How Arvind Kejriwal evolved as a politician to lead his party to another landslide in Delhi
Ullekh NP | 14 Feb, 2020
(Illustration by Dwijith C.V.)
INSIDE THE AAM AADMI PARTY’S (AAP) nondescript headquarters at 206, Rouse Avenue, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg, the likes of Manisha Pande, a yoga therapist, have been dancing away for hours. She and her friends had been on their feet even when Arvind Kejriwal and his lieutenants made a grand appearance in the afternoon of February 11th, as his party achieved a landslide win in the Delhi Assembly election and before those leaders later headed for the Hanuman Temple in Connaught Place.
Becoming Chief Minister of the National Capital Territory for the third time, Kejriwal, who has been in electoral politics since 2012—and became Chief Minister for a brief stint in 2013 and later for a full term in 2015—probably had reasons to seek divine blessings while his volunteers let their hair down and rejoiced after a fiercely fought election that saw political leaders touch new lows in unleashing a rhetoric unheard of in decades. Among the songs played to full blast for AAP sympathisers and workers was one from the blockbuster 1980 movie Qurbani, immortalised by pop singer Nazia Hassan, ‘Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye /toh baat ban jaaye’ (If someone like you came into my life, it would be awesome), a play on the word ‘aap’, Hindi for a reverential ‘you’.
Neither Pande, who had come from Mayur Vihar in east Delhi, nor Zeeshan Raza from Batla House in Jamia Nagar was interested in the final tally as they revelled inside the AAP office compound where people had come from afar just to hang out and chat over endless cups of tea sold by street vendors. “It is above 60. AAP has given a message to the nation. That people want peace and people want their governments to focus on real issues like equality before law, governance and economic development,” argues the young Raza who says he is preparing for civil service exams. A few hours later, the Election Commission of India (EC) announced the results on its website: 62 for the AAP and 8 for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 70-member state Assembly compared with 67 and 3, respectively, in the 2015 polls. The AAP’s vote share fell marginally to 53.57 per cent from 54.3 per cent five years ago, as it lost five seats, while the BJP improved its vote share from 32.3 per cent in 2015 to 39.42 per cent this year.
Several hours before the EC’s announcement came in, when Open spoke to Rishi Raj Singh, director at Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), he had said: “Currently the tally is hovering around 57-58, but we are sure the figure will touch 62.” I-PAC is an election strategy firm founded by former Janata Dal (United) leader Prashant Kishor who had been part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2012 Gujarat Assembly and 2014 Lok Sabha campaigns. IIT-Kanpur alumnus Rishi Raj Singh had been part of Modi’s 2014 campaign and was stationed in Gandhinagar and Lucknow as part of the war room that steered a stunning social media campaign. In Delhi this time, I-PAC was hired by Kejriwal to assist him with the Assembly election campaign.
The number that Rishi Raj Singh stuck to on the morning of February 11th turned out to be right by the end of day.
Perceptions about the key takeaways for the AAP and the BJP cut both ways.
Political scientist Sanjay Kumar of Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies is of the view that the BJP has every reason to stick to its aggressive campaign methods and that the Delhi results only confirm the gains of its style of pulling in votes. “Had it not been for its polarising campaign, it would not have increased its vote share by close to 7 per cent. We would be making a mistake if we are to assume that its mode of campaign did not fetch the BJP any gains. It did,” he notes, alluding to speeches by top BJP leaders who sought to demonise anti-citizenship law protestors and led a muscular nationalist campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah were on the frontlines of the electoral battle that saw two BJP leaders, Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma, being banned temporarily from campaigning and a Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh, warned against inflammatory comments by the EC. The BJP also pitched hundreds of its lawmakers and Cabinet ministers for this purpose. Kumar adds, “If the Congress had got more votes, the results would have been very different and the BJP would have walked away with more seats.”
Kejriwal’s change of tactics has certainly paid off. He has learnt to keep his ear to the ground. He backed the revocation of Article 370, was tightlipped about the Ayodhya verdict and the CAA. He has stopped targeting the Prime Minister in public speeches
For its part, the BJP had claimed that hate speeches were begun by protestors at places such as Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, the site of the ongoing sit-in by women that began following the Centre passing a new citizenship law in both Houses of Parliament on December 11th, 2019, and a violent police crackdown on students protesting the law at Jamia Millia Islamia. The ruling party at the Centre claimed the protest sites had become turfs for anti-national activity although protestors and several opposition parties have contended that they were only exercising their right to dissent and not indulging in any anti-state activity. At the height of the election campaign, Shah asked voters to press so hard for the BJP on the electronic voting machines that the current is felt at Shaheen Bagh, the epicentre of anti-Government protests. Thakur, while addressing an election rally in Delhi on January 27th, exhorted: “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro saalon ko [Shoot those who betray the country].” This was seen as an incitement to violence against protestors. Kejriwal himself earned the wrath of several BJP leaders, including Yogi Adityanath. Some of them called him a ‘‘terrorist”.
Meanwhile, sensing the mood of voters who had voted Modi back to power in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and were perceived as averse to any political party that appeared more sympathetic towards Muslims, Kejriwal refused to visit Shaheen Bagh and even the campuses of Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where students were attacked by hooligans or the police. Instead of national politics and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), he focused on his government’s hyperlocal development agenda. According to an AAP leader, there was a standing instruction to party functionaries, especially candidates, to not be seen as friendly to anti-CAA protestors or striking students. A member of the AAP’s social media team told Open that no posts or tweets could be made in favour of such protests to make sure that “Delhi’s Hindu voters were not alienated”. The intention was obvious, says CSDS’ Kumar: “It was Kejriwal’s strategy to keep himself away from any controversy that would have angered his Hindu voters who even now, if a Lok Sabha election were to be held, would vote for Modi.” Delhi has voted the BJP to power in the last municipal elections and the last two Lok Sabha polls although Kejriwal remains the preferred chief ministerial candidate.
Notwithstanding his posturing, Kejriwal won a colossal chunk of Delhi’s Muslim votes that accounts for nearly 12 per cent of the electorate. The turnout in Muslim-dominated areas was high and all five Muslim candidates fielded by the AAP won by comfortable margins. In the Okhla constituency, under which Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Nagar fall, AAP candidate Amanutullah Khan won by a margin more than 71,000 votes (his margin last time was 64,532 votes) over his nearest rival, a BJP candidate. The highest margin of victory, though, was that of AAP’s Sanjeev Jha, who won from Burari by a margin of more than 88,000 votes. Although there are demands for Kejriwal to come clean on his views on contentious issues such as anti-CAA protests, a section of AAP leaders says it is unlikely that the Chief Minister will change his tactics. “He may be an unpredictable person who has tried various tricks to strike a chord with the people of this city-state, but he has evolved rapidly to realise when he should talk and when he shouldn’t,” says one leader. In fact, AAP leaders themselves have openly admitted that the party’s incumbent Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia may have lost some of his vote share (it dropped by 4.31 per cent from 2015 although he still won his seat) because of his comments in support of anti-CAA protestors.
Yet, there are others in the party who feel that since many AAP members “feel for the protesters”, Kejriwal will have to make some concessions so as not to alienate his liberal and Muslim backers. “Demands from people in that political spectrum are going to go up. While the BJP may continue to stick to its tried and tested campaign methods, the AAP may have to tweak itself to new realities,” says a south Delhi-based AAP leader.
For the moment though, Kejriwal is winning plaudits from politicians and pundits alike. After all, proof of his political prowess was in the victory which he pulled off by a combination of circumventing odds and avoiding traps. What’s special about the election in a state, destined to be in the limelight thanks to its location, is the massive endorsement for an incumbent government.
Sumantra Bose, Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, explains: “The outcome shows that a small party with a strong grassroots presence can stop the BJP juggernaut in its tracks in a state election.” He says that the AAP has always pursued a locality-based model of political organisation and mobilisation and, since 2015, one of governance as well. He adds: “This, more than any other factor, explains its consistent success in Delhi Assembly elections. Moreover, the AAP government had built a decent record of governance focused on improvement of civic amenities and delivery of services and did not have much of a negative baggage that could lead to anti-incumbent voting.” Bose is enamoured of the AAP’s ‘Delhi brand’, which he believes has helped the party a lot in this election, especially since the BJP no longer has any important leader in Delhi. He also points out: “Unlike in the past when it had the likes of Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma, the David-versus-Goliath nature of the contest additionally played to the AAP’s favour in an Assembly election.”
Kejriwal’s change of tactics has certainly clicked well. From calling himself an anarchist, wearing a skullcap in his ill-fated Varanasi election challenge against Modi in 2014 and being seen as unfairly confrontational in his early years as Chief Minister, he has, over the last two years, learnt to keep his ear to the ground and speak the language of the masses. Last year, when the Union Government revoked Article 370 that gave Jammu and Kashmir special privileges, Kejriwal backed the move and remained tightlipped about the Ayodhya verdict and the new citizenship law, which other opposition parties vehemently opposed. Further, he has stopped targeting the Prime Minister in his public speeches. Unlike the Congress and its leaders, he veered away from wearing secularism on his sleeve and, on the contrary, has embraced his Hindu identity publicly, even reciting the Hanuman Chalisa during a television interview when challenged by the anchor to do so. After the interview went viral, he still retained his popularity among liberals and Muslims as he managed to project religion as a matter of personal choice rather than a nationalist principle.
To his great advantage, the BJP failed to project a formidable local leadership that could take him head-on, especially since he stood at the median of the political mood of the moment and appeared like a true local who would fight for local interests. Sample this response by popular accessories designer and yoga instructor Tarini Nirula who has been a traditional BJP voter: “My decision to vote for the AAP this time came from grave concern about all the agitation taking place in Delhi. Even though the blamegame continues, as a young voter, I would have hoped the BJP would focus on resolving basic issues of economic decline, pollution, women’s safety, a stronger legal system and so on. Working hand-in-hand with the Chief Minister of Delhi, they should be looking to work on progress for the greater good of the country. Instead, they chose to focus on issues which I personally feel could have been avoided at this moment.”
She is crestfallen about the extent of religious polarisation. Nirula points out: “Yes, it is a matter of concern. This polarisation of communities is not going to help us progress in a democratic country. Even if there are issues, regarding certain very specific people of a community [radicalised elements], clubbing everyone in the same bracket does not uphold the secular values of the nation.” She adds: “A party can implement policies in a manner that is not going to aggrieve the country overnight. I have worked closely with extremely talented artisans from the Muslim community for several years and it saddens me to hear what they feel. Some of them have been faithful BJP voters in the past. I hope the AAP is able to make a difference for the sake of our country.”
The image that Kejriwal is ideology-neutral did offer him an edge in this election. But can he sustain it?
Gilles Verniers, Assistant Professor of political science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, says it is crucial to understand that the AAP is tactically ideology-neutral rather than substantially ideology-neutral: “It is not that they don’t have an opinion. In fact, in private conversations it is obvious that AAP cadres oppose the BJP at an ideological level. Most of them do express support for Shaheen Bagh. But they took a decision not to make that into an issue because they realised that their utility lay in attracting those who may support Modi at the Centre but not back the BJP in the state. They don’t want to antagonise those voters.”
In the end, the AAP also saw Muslims voting en masse for the party although they share apprehensions about its leaders’ silence on subjects that concern them most. World Bank consultant and city planner Anisa Draboo feels that the AAP was seen as a hope in fighting the BJP. Which is why, she feels, many of them disregarded Kejriwal’s silence on the Shaheen Bagh protests and campus violence to throw their weight behind him. “It was no time for engaging in petty politics. The Congress was not seen as a contender. People became sensible and became conscious of things around them. It is therefore a great victory,” she says.
The image that Kejriwal is ideology-neutral did offer him an edge in this election. But the demand for Kejriwal to open up on issues such as the anti-CAA protests and campus unrest is expected to grow and if he yields to temptation, he risks chances of antagonising many of his voters. It is a tightrope walk
Yet again, the demand for Kejriwal to open up on issues such as the anti-CAA protests and campus unrest is expected to grow and if he yields to temptation, he risks chances of antagonising many of his voters. It is a tightrope walk. Draboo notes: “He won’t fully get involved because his keeping quiet [before polls] and speaking now can be labelled as political and opportunistic. He will do it slowly and do it here and there. I don’t see him getting fully involved, unless the protests go to a next level or become bigger and draw more of the nation’s attention, and he starts getting trolled for not speaking out.”
Of course, for now, he can relish the fact that the so-called ‘Delhi model’ has delivered. Shakti Sinha, former Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi, who was private secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was Prime Minister, believes that Kejriwal was able to successfully project himself as a doer on many counts. Yet Sinha, a retired Union Territory cadre IAS officer who has written extensively on Delhi and the limited role that chief ministers can play in the national capital, doesn’t fully agree with the contention that Kejriwal has been successful on all fronts, especially in primary healthcare where a lot more would be in order.
But then, his appeal among a large class of voters is irresistible.
Lajjawati, 35, who lives in Bhanwar Singh Camp in south west Delhi, which falls in the RK Puram constituency, migrated to Delhi from a poor village near Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, 10 years ago. Working two jobs as a domestic helper, the unlettered woman’s only concern now is to make ends meet as her husband has an unpredictable income with odd jobs and she has two school-going children. “The authorities keep saying that our colony will soon be demolished. I voted for the AAP because its workers are people like us. We trust Kejriwal. My husband went to Mahipalpur to listen to his speech in which Kejriwal asked the masses not to vote for him if we didn’t believe he has done good work for us,” she says, emphasising that she has never heard of Shaheen Bagh and is not interested in politics. “The AAP has made sure we get water and electricity. They have taps in all homes and proper toilets in a basti we visited in Mahipalpur. We also want those facilities. We want pucca houses instead of kachcha houses. That is why we voted for Kejriwal. He is the leader who will do things for the poor,” Lajjawati says.
MEDIA PERSONALITY Abhinandan Sekri, a friend of Kejriwal, avers that the image of the Chief Minister being a crusader against corruption will endure for long. Proof of it is the faith voters like Lajjawati have in him thanks to measures he has taken to improve standards of education in government-run schools where the lower-income earners send their children. The AAP’s education strategy was devised and executed by Oxford-educated Atishi, who has won from Kalkaji in her Assembly debut, and includes the now world-famous ‘happiness curriculum’ that focuses on children’s all-round development.
Achla Vohra, principal of a government co-ed school in Delhi, concurs that it is during Kejriwal’s tenure that the state government started focusing on improving government school education. Allocating 26 per cent of the state budget to education was one of the keys to the AAP’s success in the capital. “They started with encouraging teachers to build a bond with students so that they love coming to school. It was a painstaking effort, but it is showing results. Otherwise, the dropout rates were higher,” she says. According to her, it helped a lot that the state government is investing in retraining teachers and getting them exposure to teaching systems abroad. “We are sent for seminars at IIM-Ahmedabad and to some of the best schools in the West. Although we cannot do what they are doing there, we are able to do a lot more than earlier to help students and raise the standards of education. As a result, more families are sending their children to schools like ours,” explains Vohra. The Class 12 pass percentage for government schools in 2019 was 94.24 per cent; 203 schools secured 100 per cent pass percentage and the number of such schools is growing every year, Kejriwal’s government said in a statement last year. Delhi’s overall Class 12 pass rate was 91.87 per cent according to the Central Board of Secondary Education, which includes both private and government-run schools.
Besides, the traction that the AAP has across demographic groups has also contributed to the victory, says Verniers, who disagrees with the notion that any one community can influence victory. “The first thing is that it is not just demography that can influence the outcome of an election. There is a multiplicity of factors involved in that process. More importantly, even if demography plays a role, every seat in Delhi is somewhat dominated by one community or the other. There are seats where you have a large presence of the Bania population; seats where Poorvanchalis call the shots or where Punjabi Khatris are in large numbers. The subtext of the complaint by anyone that Muslims voted overwhelmingly for AAP is that they cannot accept Muslims as legalised citizens while others are entitled to their choices,” he says. According to him, the BJP’s vote share (highest since 1993) rose thanks to the increased bipolarisation of the electorate. “This was an AAP-BJP fight and no voter wanted to vote for any other party. Mechanically, you will have division of all these voters between AAP and BJP,” he says about the polling trends in Delhi. Verniers adds that it was foolish not to factor in the influence that attacks on campuses would have had on the behaviour of young voters.
As with the impact that social welfare schemes, such as free water and electricity for low-income users and free public transport for women, have on voters’ choices, the AAP has come under attack for its ‘reckless’ fiscal ways by its political rivals who call them ‘freebies’. Shakti Sinha says if the government does not focus on creating money that can be used for such schemes, it will run into myriad problems. He says the late Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit deserves praise for her fiscal prudence.
The Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) financial audit report shows that the AAP government runs a revenue surplus; in 2015-2016 and 2017-2018, it enjoyed a fiscal surplus. Which is why AAP leaders say that despite discretionary spending, their government in Delhi is among the most financially prudent ones in India. Sinha, however, warns, “It may not remain so if the government is not careful enough.” Vernier says: “Obviously people have basic needs and whoever is ready to offer tangible benefits for the poor will get a premium out of it.” He is of the view that most political parties offer ‘freebies’ to woo voters. Even the Delhi BJP’s manifesto promised flour to people at Rs 2 per kg, electric scooters to college girls and bicycles to girls studying in Classes 9-10, he points out.
The Delhi Assembly election proves much more, says LSE’s Bose. “At this rate of attrition, the Nehru-Gandhis may soon be the only Congress voters left in Delhi! On a more serious note, it’s really ironic that India’s former dominant party is practically extinct in the national capital,” he says responding to the data that the Congress lost security deposits in 63 of 66 seats it had contested compared with 62 of 70 seats in 2015. For a party that was in power for a straight 15 years from 1998 to 2013, its vote share fell from 9.7 per cent in 2015 to 4.27 per cent this time. The Congress’ decimation here is an incontestable truth aggravated only by the sense of resignation among even top-level Congress leaders. Besides others, Congress’ Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Rahul Gandhi were among the first to congratulate Kejriwal, their bitter rival and usurper of their political glory, on his emphatic victory.