New Delhi: Can a third term as Delhi chief minister be the launchpad for Arvind Kejriwal to realise his national ambition, a goal he had set for himself after launching the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in November 2012?
As ThePrint had reported in August 2018, based on interactions with leaders who had worked very closely with him in his initial years in politics, Kejriwal’s ambition was to become the prime minister of India in 2019. It was to start with the victory in Delhi (in 2013) and move on to Punjab (early 2017), Gujarat (December 2017) and, finally, Rajasthan (November-December 2018) — while making forays into other states on the way — to catapult Kejriwal into a position to enter the political sweepstakes at the Centre.
That plan went awry as Kejriwal lost the plot midway. Even when the AAP was going strong in Delhi, especially after the chief minister decided to shed his anarchist tag and focus on governance issues 2018 onwards, people outside Delhi stopped taking it seriously.
Sample the AAP’s vote-share in the last six assembly elections — 0.23 per cent in Jharkhand, 0.1 per cent in Maharashtra, 0.48 per cent in Haryana, 0.66 per cent in Madhya Pradesh, 0.38 per cent in Rajasthan and 0.87 per cent in Chhattisgarh. The AAP’s vote-share in each of these states was less than that of NOTA.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the AAP had surprised many by winning four seats in Punjab, with 24.4 per cent vote-share. The party almost retained this vote-share in the 2017 assembly election in Punjab but ended up with only 20 seats in the 117-member assembly.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the AAP’s tally in Punjab went down to one, with its vote-share plummeting to 7.46 per cent. That is also its overall tally in the Lok Sabha.
Political strategist, yes, but not Modi challenger yet
The AAP has evidently been on the wane outside Delhi since its spectacular victory in the national capital in 2015 assembly election. The big question now is: Can Tuesday’s Delhi poll result reverse the AAP’s fortune nationally? With his third consecutive term in the chief minister’s office, Kejriwal has certainly emerged as a strong opposition leader and a political strategist who could outwit and outmanoeuvre Amit Shah’s BJP.
His politics of ‘soft nationalism’ encapsulated by his support for the invalidation of Article 370 and ‘soft Hindutva’ showcased by his recital of the Hanuman Chalisa and visits to the Hanuman temple could also become a model for many other opposition parties to follow. Kejriwal managed to beat the BJP’s aggressive nationalism and communal narrative centred on Shaheen Bagh by focusing on the AAP government’s achievements.
But is that enough to propel him onto the national political centrestage? Political observers believe the voters in the national capital made a conscious choice — Narendra Modi as prime minister and Arvind Kejriwal as chief minister. To that extent, the latter is far from becoming a challenger to the former nationally. It’s also a fact that the Congress, which seemed to be on course to recovery in Delhi’s civic polls and Lok Sabha elections, virtually withdrew from the race in the assembly elections, which bolstered the AAP’s chances. If the Congress had put up a fight, the Delhi results could have been different.
AAP’s campaign in the Delhi election was hyper local, almost like a municipal election in which subsidised power and water, free bus and metro rides for women and improvements in the health and education sectors resonated with the voters.
Arvind Kejriwal may have modelled himself as ‘Chhota Modi’ for Delhi and may aspire to grow in stature nationally the way chief minister Modi had done by pitching the ‘Gujarat model of development’ as an alternative to the UPA’s. But Kejriwal’s freebies and modest success in a couple of sectors can’t match the Gujarat model — marked by innovative governance, huge improvements in social and physical infrastructure and the emergence of Gujarat as one of the best investment destinations, among others.
The fact that even the people of Delhi don’t see the AAP as a national party was evident in 2014 and 2019, when in both Lok Sabha elections it drew a blank in the national capital, losing all seven seats. In 2019, the AAP finished third on five of the seven seats and got only 18.2 per cent votes, about four percentage points less than the Congress.
The typical politician
Post-Anna Hazare agitation, Kejriwal had got some traction nationally as a leader pursuing alternative politics. That aura is nowhere there as the Delhi chief minister started playing identity politics — calling himself ‘a baniya’, asking party colleagues to change or shed their titles for political convenience and courting ethnic groups — like thoroughbred politicians.
His image as a democrat got a blow after he started forcing out of the party anyone who dared to ask questions, including eminent personalities such as Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav. Like a typical politician, Arvind Kejriwal started selling dreams. He promised eight lakh new jobs for Delhiites in the 2015 manifesto but skipped this issue altogether in his poll campaign and the party manifesto in 2020 elections. He promised to make Delhi “pollution-free” in the 2015 manifesto; in the 2020 manifesto, he has promised to reduce pollution by a third.
His anti-corruption crusade has lost steam. Delhi’s water minister Kapil Mishra, who was sacked by Kejriwal, had claimed that it was done because of his demand for action in a huge ‘tanker scam’. AAP insiders have pointed out how money bags were getting priority in the allotment of party tickets and Rajya Sabha nominations. According to a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms, 51 of the 70 AAP candidates are millionaires. The election watch body’s report also said that more than half of the AAP’s candidates faced criminal cases. The AAP has also stopped publishing the list of its donors on its website.
The AAP may have won another massive mandate, but it’s no longer the same party that once ignited public imagination. It’s just another party and Kejriwal just another politician. The ‘third alternative’ that the AAP was once projected as in national politics has lost traction. Tuesday’s verdict is unlikely to turn the clock back.