New Delhi: Arvind Kejriwal is on an overdrive to ensure an image makeover — from an anti-corruption activist who preferred ‘anarchism’ even after becoming the chief minister into a leader and an effective administrator.
With assembly elections due in the national capital early next year, the Delhi chief minister is resorting to a time-tested political strategy — create a personality cult that would paper over all failures in governance and politics over the past five years.
As part of the strategy, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief is ubiquitous across the capital. From video conferences, mobile apps, metro stations, auto stands to hoardings on roads or full-page newspaper advertisements, Kejriwal’s face is present all over Delhi even as he highlights his government’s achievements.
आज मैं दिल्ली की बसों में घूमा और सीधे महिलाओं से बातचीत की
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) October 30, 2019
Mending ties with the media
Drubbed by the BJP, which won all seven Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 elections, Kejriwal is taking little chances, even mending ties with an old foe — the media.
Long known to be wary of the media, Kejriwal addressed just seven press conferences before the Lok Sabha results in May. Since the drubbing in the elections, however, the chief minister’s relationship with the media has seen a dramatic shift — in the five months since the results were declared, Kejriwal has held 36 press conferences, ranging on everything from sops for women, rising onion prices, water bill waivers to potholes on Delhi’s roads.
According to Gilles Verniers, professor at Ashoka University, the Delhi chief minister is just drawing from an old Indian playbook.
“In Indian politics, there is a tendency to build around a large-rooted personality as it works from what we saw in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections as it did for Modi,” Verniers said. “Kejriwal has been doing that but his focus tends to be more around humility, dedication and might, which is why one would see him address conferences on even onion prices and potholes today. The recalling factor is easier for the voter. While Modi’s might be more fantasised and larger than life.”
Given it is Delhi wherein the chief minister’s role is “any way like a super mayor”, Gilles added, the focus on municipal issues tends to be more before an assembly election.
AAP’s political affairs committee member Prithvi Reddy, however, said the party was playing up the Delhi chief minister as its election campaign will hinge around him.
“It is only natural for us to use our best weapon since it enables people to recall that for longer,” Reddy said. “Also if Kejriwal holds a presser and says something, it will get published on page 1 vs another spokesperson who may go on page 6 of a national daily. So visibility does play a role while communicating with the audience.”
The ever-present chief minister
With AAP having turned to election mode, the chief minister is at the centre of the campaign.
In September, AAP launched its ‘I love Kejriwal’ campaign, through which it hopes to rebrand the chief minister as a hard-working, approachable politician.
As part of the campaign, the party has distributed pamphlets across the city, highlighting Kejriwal’s achievements in office, and terming him as “Delhi ka Shravan Kumar”, who represents a caring son for his aged parents in the Ramayana.
That he wants to be seen everywhere came to the fore again on 1 November. The media was sent invites on that day to attend a press briefing by Environment Minister Kailash Gehlot on the pollution in the capital.
An insider in the party told ThePrint that Kejriwal wanted to address it himself so the time was revised and a fresh invite was shared wherein both Kejriwal and Gehlot held a joint press conference on the day.
The Kejriwal campaign also has a familiar feel, as he appears to be imitating the ones run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of elections.
Just like the prime minister, Kejriwal recently launched a mobile application through which the electorate can access information regarding the party, upcoming events and the work being done by the Delhi government. The party also hopes to reach out directly to the electorate through the app.
Modi’s NaMo app, launched in 2015, has similar features.
The burgeoning press conferences
With polls around the corner, the AAP government has been announcing a string of populist measures and each of these announcements have been made personally by the chief minister.
All of the schemes also appear carefully crafted to address the concerns of AAP’s core constituents.
In the first of the press conferences, following the Lok Sabha defeat, the chief minister on 3 June announced free metro and bus rides for women in Delhi. Women are a massive vote-bank for the party.
Since then, he has promised street lights on dark spots, CCTV cameras, and has been fighting the BJP to take credit for the registration of unauthorised colonies.
AAP has also targetted the middle and lower middle classes, promising free electricity of up to 200 units and water bill waivers, with Kejriwal repeatedly telling the press that Delhi was the first city in the world to bring about such policies.
The chief minister has also used the press conferences to build on his image, once appearing with a tailor’s son, who had made it to IIT Delhi, and promising to pay his tuition fee.
Researcher and political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan sees nothing wrong in the chief minister fronting nearly all of the AAP government’s press conferences.
“It is only natural for Kejriwal to be holding these press conferences as is the case before any election,” he said. “Delhi is an important election given how diverse the population is here and even the per capita income is higher than Mumbai.”
He added that the AAP convenor wasn’t playing identity politics but one of urban services delivery — “be it education, health, pollution, electricity or water.”
AAP spokesperson Ajoy Kumar told ThePrint that it is a matter of perspective.
“Kejriwal addresses issues that are people’s issues and those he feels convinced about,” Kumar said. “For some people, autos or onions won’t be an issue but for others, these are relevant and AAP has always worked on the basis of voices from people on the ground. He feels he wants to be personally involved.”
Doesn’t trust his own team: Opposition
The opposition isn’t buying it.
BJP’s Delhi unit president Manoj Tiwari says Kejriwal is “fooling people with false promises as he has nothing much to show to them anyway”.
For Arvinder Lovely of the Congress, the press conferences show “Kejriwal’s lack of confidence in his own team, given he feels the need to announce everything himself”. “Besides, AAP appears to be in panic mode post the Lok Sabha defeat given the frequency of freebies in these press conferences,” Lovely said.