The exit polls make it clear that Arvind Kejriwal shall be sworn in as the chief minister of Delhi for a third consecutive time. As with his two previous stints, his immediate thought will be to seal up the Aam Aadmi Party and go national.
In his first two attempts, he made many mistakes in the national expansion plan. Yet he has this amazing ability to rise like a phoenix every time he suffers a setback. Destiny is giving him a third chance.
Kejriwal has made enough mistakes in the last 10-odd years of politics. Learning from these mistakes, he could well have a fruitful next decade.
Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) still have a chance to replace the Congress as the main national opposition party. How might he go about doing so this time round? Here are some things Kejriwal might be thinking about in the free time he has between now and the results of the Delhi election.
A new-found humility
A lot will depend on how the AAP convener feels about the results on 11 February. Will his heart swell with pride and vanity once again?
In 2015, the first thing Arvind Kejriwal did after winning the Delhi assembly election was to unceremoniously sack Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. It is unlikely he will make that sort of mistake now. He may not want to be accused of being authoritarian once again.
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Then came the Punjab defeat in 2017, which humbled him. He went into a sulk and took his time to recover.
It is more likely that Kejriwal might get down to the business of national expansion right away. He is 51, and has only 20-30 years left to pursue his national ambitions.
After the 2015 election victory, Arvind Kejriwal saw the vacant spot for national alternative to Narendra Modi. And he thought he could fill that slot simply by criticising Modi morning and evening. That is how, Kejriwal thought, he might come to be seen as the strongest challenger to Narendra Modi.
In doing so, Kejriwal got personal. He called Modi names. Soon after the Punjab defeat in 2017, he realised it had backfired. He then switched to ‘co-operative federalism’ to push the ‘Modi at the Centre, Kejriwal in the state’ perception. The idea was to save the chief minster’s chair in 2020.
Now that it’s done, Kejriwal will likely pitch himself as the national alternative through positive campaigning. Instead of attacking Modi, Kejriwal will now be able to say he has better ideas than Modi to govern India and solve the problems of the masses. The AAP is already talking of a “Delhi model of governance” to contrast with the “Gujarat model” that Modi had offered to the voters across India in 2014.
AK plus PK?
Top of Kejriwal’s mind might be the idea that he must avenge the humiliation of Punjab defeat. In 2016, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that the AAP was going to win the Punjab assembly election in early 2017. However, they lost badly to a series of mistakes, and to the persona of Congress’ Amarinder Singh and his campaign strategist Prashant Kishor.
Kejriwal took the same Prashant Kishor’s help in his campaign for the 2020 Delhi assembly election. If Kejriwal felt he was winning this election anyway, he might not have taken the services of the Kishor-mentored Indian Political Action Committee. In 2017 Kishor had helped defeat the AAP in Punjab, and Kejriwal might now want his help to win that state in 2022.
The AAP circles are already abuzz with the talk that Kishor might join the party. This speculation has gained ground since Kishor’s recent expulsion from the Janata Dal (United) over his criticism of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s wishy-washy position over the CAA, NPR and NRC.
If ‘AK’ and ‘PK’ come together, it is likely that the Aam Aadmi Party might try its luck in Kishor’s home state, Bihar. Kejriwal might help Kishor in Bihar, and Kishor might return the favour in Punjab. And this association could continue in four other small states where the AAP has been interested in: Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa.
Given that Prashant Kishor has been working with various anti-BJP parties in different parts of India, he may just be the right person to help the AAP realise its national ambitions.
Lage Raho chief minister?
Whether or not ‘AK’ and ‘PK’ come together, Kejriwal will have to take a call on another big question that has prevented his national ambitions from gaining ground.
And that is, whether he is going to put all his eggs in the state-by-state battles. We know that winning state elections doesn’t mean you would do well in the Lok Sabha as well. The two can be very different.
Apart from the Congress and the Left parties, there is no opposition party with a serious presence in more than one state. And the Left, for all practical purposes, now exists only in one state, Kerala.
If the AAP could win just one more state, it may no longer be seen by voters in the rest of India as a Delhi-only party. And that may instantly give the AAP national stature in political circles.
The problem is, it is difficult to see Kejriwal as a national leader if he remains the chief minister of Delhi, held responsible for running buses and opening clinics.
It took Narendra Modi many years of image-making to pitch himself for a national role. For Arvind Kejriwal, it may be useful to quit the chair of the Delhi CM, making his deputy Manish Sisodia the chief minister. This will free up Kejriwal to travel around the country and pitch himself as a national alternative to Modi — a slot that has been desperately vacant.
However, it is unlikely that Arvind Kejriwal will take such a risk. The more he has matured as a politician, the less his appetite for risk.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.
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