New Delhi: Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has always sought to dispel any description of him as the quintessential politician.
“All the leaders of the so many political parties that exist are the same,” he had written in his 2012 book, Swaraj. “We can select leaders from one party or the other but the content of that political leader will not change. In the last sixty years, we have tried every political party and every political leader. But there has been no improvement in the condition of the country.”
The irony is that his party’s most recent electoral victory, in the 2020 Delhi Assembly polls, has come on the back of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief metamorphosing into an astute politician.
Gone are the days that the bureaucrat-turned-RTI activist was the national capital’s disrupter-in-chief, even when he was the chief minister.
In the run-up to the Delhi elections, Kejriwal underwent quite an image makeover — from an anti-corruption activist who preferred ‘anarchism’ into a leader and an effective administrator.
His choice to adopt the middle path also did not go unnoticed. The chief minister refused to engage on the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests at Shaheen Bagh, which the BJP’s polarisation campaign hinged on.
It showed that Kejriwal had adopted a more conventional approach to politics.
An RTI activist who worked with him for years argued in 2012 that Kejriwal was “politician material” precisely because he was like “other political leaders”.
“He is a leader with strong non-democratic traits; he is in a way choosing the conventional method of leading people, doing politics,” the activist said.
Even so, Kejriwal has been hailed for consistently putting development and education first, and remaining true to the development agenda.
ThePrint takes you through Kejriwal’s journey — of what has changed, and what has stayed the same.
From the bottom up
Arvind Kejriwal began working in the income tax department as a revenue officer in 1995, having already worked at Tata Steel since graduating from IIT Kharagpur in 1989. He resigned, voluntarily, in 2006, after he reportedly grew disillusioned with the rampant corruption in the government.
“Once you are inside the system, you realise you are a very small peg, and there is very little you can do,” Kejriwal had told the Financial Times in an interview in 2014.
He dedicated himself full time to Parivartan, an unregistered organisation aimed to improve accountability and transparency in governance, which he had launched and been working on since 2001.
His efforts earned him a Ramon Magsaysay Award the same year he left the government, for working incessantly with villagers and slum dwellers on the Right to Information (RTI) Act. With his prize money, he opened the Public Cause Research Foundation to continue RTI-related work.
In 2007, Kejriwal felt that RTI, a powerful tool for accountability, didn’t change corrupt systems. He then began drafting the Jan Lokpal Bill with the help of lawyer Prashant Bhushan and the latter’s father, Shanti Bhushan.
“We told him, let’s not mix up everything in one bill, and he would say ‘I will take it into consideration.’ But he never did, which means he had his own plans, and he knew exactly what he was doing,” said Venkatesh Nayak, a senior member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), of which Kejriwal was also part.
When he felt the bill was not being taken seriously, Kejriwal parted with the NCPRI and joined hands with Anna Hazare in 2011. He rallied the streets as Hazare sat on a hunger strike to demand an end to corruption. The movement galvanised the nation and provided Kejriwal with the springboard to enter politics.
“We started to realise that unless you change the politics of the country, things will never change. It was very clear you had to enter politics. It was not by choice; it was part of the journey, the next logical step,” he told FT.
How AAP happened
When Kejriwal launched the AAP in 2012, fresh off the anti-corruption movement, the party won an impressive 28 seats in the 2013 assembly elections and it was believed the feat was possible because Kejriwal was a populist leader. He had defeated, and unseated, the Congress’s Sheila Dikshit by forming a minority government.
Kejriwal, however, stunned the electorate by resigning, a little over a month into his first term, when the Jan Lokpal Bill didn’t pass the assembly test. In 2015, when fresh elections were held, he was re-elected and AAP won with a thumping majority, winning 67 of the 70 seats.
The 2020 elections have brought back the party with the same vigour, sparing only eight seats for the BJP, which had pumped in major resources to polarise the electorate.
Since 2012, AAP’s focus has steadily been on issues of governance, especially those affecting the middle class. It began with corruption when Kejriwal most aggressively espoused the image of an activist. Now, it is on issues of water, electricity, and education.
With it has come about a change in Kejriwal’s posturing. The defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where the BJP bagged all seven Lok Sabha seats in the capital, prompted him to come back to the streets — but this time as “an approachable and a polite neta” and as someone who is “a communicator instead of a leader who speaks only in monologues without listening”.
The change has served the party well. When the BJP descended and election campaigning began in full swing this season, Kejriwal completely abandoned activism even as the city protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act and bouts of violence.
His measured responses to the Shaheen Bagh protests — a major target for the BJP — reaffirmed a stance he has always maintained: that he is neither on the left nor right.
Not Shaheen Bagh, but “work and performance over the past five years will determine voters’ decision,” Kejriwal said in an interview.
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