Ullekh NP | 12 Feb, 2015
‘February 10: National de-worming day for Delhi’
That was perhaps the pithiest and most caustic text message that did the rounds on 10 February, as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) cruised towards blotting out the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and eliminating the Congress from the 70-member Delhi state Assembly. Internet Hindus and trolls who took pleasure in referring to AAP hard-hitter Arvind Kejriwal as a political ‘worm’ took a short break from their keypads after flying off their Twitter handles, blaming Delhiites for the vehemence with which they re-elected the diminutive, asthmatic, muffler-clad Arvind Kejriwal. The Magsaysay laureate, alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur and a former Indian Revenue Service officer proved himself a phoenix rising from the ashes, a leader who turned within hours the perceived invincibility of the high-wattage poll campaign run by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo into a mere joke.
Hours before AAP volunteers sprung to their feet chanting ‘Panch saal Kejriwal’, with some of them jiving in gay abandon, Raj Kumar, a cabbie who lives in Patel Nagar, home to AAP’s headquarters, said he was glad that the BJP campaign ended in a whimper. He wasn’t all that convinced about voting for Kejriwal’s party a week earlier because he shared doubts with thousands of others who had voted for AAP in 2013: why should one trust a guy who walked away after 49 days of being in power without fulfilling all the tall promises he had made in that year’s poll campaign? The BJP’s ad-spot on FM radio featuring an old woman who felt betrayed by Kejriwal had struck a chord, he recalls. “He is a nice guy, but can we trust him to govern? That was the question in the air until a few weeks before the 7 February vote,” notes Kumar. “And then as the campaign momentum picked up, when AAP leaders started meeting people so frequently, things started to change. Before I realised it, I had changed my views. The day before the election, everyone in my neighbourhood was saying he or she would vote for AAP. Suddenly, everyone trusted AAP and its leadership. Nobody wanted to vote for the BJP like how they did in the 2014 General Election,” he says, haltingly, looking for apt words to describe the tectonic shift in voter preference in the national capital. Perhaps a counter-advertisement by the AAP on radio did the trick—in it, Kejriwal addresses the old woman of the BJP campaign, asks her forgiveness, and promises a more mature Chief Minister this time round.
Ashok Tiwari, who sells hot samosas not far from Delhi’s tony Defence Colony Market, had voted for AAP in 2013 only to be dejected when the party walked out midway from power. He voted for the BJP in last year’s General Election, when India’s Hindu nationalist party, led by prime ministerial heavyweight Modi, won all of Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha constituencies, dominating the vote-count in 60 of its 70 assembly segments. Tiwari, who is originally from Lucknow, had thought that Kejriwal was “overly ambitious” when he heard the news of his contesting against Modi in Varanasi for the 2014 polls. “I was not interested in him at all after he lost to Modi. But just a week before the Delhi Assembly election, I decided I would vote for AAP because its workers and leaders are very accessible, unlike Modi’s men who make promises and go. Ordinary people could become AAP candidates. The mood was infectious. AAP offered some hope. I was also put off by Modi wearing a Rs 10 lakh suit to impress the American president [Barack Obama]. Would any leader in a poor country like ours do it?” asks this amiable man. “I sensed just days before 7 February that all my friends and acquaintances had made up their mind to vote for AAP in Delhi no matter who ruled the whole country,” he explains, emphasising that the AAP leader, known for his theatrics, didn’t appear to be a ‘bhagora’ (deserter), the tag hung on him by Prime Minister Modi. “Modi referring to Kejriwal as ‘AK-49’ [for staying in power only for 49 days] appeared to me like a poor joke. Modi was talking too much and doing less. I didn’t like it,” says the 43-year-old.
PK Buddhraja, a resident of Safdarjung Enclave, feels that Kejriwal shook off that tag by admitting his error of relinquishing the position of Chief Minister in early 2014. “Can you expect Modi or Shah to admit any mistakes?” asks this 62-year-old angrily. He seems to not only tolerate but also indulge Kejriwal for his bloopers. He concedes that though he has been a traditional Jan Sangh-BJP voter, frequent interactions with the likes of AAP leader Somnath Bharti at Delhi’s Deer Park, where he goes for a morning walk and “exposure to social media”, made him shift his loyalty.
Ironically, social media has been pivotal to the success of Modi, who relied on such networking sites to drive home his message of change in the face of intense scrutiny from the Indian media following the 2002 riots in Gujarat. “Among the BJP leadership, complacency set in within months of being in power. Plus, here in Delhi, you had an alternative: Kejriwal is a mix of the countryside and the urban, a highly educated man who lives a simple life and understands the poor,” says Buddhraja, lavishing praise on Delhi’s Chief Minister-elect whom he says has braved odds within and outside his party.
“Kejriwal is a tireless fighter,” admits a BJP leader. For sure, Kejriwal, who has steered his party to an unprecedented win in Indian electoral politics, winning 67 of Delhi’s 70 Assembly seats and 54.3 per cent of all votes, has had a rollercoaster of a life as a politician and social activist. The Siwani, Haryana-born mechanical engineering graduate who later served as a joint commissioner in the Centre’s Income Tax Department, has been an anti-corruption activist while in service, floating an NGO called Parivartan as early as 2000, taking leave from work. He resigned from government service in 2006 to plunge into social work, and soon earned a reputation as a fiery Right to Information activist as well. When the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement was launched in 2011, he became a key lieutenant of Gandhian activist Anna Hazare. In 2012, Kejriwal parted ways with his mentor to launch AAP, a political entity. Since his party’s General Election setback—it won only four of the 400 Lok Sabha seats it contested—he has fought numerous defections and rebellions within the party. Some of his colleagues left to join the BJP ranks.
Kejriwal, who meticulously attended Vipassana meditation sessions until a few years ago, is well-known for his perseverance and ability to listen to the masses without grudging them their rants. While he was campaigning in Varanasi, he often had to face taunts from people disappointed with governance since he was the lone senior leader who interacted very closely with people. Therefore, says the BJP leader, the Delhi vote was for Kejriwal’s brand of politics that promoted accessibility and offered the common man far greater access to political processes. “Which is what prompted many traditional BJP sympathisers to vote for Kejriwal and his team,” he says with regret, “Both the Congress and BJP in the state have high entry barriers for new politicians. Either they had to be from a rich family or they had to be politically well connected. The lack of connect with the common man was stark in the case of Congress and BJP.”
Dr Puneet Bedi, an obstetrics and gynaecology consultant at Delhi’s Indrapastha Apollo hospital, compares the politics dominated by the BJP and Congress in Delhi to Bollywood, where actors from non-film families rarely make it big. “Here too, either you are from an RSS background or you have to be connected and networked to enter politics… worse, corruption is in the DNA of the Delhi BJP, just like it is in the DNA of the Congress everywhere,” he says, referring to the joke that the main attribute of the Jan Sangh government of the 1960s— which ran the Delhi Metropolitan Council—in contrast with the previous Congress regimes was that “it made corruption over the table from what used to be an under- the-table affair”. Bedi also swears by the AAP tsunami that he saw coming. Though he doesn’t vote—he says he lost faith in democracy after a mob tried to burn him alive in Delhi’s 1984 riots—his whole family voted for AAP. “It helped AAP that people got the impression that there would never be a delivery of ‘achche din’ [the ‘good days’ that Modi had promised], and that there was just a still-birth,” he says, using medical terminology.
Another BJP leader says that central BJP leaders and RSS workers saw the writing on the wall, but only too late. “Kejriwal was becoming increasingly popular thanks to his efforts to connect directly with the people by admitting his mistakes. Contrary to popular perception, he endeared himself to them by owning up to these, especially in response to the BJP campaign. Also, he only stood to gain when people defected from his party’s fold sensing an opportunity to make political gains as part of a resurgent BJP,” he says, adding that the top-down manner in which Kiran Bedi was made the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate ruffled feathers within the state unit. All this gave rise to the notion that the BJP in Delhi was a divided house. Kiran Bedi, a political paratrooper to the BJP who had been a colleague of Kejriwal in the IAC movement, made the mistake of pandering to party karyakartas with her statements; on one occasion, she said she believed in the RSS’s ideology, without realising that she was brought in to appeal to a wider section of voters. And that was only one of the many gaffes she made in her short stint as the party’s face in Delhi.
As it happens, the BJP retained its core vote base of 32 per cent, just 1 per cent down from 2013’s Delhi polls, but the AAP gained consistently thanks largely to Kejriwal’s stunning appeal with the electorate: AAP’s vote share went up from 29.5 per cent in 2013 to 32 per cent in the 2014 General Election and is now at a peak of 54.3 per cent. “Kiran Bedi’s selection was similar to the political circus that you see only in the Congress,” admits an RSS leader. She was rude with cadres, he says. “Finally it didn’t help that more than 120 MPs and all Union ministers, including the Prime Minister, campaigned in Delhi, attacking Kejriwal,” he adds. “Kejriwal did in Delhi what Modi did in 2014 in the General Election,” says the second BJP leader. For his part, noted economist and NITI Aayog member Bibek Debroy simply says, “AAP has to govern now, and BJP, introspect.”
Sumantra Bose, professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, vouches for that. “The magnitude of the AAP victory—nine-tenths of the seats in the New Delhi legislature—is probably unprecedented in the history of India’s democracy, starting with the beginning of elections in the early 1950s. This couldn’t have happened without a landslide across social classes and all barriers of caste, creed and community,” he says. “Why did that happen? I suspect motivations varied across groups of voters. Working-class voters—who are the majority of all voters—may have been primarily motivated by AAP’s pro-poor image. Middle and upper class voters may have felt that the kind of fresh, different politics AAP claims to represent should be given a chance to survive.”
While Dr Puneet Bedi says the Delhi reverse is a slap on the face of Brand Modi—which now stands dented—and BJP President Amit Shah’s authoritarian ways, Bose has no doubt that Delhi’s message is two-fold. “For the dying, dynasty-based party, it is: the people have moved on. For Modi and the BJP, a less drastic message: each election is different,” says Bose, author of Transforming India. Atul Kohli, David KE Bruce Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, says the lesson that ought to be learnt from this election is that there is a lot of volatile frustration in the system that established parties are failing to capture. “Congress really needs to wake up or they will become history. Even the BJP ought to ask itself this: is a governance plan based on soft Hindutva and support for business and growth sufficient for electoral victories?” he asks. Kohli, author of Poverty Amidst Plenty in the New India, is also worried how AAP would cope with the realities of governance.
Of course, Kejriwal, known for his self-proclaimed ‘anarchist’ ways, is forever ready to forge ahead with plans that look utopian to observers. “His willingness to take on big battles is well known,” says Abhinandan Sekhri, a long-time associate of Kejriwal. “He is not here to make a marginal difference. He never plans for small stakes. Either he collapses (like in Varanasi against Modi) or swings it (like in Delhi),” adds Sekhri, co-founder of the website, Newslaundry.com.
Former associates of Kejriwal, like Shazia Ilmi, who left AAP for the BJP after contesting two unsuccessful polls, have often attacked Kejriwal for being ‘undemocratic’. Kiran Bedi, also a former associate, once told me that “one fine day [while with IAC], Team Kejriwal unilaterally announced that Kiran Bedi will gherao a senior BJP member’s house. I questioned their announcement… why were they going against a political party which had been listening and cooperating with us [in certain respects] in strengthening the Lokpal Bill?” However, on another occasion, after parting ways, she had said that she had respect for Kejriwal. “I had known him only as a part of the India Against Corruption movement. Not as a politician. But whatever I saw about him is that he is a very focused person and gives his all to what he passionately believes in.”
Kohli has a word of caution: the fact that the AAP won more than half of all votes cast—a rarity in Indian elections—suggests that people are fed up with corruption in high places. “Since this is not likely to alter readily, AAP needs to figure out quickly how not to lose support once the reality of governance sets in,” he says.
The BJP has enough cause for worry, not only because its high-profile campaign in Delhi turned out so badly, but also because the grand claims of the Modi-Shah duo being master poll strategists has suffered a big jolt. Modi’s silence over Hindu loonie fringe outfits—which made outrageous statements and vandalised minority religious institutions— has cost the party dearly at the Delhi hustings, the second BJP leader argues. “It is a defeat caused by hubris,” he declares, referring to the preposterous utterances of leaders such as junior minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti. Courting ‘spiritual’ leaders also proved counter-productive, he says.
It is clear that the BJP top brass has lost some of its political reflex, something the AAP has sharpened, say a few Delhi-based BJP leaders that Open spoke to. Otherwise, matters related to the political crisis in Bihar could have been handled in a much better fashion, they contend. “If the leadership were more agile than it is now, it could have acted long before former Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar put pressure on Governor Keshri Nath Tripathi to invite him to form the state’s next government. Even before he paraded the legislators supporting him at Rashtrapati Bhavan, it was known that he had the numbers. All this is a gross miscalculation,” says one of them. This delay in “handling the situation” has forced incumbent Jitan Ram Manjhi to act in a “subversive way”, approving a quota for Scheduled Castes and Tribes in all government contracts of road construction up to Rs 50 lakh and reservation for the poor among ‘upper castes’ in government jobs, he points out. “The BJP will have to take the blame and political cost for all this,” the leader adds. Meanwhile, the impact of Kejriwal’s triumph in the national capital is expected to be manifold, insiders say; the NDA Government at the Centre, for example, would now be forced to come up with a please-all, if not populist, budget. This could pose fiscal problems for the economy. Kejriwal, who as a student had taken part in the anti-Mandal agitation of the late 1980s and had been a votary of meritocracy, has come a long way since then, attracting huge chunks of votes from Dalits and Muslims who together constitute 29 per cent of Delhi’s electorate. But whether he will be able to take the two-year-old party to new heights and extrapolate its success on a national scale is a question that is still premature. “Delhi is not India, because the political fields of cities and states across the country are very different from Delhi and from each other. However, the Delhi result points to two strong characteristics of the Indian electorate today: volatility and decisiveness. In state and national elections over the next few years, these two characteristics are likely to appear strongly,” says Bose.
A yoga nut and vegetarian, Kejriwal shares many similarities with Modi. But unlike the designerwear- loving Prime Minister who, despite flaunting his credentials as a tea vendor’s son, appears to get carried away by the trappings of power, the AAP hotshot, an electrical engineer’s son, has kept an ear to the ground so far. Which explains why Modi, who proclaimed “Jo desh ka mood hai, woh Dilli ka mood hai” (the country’s mood is Delhi’s mood), got it so painfully wrong.