New Delhi: Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s proposed trip to Denmark for a summit of international city-level leaders this week is yet to be cleared by the Narendra Modi government.
But Kejriwal’s scheduled participation at the summit is the latest sign of a shift in his approach to politics: The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief spent the bulk of his initial years as a politician trying to project himself as a national leader, taking on the Modi government and its leaders every chance he got. Now, though, he seems to have come into his own as chief minister of the national capital, letting his development pitch take precedence over all else.
At the C40 Summit in Copenhagen, scheduled between 9 and 12 October, Kejriwal is likely to rub shoulders with the likes of London mayor Sadiq Khan and his New York counterpart Bill de Blasio.
Invited to the event as the leader of one of the world’s largest metropolises — probably the only Indian chief minister invited to a conference meant for mayors and city leaders — Kejriwal is scheduled to make an address on his government’s experience in lowering air pollution in Delhi and talk about the initiatives that he says helped bring it down by 25 per cent.
The income tax officer-turned-activist-turned-politician has found himself yet another role as a champion of local governance. While the AAP insists it’s a natural shift in narrative warranted by the upcoming assembly polls, others beg to differ.
Last Tuesday, the CM announced that his government will inspect 1,260 kilometres of Public Works Department (PWD) roads on a war footing and make them pothole-free.
In September, Kejriwal introduced the Mukhyamantri Street Light Yojana and claimed 2.1 lakh streetlights will be introduced across Delhi to eliminate dark spots that are supposed to be hotbeds of criminal activity.
On 3 September, Kejriwal said his government was working on solutions to save the livelihood of street vendors, a day after the Supreme Court directed civic bodies to ensure pavements are cleared of all encroachments.
Last month, he addressed resident welfare association (RWA) representatives at a Delhi stadium as part of the government’s Dengue Awareness Campaign, ‘10 Hafte, 10 Baje, 10 Minute, Har Ravivar, Dengue Par War’ — a campaign usually spearheaded by a government’s health department or civic bodies.
The CM literally took the campaign to the doorstep of Delhiites last Sunday as he visited people’s homes simply to ask if they had set aside 10 minutes to cut the risk of dengue and chikungunya.
At an Independence Day event in August, he acknowledged that Delhi’s “roads and sewers are not in a good condition”, but made it a point to claim that the capital is “now a ray of hope for other states when it comes to free water and electricity, and good quality education in government schools”.
He has promised to regularise unauthorised colonies, and water and power subsidies remain among the mainstays of his campaign.
There’s the ‘I love Kejriwal’ campaign, which started from one loyal autorickshaw driver, and web-seminars with leaders of the party every Saturday at 5 pm, where they discuss the work they have been doing and take questions.
Kejriwal has held conferences with school toppers, is engaging in conversations with the public on Facebook and makes emotional appeals through TV ads.
Roots in Lok Sabha debacle
This transformation can be traced to the AAP’s dismal show in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which followed a series of debacles in multiple state elections.
The party, which has suffered a vertical split in Punjab, is in an even worse condition in Kejriwal’s home state, Haryana. Despite addressing rallies in both Haryana and Goa as the star campaigner of the party in April this year, the AAP just won one seat in India — in Punjab.
In February, Kejriwal’s support for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, locked in a face-off with the Modi government over the CBI’s Saradha investigation against former Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar, led the BJP to question the anti-corruption credentials he rode to office.
Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said Kejriwal’s constant tussle with Modi and the BJP, and blaming them for everything, “didn’t go down too well with the people of Delhi”.
“They perhaps felt he is here only to do this and not get their issues resolved, which, as we say, has changed now, as is visible in his tone towards the PM,” he added. “That has changed, as the middle class isn’t angry anymore with him.
“Voters like positive campaigning, just like the AAP has been doing in Delhi, especially after its defeat in the Lok Sabha elections,” he said. “Voters want to know what the AAP can do for them, not what the AAP thinks of Modi. Having learnt this lesson the hard way, it is now focusing on showing governance achievements.”
The AAP, however, said the focus on city issues was “natural”, given that the focus is bound to be on Delhi when the assembly polls are months away.
“When there is a national election, we will talk on national issues, when there is a local MCD election, we will focus on that. This is regular politics,” Delhi’s Deputy CM Manish Sisodia told ThePrint. “We will talk of work done in Delhi if it is a state election. I don’t see anything off in this.”
AAP national executive member Prithvi Reddy told ThePrint: “Everything we did is also a stepping stone for a national narrative. There is a difference between personal politics and politics of policy, and when it comes to the former we aren’t even competing with Mr Modi… The party is addressing how elections should be fought on real issues as a model for governance.”
Another senior leader of the party echoed the sentiment: “In terms of number of hours and project follow-up, governance and Delhi have always been a key focus area (for the AAP). What seems to have increased is media coverage and personal involvement in policy press conferences.”
A member of AAP’s social media team said: “The mohalla clinics, improvements in Delhi’s education sector and changes in the power sector of the capital city have not only touched lives but are also identified with Kejriwal. The election campaign is designed around these government schemes.”
Reddy added: “We have the lowest fiscal deficit in Delhi, at 0.03 per cent, our polyclinics are an example of great healthcare services, the education curriculums introduced by AAP are encouraging other state governments to introduce the same and perhaps that is how we are influencing the national politics too.”
However, former party spokesperson Ashutosh, who quit the AAP last year, said Kejriwal had missed the bus. “The country had great hopes from him but lack of political understanding and arrogance of power led to his fall,” he added. “He has not moved from national to local. Rather, he has been pushed by his own follies and whimsical attitude.”
(The report has been updated to reflect the correct fiscal deficit figure of Delhi in AAP member Prithvi Reddy’s quote.)