A week before Delhi went to polls on February 7 I traveled to Rohini to meet some radio taxi drivers with whom I had previously interacted. The drivers and their families were self-admittedly BJP supporters. Nearly eight months ago, their votes had propelled the BJP to sweep all the seven Lok Sabha constituencies in the capital, leaving AAP to nurse its wounds after the drubbing.
But this time the families had a different tale to tell. “Delhi has many problems. The PM is a good man, but he won’t be working here. AAP will. We have to give them a chance. And Kiran Bedi doesn’t understand our problems. Kejriwal does. She is a Hitler, he isn’t.”
In politics, perceptions matter.
In Delhi, a day before the actual results come out, it is clear that the BJP has already lost the elections without actually losing it. It lost because it panicked and turned the elections into a battle far bigger that what it was. Delhi, a half state, was unwittingly turned into a Presidential campaign.
When the BJP named Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate, most people called it a master-stroke by the party to nullify Kejriwal’s appeal. They pointed out the similarities between the two. Both were colleagues in the India Against Corruption movement, both had very high integrity, both won the Magsaysay award and had a background in activism.
But if there were similarities, there were also differences.
Kejriwal left his career in the Indian Revenue Service to take up activism while Bedi stuck around in the hope that she would cap her career by becoming the police commissioner of the city she had served in. She was never appointed the Commissioner and it was only post-retirement that she took up full-time activism.
They also forgot that Kejriwal was the quintessential fighter, who fights best with his back to wall. The Delhi elections were a make or break of sorts for AAP. If they failed to win in Delhi, their funds would dry up and their politics would become irrelevant. Everything that they espoused for would become irrelevant.
For the BJP, its rolling juggernaut had faced a few sputters in Maharashtra, but continued to convincingly set aside any challenge that was offered, be in a small state like Haryana or a big and complex one like Maharashtra. Since May 16 last year, the combination of PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah had emerged as one of the most formidable duos in the history of Indian politics.
But the exit polls show a major gain for AAP since its last outing in the Delhi assembly polls. In December 2013, AAP garnered 29.6 % of the vote share in Delhi. If exit polls are to be believed, that may have crossed well over 40% this time round. The seats being projected for AAP range anything from 35 seats to 53 and average about 38 seats if all the polls were to be taken into account. The rise in vote share comes at the expense of the BJP and the Congress.
For a few days in January, when the BJP announced Kiran Bedi as its CM candidate, the AAP leadership was worried. They had worked hard over at least two major humps that had dogged them since January 2014. Kejriwal’s resignation after 49 days left the AAP’s supporters unsure about party's dependability. Then there was the Modi wave. Delhi couldn’t resist the wave as it swept across the country, bringing in new hope and stability unseen since 1984.
A CARICATURE CAMPAIGN
But a lot has changed since the 2014 general elections. The most noticeable change has been the campaigning that the BJP undertook. From pushing a positive and vibrant message it quickly descended into caricatures of Kejriwal and the party. From a promise of development, the BJP went into a spiral of negativity that may have provided momentary mirth, but not solutions. The language of the party’s discourse plunged and rallies witnessed.
AAP on the other hand, did a Modi on the BJP. Like PM Modi rarely referred to Kejriwal during the general elections (except to a reference to him as AK-49). Instead, their mohalla jan sabhas (aka Delhi Diallogue) fanned out across the city to give people chance to speak about their issues. AAP came across as attentive and caring. Their manifesto, piloted by former journalist Ashish Khetan seemed earnest, well thought out and reflective of the massive feedback that it had received during the Delhi Dialogue.
THE NEW KEJRIWAL
Post December 2013, Kejriwal had also alienated the media. This time round, the key media strategist for AAP, Nagendra Sharma, a former journalist, ensured that Kejriwal and other leaders remained accessible. Any political repartee would be immediately met with a matching repartee. This created the perception that AAP could hold its own against the massive media blitz that the BJP was ready to roll out. If a BJP radio advertisement blamed Kejriwal for running away, he would respond with a matching advertisement apologizing for quitting and seeking a fresh mandate. Clearly, humility in politics leaves little for the opponent to exploit.
Chances are that Kejriwal will again be eligible for a CM’s salary after waiting for a year. If he wins tomorrow, and it seems likely that he will, then the challenge for him will grow. Will he become inaccessible again, as he had become after the last assembly elections? Will he be able to deliver on the promises to the people, considering that the centre and most corporate houses are hostile to him? As the NDA has realised, election campaign rhetoric is different from actual governance. So a promise such as “Rs 15 lakh in every account” becomes a “jumla” once the party is in power. How many of AAP’s promises become “jumlas” only time will tell.
There is little doubt that this is a new Kejriwal. Those who have known him for years say he has mellowed considerably. Earlier, he was a man who would inspire his followers, while alienating his colleagues. From his days as an activist, he moved away from several people who had worked with him. Chances are that senior lawyer and AAP leader Prashant Bhushan may also announce his departure once the election results are announced. The ability to take along colleagues or to tolerate dissent is key to the politics that Kejriwal espouses. It does seem that this time, he is ready.