The Delhi assembly elections are witnessing a new Arvind Kejriwal. He is neither abrasive nor aggressive; in fact, he is sober and mature. It’s a transformed Kejriwal. It’s not the Kejriwal who was earlier impulsive. This new Kejriwal thinks strategically and is media savvy. He is no longer the activist he was known as, the one who wanted to change politics and society. He is a politician now — cool-headed, calculated and thinking. He is patient.
The old Kejriwal was in a hurry — he was in a hurry to fight the establishment, he was in a hurry to defeat Modi, he was in a hurry to question anyone and everyone.
He had a problem with his chief secretary, he had a problem with the police, he had a problem with the media, he had a problem with the ecosystem he was housed in — and he even had a problem with his party. I am sure he will still have the same problems, but now he does not show it and acts when required. This Kejriwal is new, and more political.
- The old Kejriwal was in a hurry — he was in a hurry to fight the establishment, he was in a hurry to defeat Modi, he was in a hurry to question anyone and everyone.
- Kejriwal’s transformation, from an activist chief minister to political chief minister, is not dramatic. He did not change overnight. He has paid a heavy price.
- The more Kejriwal engaged with Modi, the more damage he did to himself and to the party.
- Kejriwal later realised two things: first, he should concede defeat vis-à-vis Modi, and he should avoid engaging him on a one-to-one basis.
Arvind Kejriwal’s Makeover: From Activist CM to Political CM
His transformation from an activist chief minister to political chief minister is not dramatic. He did not change overnight. He has paid a heavy price. Kejriwal in 2015 was seen as a national alternative. Winning 67 seats out of 70 was unprecedented and historic. It was called revolutionary. AAP was riding on a wave, and its presence was felt across the country. The Congress was defensive. It lost every election it fought.
There was a constant debate about AAP replacing the Congress which was facing an existential crisis. Rahul Gandhi was the fall guy.
I still remember India Today’s ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey in the first quarter of 2015. Modi was no doubt the most popular leader, but Kejriwal was second in the pecking order with 21 percent votes. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi were nowhere in the picture. Kejriwal was also the most popular chief minister.
This was the time when I was in AAP and was coordinating with state organisations of the party. I visited many places, and to my utter surprise, people in thousands waited to listen to me in Kerala, Odisha, Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP and UP. AAP workers were full of energy; they had a dream.
How Modi Laid the ‘Trap’ for Kejriwal
Even in remote areas, people knew AAP and Kejriwal. Kejriwal was expected to visit every city and speak to the people; people wanted to know his vision for the country, and how he planned to change the system. Instead, he stayed put in Delhi and got busy fighting with Modi. Modi cleverly laid the trap and unleashed government agencies, and with the shrewd use of media, provoked him to say things which he was not supposed to say.
The more he engaged with Modi, the more damage he did to himself and to the party. Arvind Kejriwal did not realise his mistake till the assembly elections in Punjab. In Punjab, AAP was expected to win with a handsome margin, but the party lost severely. Suddenly, he was faced with the new reality. Kejriwal realised that his own fort in Delhi was now poised dangerously on a precipice. The Delhi Municipal (MCD) elections were round the corner. He had very little time to gather his team and fight a new battle. The MCD elections proved to be disaster for AAP, with the party not even managing 50 seats out of 282. In the Raja Garden by-election, the AAP candidate lost his deposit.
Arvind Kejriwal then realised two things: first, he should concede defeat vis-à-vis Modi, and he should avoid engaging him on a one-to-one basis.
Secondly, he also realised that the BJP should not be confronted on the issue of nationalism and Hindutva, as the more he contested the BJP on these two issues, the more he lost the Hindu votes.
What Kejriwal Learnt the Hard Way
He learnt it the hard way that Modi had ‘sold’ a vision to the country, and in the eyes of the people he had emerged as a ‘messiah’. Confronting him on a daily basis and attacking him personally was annoying a large section of people.
In Delhi, the BJP, despite all its weaknesses, has 32 percent votes. In the parliamentary elections, when Modi is the issue, this vote share jumps to 46-54 percent. And the BJP sweeps all seven seats. It is a great paradox of Indian politics and very peculiar to the National Capital, that the same non-BJP voters who vote for Modi also vote for Kejriwal. When I was contesting the elections for the Lok Sabha in 2014, hundreds of voters told me point blank that Kejriwal was a good man, but they would vote for Modi — but in the assembly elections, their vote would go to AAP. And this is exactly what happened. AAP lost all seven seats in parliament but won 67 seats in the assembly elections.
AAP’s Score Card in 2019 Parliamentary Elections
During the 2019 parliamentary elections, the CSDS did a post poll survey. This was the elections when the AAP fared badly. It not only lost all seven seats, its vote share shrunk to 18 percent, which was below that of the Congress. The same survey clearly inferred that in the Delhi elections, AAP would emerge victorious, and might cross 50 percent vote share.
It would be too early to predict if the survey will be proven right.
But it establishes the point that a large section of voters have affinity to both the leaders — Modi and Kejriwal — and this voter was deeply annoyed when he found Kejriwal attacking Modi.
In the MCD elections, this angry voter taught AAP a lesson. Kejriwal being a quick learner, got the message.
What Compelled Kejriwal to Radically Change His Public Persona?
When the Indian Army carried out a ‘surgical strike’ across the border, Kejriwal committed the blunder of going against the public mood. He asked Modi to give ‘proof’ to counter the Pakistan propaganda. The BJP tore Kejriwal apart and called him ‘anti-national’, a man who questions the valour of our Indian soldiers. This issue severely dented AAP’s image.
It was then that well-wishers advised him to not react too often on Twitter and Facebook; he was told to be economical with words, as the more he spoke, the more he peeved the people.
This was the time when his overreaction on issues and abrasive statements created an image of him being constantly at loggerheads and least interested in governance.
Results of Kejriwal’s Work Are Visible
After a bad loss in the MCD elections, it was a do-or-die situation for Kejriwal. He was left with no option but to radically change himself. He stopped attacking Modi, he became more careful with words; he avoided reacting to the issues of nationalism and national security. This image makeover worked. Earlier, if media headlines on a daily basis were screaming about his fights with Modi, LG, Delhi Police Chief and his own bureaucrats, the media was now talking about the functioning of the government and its policy initiatives. The result is visible. It will definitely help Kejriwal in this assembly election. But alas, in this process, he lost the opportunity to emerge as the national alternative.
(The writer is an author and senior political commentator, and can be reached at @ashutosh83B. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)