What went wrong with Arvind Kejriwal
Sometime after he quit as Delhi’s Chief Minister in 2014, Arvind Kejriwal took a private helicopter ride to a conclave of eminences hosted by a media group. His trademark Uriah Heep speech done, he took questions from the jampacked audience. To his surprise, a man rose to recite couplets he had specially composed for the occasion. The first couplet passed in adulation, leaving the Mufflerman amused. Then, the local poet slipped in a barb:
‘Like the Pied Piper you played the flute
Your soulful siren song in winter
But swiftly you gave yourself the boot
Afraid what spring will bring, sir?
(Loosely translated from Hindi)
On the podium, the self-anointed corruption fighter’s facial muscles, caught close on camera, tightened visibly. As easily as it had appeared, the smile on Kejriwal’s face transformed into a frown. Criticism was apparently a concept that didn’t have much place in his ideological lexicon. The Mufflerman clearly preferred to be recalled as a Chief Minister who went down all-guns-blazing. Being painted in public by an aam aadmi as a god with feet of clay could hardly look good on the new, bigger canvas of the Lok Sabha polls that he was setting his sights on, leveraging the hype around the Aam Aadmi Party—and him—that had been generated by the media.
Rear-view mirrors don’t lie. And they showed a clear picture of failure: despite the huge sops on electricity and water, the promises of making Delhi a ‘Wi-Fi city’, efforts to bring Delhi Police under the state government’s command, prioritising issues of women’s safety, and all his nukkad naataks, jan charchas and other theatrics on civic issues, not to speak of AAP’s massive rallies at Jantar Mantar and Ram Lila Maidan, the final numbers fell short for it in Delhi’s last polls, forcing the party to accept Congress support. Kejriwal’s later decision as Chief Minister to call the bluff of the BJP and Congress on the Lokpal bill in the Assembly fell flat, and the AAP chief decided, against sage counsel within the party, that cutting his losses and quitting his post within just a month-and-a- half was a good tactical move for better things ahead.
Kejriwal is a man known for planning well ahead and working on a roadmap to acheive his objectives to the next level, as he did when he crafted the AAP, even while his colleagues in India Against Corruption (IAC) remained stuck in the quagmire of a slowly unravelling anti- graft movement led by a sleep-deprived geriatric from the sleepy interior of Maharashtra. Even the name of his new political party had cocked a snook at the country’s then First Son-in-law, Robert Vadra, who had called IAC activists ‘mango people’ (aam log) in a tweet.
A former bureaucrat, Kejriwal did not believe in doing things by halves. He was already looking beyond Delhi’s horizons. Not surprisingly, he pitched himself against the BJP’s indefatigable campaigner and prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi. When the General Election for the Lok Sabha arrived, with it came a churn within his fledgling political party. Some of his colleagues were openly uncomfortable about moving to this next level without consolidating the party’s support in Delhi as a foundation first. In Varanasi, when he sought to tower over Narendra Modi, things fell apart. Came the Ides of May, and with it, an AAP washout. Then, the shakeout happened. First, Shazia Ilmi, former TV journalist and AAP’s losing Lok Sabha candidate from Ghaziabad, quit the party charging its leadership with being undemocratic and authoritarian in decision making. “Arvind and his faithfuls are control freaks. They steadfastly refuse to take any suggestions other than their own and run the party like it’s their fiefdom,” said the former AAP leader, now eyeing the BJP for a political resurrection. Then, Captain Gopinath, the founder of Deccan Airways, hemmed and hawed and distanced himself. Others soon followed. And in no time, it was back to the Delhi drawing board for Mufflerman and Company.
In the thick of these travails, the AAP chief had no relief from another sharp thorn: one-time colleague and former top cop Kiran Bedi, who had aligned herself with his mentor Anna Hazare to decry Kejriwal’s decision to float a political entity bent on contesting elections. As late as October last year, Bedi had asserted to the media, when asked whether she had her sights set on the Chief Minister’s seat in Delhi: “Not at all. I do not run political races… Had I run one, I would have been Delhi’s police commissioner.” She added, “Delhi needs an educated leadership— someone who is a visionary, analytical, clean, and has a positive outlook. Someone who has development as the sole agenda.” The jibe at her former colleague was clear.
Lulled into the belief that the ambitious Bedi—one of IAC’s most recognisable faces other than his own—would not venture into political waters, Kejriwal and his entourage made the BJP’s apparent inability to find a suitable candidate to project as Chief Minister, and need to pin all hope on Modi, a key focus of their Delhi poll campaign for 2015. But within a few months of that, Bedi had brazenly thrown her hat in the ring as a candidate with just the credentials the BJP needed. On 15 January, Bedi joined the BJP. Like the smiling kitchen-garden poet at the media conclave who’d slipped in the barb at the last moment, Bedi pit herself against her former colleague directly.
Analysts were quick to dub this a ‘coup’ for the BJP, a political masterstroke that would take the stuffing out of AAP’s most biting charge against it: that the party was a one-trick pony. Says a national spokesperson of the BJP, “It’s true that we did not have a chief ministerial candidate prior to the poll in states including Maharashtra, Jharkhand or Haryana. It’s true the PM was the chief campaigner for the BJP in all these states. The decision to not project a Chief Minister was proven a successful strategy with the wins we managed in these states, an undeniable signal of the faith that the people of this country continue to repose in Narendra Modi. In Delhi, however, the electoral dynamics are different and it called for a different strategy. In order to consolidate the overwhelming electoral support we have, we took a considered decision to put a face to the person who would head the BJP government in Delhi.”
Bedi’s biggest asset over Kejriwal, party leaders maintain, is the clear backing of BJP President Amit Shah, and a team determined to market her as the ‘Iron Woman’ that Delhi needs for its development. Shah’s involvement makes a major difference. As the man who did the impossible by delivering almost all of UP into the BJP kitty at the Lok Sabha hustings and then scored thumping assembly wins for his party in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, Shah is seen as a game-changer who is likely to swing things firmly in the BJP’s favour again. “In the 2013 Assembly polls, AAP had a large number of self motivated and enthusiastic workers who adopted innovative and catchy campaign methods which were down to earth in language and appeal. Adding to its advantage was also the fact that the BJP leadership was divided over the choice of a Chief Minister and marked by bickering. Nor did the party have a ‘giant killer’ for its president, who takes each assembly election as a challenge. Under Shah’s leadership, the party poll machinery—the poll campaign, voter contact, publicity, propaganda—is well- oiled and vastly better organised. Shah, in keeping with his strategy in UP and other states, interacts directly with booth level workers, energising them manifold. He has also institutionaliaed panna pramukhs and so on. Ticket seekers who didn’t make it have been personally contacted by the party leadership in a methodical manner so as to ensure that they work for the party’s good unitedly,” according to a senior BJP leader. He maintains what would also work decisively to the BJP’s advantage this time round is the attrition of voter support for AAP in the post-Modi electoral landscape. “In 2013, the Lok Sabha polls had yet to happen. But since Narendra Modi’s thumping win at the hustings last May, a sizeable section of the middle-class that voted the BJP in those elections now sees synergy in a BJP government at the Centre and one in Delhi. That is likely to show up clearly in Delhi, which has a substantial voter population of the middle-class. AAP is likely to only manage the backing of the lower middle and economically weaker sections,” the BJP leader adds.
What that last expectation translates to in hard numbers is that the city’s Muslim vote, estimated at 14 per cent of the total, and the Dalit vote, a similar fraction, which together formed part of the Congress votebase in the last election —when it was still seen as a serious contender for power—could well swing behind Kejriwal and AAP this time round. In other words, the Congress collapse would aid AAP in Delhi. And that poses a big challenge for the BJP as polls approach.
Initial poll intelligence gathered suggests that most of the city’s Muslim- dominated constituencies, such as Matia Mahal, Balli Maran, Mujaffarabad, Babar- pur, Okhla and Seelampur, are likely to be won by AAP; five of these seats were picked up by the Congress last time (the JD-U MLA from Balli Maran switched over to the party). In Dalit areas such as Valmiki Basti, home once to Mahatma Gandhi and from where, more recently, Narendra Modi began his Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the AAP still has a stronghold.
Some analysts view the current Delhi Assembly polls as the most important one after last year’s General Election, since it may offer an opportunity to assess the popularity of the BJP at the Centre under Modi, and of the AAP in Delhi. According to analysts, one key distinction between Delhi’s last election and the current one that could have an impact on support for the two main contenders, AAP and BJP, is the fact that both were contesting as opposition parties in 2013. Back then, they were battling for a post that was certain to be vacated by an anti-incumbency-battered Congress, led in Delhi by a three-time chief minister tainted by the Commonwealth Games scam, Sheila Dikshit. In the 2015 election, however, the two big opponents are going in with a backwind of anti- incumbency: AAP, on account of its 49- day debacle, and BJP, on the back of its eight-month rule at the Centre.
Scepticism over Kejriwal’s ability to actually deliver on AAP’s tall promises has also intensified among the electorate since 2013. Slashed power bills, a daily supply of 700 litres of water to each Delhi household and the regularisation of unauthorised colonies were among its key poll commitments. However, experts such as former Delhi Principal Secretary Shakti Sinha have poked holes in these promises, questioning their economic viability. He maintains that slashing monthly power bills by half, a poll promise that appealed to several voters reeling under rising power charges, was simply not sustainable. The Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission determines the tariff per unit of power for Delhi consumers and any government trying to slash bills by that much would have to subsidise power to the tune of nearly Rs 5,000 crore a year. That adds up to a massive one-third of Delhi’s total development budget.
The Delhi Jal Board currently supplies every household with 200 litres of water. Overall, the city needs around 1,100 million gallons of water a day. It is short of around 50 million gallons by the official record, but independent estimates peg this figure much higher. Under the circumstances, supplying 700 litres of water free to every household would need an exponential boost in delivery mechanisms and infrastructure, even excluding the unauthorised colonies to be regularised. Storage and treatment facilities would also need to be expanded vastly. This is no easy task, say experts.
One crucial part of the Delhi poll battle is that of image. Contends Ashish Sharma, an image makeover expert who has worked on earlier political campaigns: “In Kejriwal’s case, I think his self goal when he quit in 49 days proved to be the biggest dimension of his negative image, which could work well for the BJP. A ‘bhagoda’ or deserter doesn’t conjure up instant associations of honour, responsible behaviour or accountability. Bedi may have joined the race late, but she came with several givens for a positive image build up that work in the BJP’s favour.”
That the Mufflerman was blindsided by the decision to rope in Bedi was clearer still when he tweeted that several BJP leaders had informed him that they were working to stymie her victory. In more than one constituency, Kejriwal calculatedly referred to ‘bribes’—allegedly in the form of money, blankets and rice—being dished out by both the BJP and Congress, exhorting voters to take all that came their way but vote for the AAP instead. The BJP promptly flagged this for the Election Commission’s notice, which then issued a warning to the AAP chief that he was dangerously close to violating the Model Code of Conduct. Later, calculated news reports surfaced on how Anna Hazare, once mentor to Bedi, had refused to take her telephone calls. On TV screens across Delhi, Hazare asserted, “I have nothing to say. Politics is a dirty game and I don’t want to comment on it.” An unhappy and estranged husband in Amritsar, a seat for a medical course from the Mizoram quota for her daughter, and controversies around her abrupt departure from her Goa and Mizoram postings were all part of the bad press that she got.
But those moulding Bedi’s image have fought back with success. When politicians united to oust Bedi as the in-charge of prisons in 1995, Khushwant Singh had said, “Her transfer was a victory for a handful of small-minded, envious people over a gutsy woman.” The image of a brave, no-nonsense cop willing to take on the high-and-mighty has now been made a leitmotif. Bedi underlined this by referring to how she, India’s woman police officer to scale such heights, was thwarted from becoming the city’s Police Commissioner. “The fact that she was a fearless woman cop in itself inspires great confidence on the issue of security for women in the Delhi/NCR region. To boot, she is a cop with several decades of experience on the ground at law enforcement. Bedi’s image is that of an efficient, ambitious, disciplined career woman who made it the highest echelons of a male-dominated force. Fault that, and you are in trouble. In a fell swoop, this should also dwarf any assurance that AAP may give on the issue of security for women, such as emergency buttons on mobile phones,” contends a BJP leader.
Once she was named the BJP candidate, Bedi hit the ground running in right earnest, backed by the BJP publicity wing. Eleven ministers and several MPs were pressed into service at the party office and on the ground to micromanage the electoral campaign and to counter the Kejriwal propaganda machine. Senior ministers were drafted too. While AAP put out word that Bedi’s entry to the fray was a clear signal that the BJP was jittery, the BJP struck back without losing time. Bedi began to brainstorm with senior party leaders on a daily basis to chart her course and responses. Her sound bites have steered clear of micro issues and controversies. Rebutting charges of her lack of depth on Delhi’s key issues of concern, the BJP leader adds, “Our biggest assets are Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his achievements. So why not showcase that the most? People understand development commitments when they see a government working on it.” Bedi, accordingly, stuck to motherhood statements on Delhi, ducking any tall promises on the contentious issues of bijli and paani. “Delhi needs a stable, visionary government to become a world-class city. I believe the BJP can give it just that,” she intoned time and again. “Bijli and paani will remain crucial issues for the voter in a city like Delhi where the cost of living is high and home budgets take a big dent on these counts, as much as rent, EMIs and transport. But ‘Delhi chale desh ke saath’ may prove to be the more catchy slogan among voters, reflecting as it does the upbeat spirit of the times. It may prove to be the BJP’s USP, sloganwise,” says a political observer. And it was in that spirit, BJP publicists say, that Bedi referred to US President Barack Obama’s visit to the city as chief guest at the Republic Day parade. A sort of teaser, if you will, on what greatness Delhi could hope to achieve under a BJP government.
But the AAP chief wore a frown all through the week before Republic Day. First, there were questions from the media on why AAP stalwart Prashant Bhushan had vanished from the current poll campaign. While attempts were being made to douse that fire, AAP’s senior leader Shanti Bhushan, Prashant’s father and also among the founders of the party, made statements that endorsed Kiran Bedi as a highly suitable candidate for the Delhi Chief Minister’s post. Next, the Republic Day parade invitation issue—Kejriwal received none—blew over quickly as the capital found itself agog with the ‘Obama-Modi bromance’. And a tweet on the demise of eminent cartoonist RK Laxman, the man who created the original Aam Aadmi, was seen as in bad taste. As Sharma says, “Image moulders can only cut from the cloth that is already there and fashion a garment that is flattering. But if the cloth itself is lacking, there is only this much we can do to airbrush it.”