’s voters will miss the intrepid image he had once worked hard to develop, as will Indian politics.