Delhi polls 2015: Arvind Kejriwal 2.0

The Sunday Express looks at how Arvind Kejriwal, the agitating outsider, rebranded himself in his second shot at power.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Updated: February 8, 2015 9:35:30 am
arvind kejriwwal, aap, kejriwal aap, aam aadmi party From an angry young man to a subtle politician, Arvind Kejriwal has changed over the years.

On May 16, 2014, Arvind Kejriwal stood at a crossroads. The country had seen many versions of him in the three years that preceded the date. He was first Arvind Kejriwal the activist, bringing the country to its feet in a spontaneous show of strength against corruption and the political system. He was then the angry sutradhar, with Anna Hazare as the symbol the movement was built around. Often he stood atop the dais at Ramlila Maidan and roused the crowd with language filled with contempt. “Chor” and “gaddar” were often used to those opposed to their Jan Lokpal Bill. You were either with them, or corrupt.

A little over a year later, he became Arvind Kejriwal the politician. The language and the sentiment remained the same, but this time, he would fight electoral politics. Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi walked away amid much public debate, but others like Manish Sisodia, Sanjay Singh and Kumar Vishwas stayed by his side. He played the underdog, fighting established parties set in their ways. Most predicted minimal returns in their first elections, but come counting day in December 2013, Kumar Vishwas could hardly hide his glee. From a picturesque balcony at the AAP’s then office at 41, Hanuman Road, he poked fun at the media and political class. “How many seats did you say we would get? 4? 5? We have 28. This is the power of the Aam Aadmi,” he shouted as volunteers danced on the road below.

Then came Kejriwal the Chief Minister. There was a climbdown in his stance. From arch enemy, the Congress was now the party that he took support from to form his government. But his dalliance with Delhi’s seat of power was brief and tumultuous, and 49 days later, he ended the way he had started — attacking both the BJP and the Congress for working together.

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May 16, 2014, and Arvind Kejriwal was a politician staring down the barrel. He had gone to Varanasi to take on Narendra Modi and returned empty handed. From a position of relative power in Delhi at least, the party had considerable voteshare, but not a single seat. Delhi was annoyed at his resignation with murmurs against his “dharna politics”. Something had to give. Some changes were loud and vociferous. Others quieter. But evolve, for better or for worse, he did.

The anger that disappeared

He was angry. He was angry at politicians who were allowing Anna Hazare to fast to death. Later, he was angry that the BJP and the Congress had seemingly disallowed the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill, and his language reflected it. On the day he resigned as Chief Minister, for instance, these were his exact words. “Agar hum thode paise kha lete aur thode BJP ko phenk dete (if we have taken some money and given some to the BJP), they would not have said this. What happened in the House on Thursday made me sick. They broke my mike, tore my papers, gave bangles to one minister and they have the audacity to call us unconstitutional,” he had said then.

But in the run-up to the 2015 Assembly elections, the vitriol has given way to subtler, more nuanced methods of disagreement. Even as former colleague Kiran Bedi emerged as the BJP’s Chief Ministerial face, his resort was not an all-holds-barred attack, but to use pity and sarcasm as a political weapon. “Kiran Bediji, why have you come? Why have you come to this chakravyuh?” he said, at a jansabha in Krishna Nagar, the day after the BJP named her for the seat.

His speeches at jansabhas largely follow the same pattern. Speaking to The Sunday Express on the eve of polling, Kejriwal said his speeches are largely divided into four parts. “I tell the people how the BJP has failed to deliver, what they are doing now, what the AAP did in 49 days of government and what the plan is for the future,” he said.

From a time when he was aggressive himself, in almost all of his speeches now, Kejriwal talks of the “personal attacks made on me” as chief minister. “The Prime Minister calls me a Naxali, they call me toxic, a bandar (monkey). Aap batao, kya main Naxali hoon (Tell me, am I a Naxal),” he says to the crowd, who respond with a “nahi.”

There have been other, more obvious signs of a change in tack. For some months after his resignation, Kejriwal had aggressively espoused the morality of the move. Soon, however, with the middle class slipping away, a new line of thought emerged – of an unabashed apology. At every speech now comes the apology tinged with humour: “I have learnt my first rule in politics. Never to resign. But we made a mistake, didn’t commit a crime. Insaan hai, galti ho jaati hai (It’s human to make mistakes).”

“If the BJP wanted us to defend our resignation, this is something they wouldn’t have expected – that we would say sorry. It ends the debate in some respects. You can’t really drill home the point when someone admits they were wrong. It allowed us the space to concentrate on other aspects of our campaign,” says a party leader.

The hardlines that grew softer

Before their first Assembly election in December 2013, Kejriwal and his party had made much of ending the “VIP culture” in the national capital. Kejriwal himself refused security cover and shot off letters to the Police Commissioner asking him to revoke the security personnel that came with the post of chief minister. “God will protect me,” he had said.

Cut to 2015, and though Kejriwal still maintains that he does not need security, and insists that the detail on him “is more CID than security”, “VIP culture” finds little mention in speeches or interviews.

In the party manifesto, however, there is a section that says “there will be no barriers between MLAs and the aam aadmi”, but each one of these comes with a qualifier. “No MLA will travel in a red-beacon car. No MLA will live in an expansive government bungalow. If necessary, only a small government house will be allotted. No MLA will take excessive police security,” the manifesto says.

Ever since it was formed, AAP showcased itself as the only platform that was available for the “aam aadmi” to make an entry into politics. But this is an election with high stakes for the party and so, 17 of its 37 new candidates are from other parties, 13 of whom have fought elections before. Questions on this are answered with caveats.

“We have never said that everyone in politics is bad. If politicians are not criminals, have good character, and are free of corruption charges, then we can welcome them,” a senior leader said.

Doubts have been raised by leaders such as Shanti Bhushan, who, in a scathing attack, had said, “These candidates are of dubious character. I have been told that Arvind wanted them to contest because they would win,” he said.

But if two of these candidates were indeed removed by the AAP in the run-up to the polls, most others remained. Overall, close to 20 per cent of AAP’s candidates in the 2015 list had a history of contesting on an another party’s ticket — close to double of what the figure was in 2013. This was important for AAP in Delhi’s rural seats where it had failed to open its account in the last Assembly election.

Similarly, in the run-up to the 2013 elections, there had been other things that had been deemed non-negotiable, but on which there has now been an evident climbdown. For instance, Kejriwal had begun his 2015 campaign railing against the UPA, and had ruled out any coalition with them. Of late, however, each time Kejriwal has been asked if he would be open to allying with the Congress again, he has laughed off the question either calling it “hypothetical” or saying, “Congress has to win seats first. The Congress is nowhere.”

The issues that evolved

In 2013, AAP was dismissed as a “one-issue” party. Born out of an anti-corruption movement, Kejriwal had continued in that mould even after he entered politics. He had famously said then: “Even if the sky falls down, we will pass the Jan Lokpal Bill in 15 days.” In the 2015 campaign, however, the Lokpal and the Swaraj Bills were only mentioned in the last two weeks of the Kejriwal campaign, and in the last Delhi Dialogue that the party organised. In the weeks before that, Kejriwal stuck to issues of water, power and women’s security.

Under his stewardship, the slogan changed from anti-corruption to “Big Change without Big Spending.” The Delhi Dialgoues, a campaign that spanned over four months, included teams that were set up to look at specific theme-based issues such as education, health and sanitation as well as Delhi’s villages. “We had to make the transition to being seen as a potential government that could promise development. But the Delhi Dialogues gave us a constant sense of engagement with voters. People were given the message that for us, these issues were important,” said a party strategist.

In each of his campaign speeches, Kejriwal spends at least six minutes of his nearly 15-minute speech concentrating on policy changes that the AAP would make if given the mandate. From a time when Swaraj and Lokpal were their USPs, Kejriwal now makes promises such as “WiFi as a basic right that a capital city deserves”.

The team that changed

Over the short time that AAP has been a political force, there has never been any doubt that Kejriwal is the lynchpin. But the team that surrounds him — his key strategists — has undeniably changed. Party leaders say Kejriwal has consciously added other members to the decision-making chain within the party, while gently moving away from a few others.

From the balcony at Hanuman Road where they euphorically celebrated their 28-seat win, Kumar Vishwas was one man you couldn’t miss. The last year has seen him step away from the centrestage, only emerging as a campaigner in the last lap. There has also been talk of how Prashant Bhushan, once an ever-present figure, has now distanced himself from the party. The senior Bhushan too has been gently sidelined. “We have space for dissent within the party. But I was surprised at the timing of (Shanti Bhushan’s) comments,” Kejriwal said in a measured response to Bhushan Senior’s allegations of problems with ticket distribution.

In their place have arrived professionals with technical expertise. If academics like Atishi Marlena were part of AAP’s original setup, former investigative journalist Ashish Khetan now drives the agenda of Delhi Dialogues. Raghav Chaddha, a chartered accountant, holds the fort for the party in television debates, and former RBS CEO Meera Sanyal is asked for advice on women’s issues and finance. Those within the party say Adarsh Shastri, former sales head of Apple and Lal Bahadur Shastri’s grandson, was given a ticket from Dwarka because if he wins, he will be the man to implement the party WiFi plan.

The strategy that changed

On his first day of campaigning in Varanasi, where Kejriwal took on Narendra Modi, he went straight to Qazi Sheher in Varanasi, the Muslim stronghold. There, he spoke of the “plight” of the weaver community, predominantly Muslim, in a city known for its pluralism. Though Kejriwal eventually ended up with a massive defeat, the danger was that AAP would have to live with the tag of being a party whose strategy was to appease minorities.

Since his return to Delhi, however, Kejriwal has studiously avoided being pigeonholed.

If earlier Kejriwal would often say, “I am fighting against corruption, and criminality in politics”, the term “communalism” has been added to the headline. “Our fight is not against individuals, but against the three C’s,” he has often said this election campaign.

But then, he has also made it a point to mention every religion while talking about communal incidents in Delhi. “We want the development and security of every community – Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, everyone,” he had said, reacting to the Trilokpuri riots. The day before polling for the 2015 elections, Kejriwal says he “went to all religious sites in his constituency.”

The clearest sign of his refusal to be identified with minority politics was Kejriwal’s rejection of Imam Bukhari’s offer of support.

In two days, Kejriwal will find out if he will have a second term as Delhi’s Chief Minister. If he does, it will be because he was a different Arvind Kejriwal.

Sweeping Change

The Man

THEN: Angry, not mincing words, calling politicians “chor”, “gaddar”
NOW: Mellowed down, evoking public sympathy when called “toxic”, “bandar” or “Naxalite”

Candidate Selection

THEN: In Dec 2013 elections, he wanted AAP to be an entry vehicle for the “aam aadmi” into politics. Only about 10 per cent of candidates had a history of contesting on another party’s ticket
NOW: 17 of the 37 new candidates for the Feb 2015 elections are from other parties, 13 of whom have fought elections before. Close to 20 per cent of AAP candidates have previously contested for another party.

Issues

THEN: A “one-issue”, anti-corruption party. Lokpal and Swaraj bills primary focus
NOW: Water, power, and women’s security occupy centrestage. Lokpal, Swaraj Bills mentioned only in the last two weeks of the campaign.

Key Faces

THEN: Kumar Vishwas, Shazia Ilmi, Prashant and Shanti Bhushan
NOW: Atishi Marlena, Ashish Khetan, Raghav Chaddha, Ashutosh. Some others sidelined

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