City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Kejriwal Revival?

A few months back, in the wake of the crushing BJP victory in the national elections, Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP seemed to be fading. The body language of the AAP and its leaders reeked of defeat and despair. Its forays in MP and Haryana were resounding derision-worthy failures, and it faced a very real prospect of getting routed in the only territory it had any political presence in. Kejriwal himself risked becoming a caricature of the insignificant everyman, a man whose mufflered presence seemed like an apology in front of the towering persona of Narendra Modi and one who could routinely be abused, even slapped by any random member of the public. The work done by the AAP, even amongst those that acknowledged it, was thought of in municipal terms, rather than that of a full-fledged state government. And Sisodia, not Kejriwal got whatever credit was thought to be due. Kejriwal’s agitationist stance was thought of as being unbecoming of a leader in power, and the constant complaining about being thwarted by the Central government created an impression that it was making excuses for its failures and that given its self-confessed constraints, it might be smarter to vote for the BJP. In some ways, the AAP was setting itself up by its non-stop complaining.

In a short period of time, things seem to have changed significantly. A recent poll showed that the party was overwhelmingly favoured to return to power and Kejriwal himself towered over any other possible leaders for the position of CM. And while there is only so much credibility that polls this far ahead of an election have, qualitatively too it does seem that things have changed since the national elections. Media is back to covering and giving him considerable airtime, during which he appears to conduct himself with a degree of confidence. 

Some clear strategic calls have been taken. Not to challenge Narendra Modi head on. Avoiding getting caught in any debates on nationalism, which is perhaps why he has steered clear of the JNU debate and been quite reticent even on the CAA/NRC issue. This hasn’t pleased many on the liberal side but it appears to have been a conscious decision. The whining about being hamstrung by the Centre has virtually ceased, and in general confrontational positions are being avoided. The singular focus is on selling the party on the basis of the work it has done in Delhi.

The other marked change is the disappearance of the trademark muffler. On the face of it, this is a trivial change but as a symbol this is significant. The idea of someone unschooled in politics, an ‘ordinary man’ compelled to take up politics in order to change it from within is no longer a credible narrative. Kejriwal is a leader in power and while he may position himself as a leader with empathy for the everyday problems of his constituents, the muffler and the cap which were badges of R K Laxmanesque ordinariness have had to go. 

Other factors seem to be helping him too. The results in Maharashtra and Jharkhand must have come as a major boost to the party’s confidence that the BJP was far from being infallible in the states, whatever its national strengths. The arrival of Prashant Kishore and his team with all their experience might have also played a big role in crafting a coherent strategy. The decline of the Congress in Delhi is another factor that would have given the party reason to cheer for it could reasonably expect that the anti-BJP vote has a greater chance of being consolidated in the AAP this time around. The local BJP leadership is also far from being a major threat, with Manoj Tiwari notwithstanding his influence with a section of the voters, is less than a serious candidate for any position of leadership, let alone for the CM’s post. Also, barring the regularisation of some unauthorised colonies, the BJP seems to lack any ideas that it can challenge the AAP with. The unexpected media support he has been receiving is also helping.

Over and above these factors, perhaps the revival of Arvind Kejriwal carries a message for the Central government. When contrasted with the focus shown by the Centre on issues that are far removed from the everyday concerns of people, the efforts of the Kejriwal government to make a difference where it really matters seems to count with more and more voters. The BJP’s disinterest in attending to the economy in any concrete way, and its aggressive espousal of solutions without problems might play very well with its core base but there is a very real chance that it leaves many more voters cold. The BJP’s choice of issues might well be contributing significantly to Kejriwal’s resurgence.

The emerging narrative from the voters’ perspective could possibly look thus. On the one hand, there is a party obsessed with issues relating to identity that is rooted the past and on the other one which is working relentlessly to make a difference in issues very close to people’s lives- education, healthcare, water and electricity, the stuff of everyday life. What was dismissed as being minor and municipal might today look far more meaningful given that the ruling party seems to have lost all interest in issues of a more real everyday kind.

Of course, this is all speculation. Just because Kejriwal feels more comfortable and coherent does not by any means that he has won the elections. The BJP has a formidable electoral machine and while it may have lost power in the last 2 states that went to the polls, it is worth remembering that along with its then alliance partner it has won Maharashtra, and even in Jharkhand, its vote-share actually increased. The sprint to the finish will begin now and much can change. But Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP are not going to roll over and die. Far from it.

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