From calling Arvind Kejriwal a Naxal who should go to the jungles to inviting him over for tea, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had to finally acknowledge, exactly within a month, the mood of Delhi’s people and the might of Delhi’s new strongman.
In May 2014, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) lost more than 400 Lok Sabha contests across states, and 96% of its candidates lost their deposits. In Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won all seven seats while the AAP convener lost the Lok Sabha poll battle in Varanasi to Narendra Modi by over 3,00,000 votes.
It was almost the end of road for Kejriwal, the chief architect of activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in 2011. He thought fresh elections would follow his decision to quit Delhi in 49 days that many said were marked by sit-ins, conflicts with public utilities and a power struggle with the Centre.
The delay by the Centre in holding fresh elections made Kejriwal restless.
“In my own constituency New Delhi there was a lot of anger. People would shout at us. When volunteers would go to apartment buildings in East Delhi’s Patparganj on the campaign trail, people would shut their doors on them,” Kejriwal told HT.
But Kejriwal is no stranger to risks. By turning political without his mentor Hazare, he had taken the biggest risk of his public life. He made use of this one-year period to rebuild the party and run a campaign with a sharper agenda for Delhi’s development. Nine months after the darkest phase in his political career, Kejriwal has bounced back with a record landslide victory.
Starting December 2014, Kejriwal held 110 public meetings across 70 constituencies in Delhi. “I made a mistake, forgive me. When I took your permission before forming the government, I should have done the same when I quit. I have learnt my lesson and will not quit again,” the 46-year-old said at every meeting.
Many of his rallies went under the media radar unless they were being held in riot-hit Trilokpuri or other key places.
Later in the campaign, while the BJP cranked up its poll machine -- bringing in MPs, ministers, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself – Kejriwal, who was inspired into activism by Mother Teresa, quietly went about telling the masses how he had given free water, cheap electricity and had reduced corruption. He promised everything to woo all sections, including the middle-class vote -- large parts of which had shifted to BJP.
“Perceptions change rapidly in politics, where posturing and symbolism matter a lot. The chaiwallah’s party is now being seen as siding with the rich while a highly-educated man, also once a senior income tax official, comes across as a messiah of the poor,” said a close aide of Kejriwal. “He took on Modi, when the popularity of the BJP strongman was at its peak. But the important factor was that AAP was never a viable national alternative,” he said.
Barely a year after launching AAP, Kejriwal defied pollsters and stunned political rivals by winning 28 seats in the 70-member assembly, and eventually going on to form a brief, minority government in 2013.
Kejriwal had no average beginning. Always a topper in school, Kejriwal was keen on studies and hated disturbance, often locking himself up in the bathroom to avoid visiting neighbours.
The bureaucrat, who chose the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) after he twice failed to make it to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), was not satisfied with just being a babu in a government office. He first engaged in grassroots activism through his organisation Parivartan and then trained his guns on pushing the Right to Information Act.
He created a brand of citizen-activism that hurt the politician-bureaucrat nexus, and introduced a new language of election campaigning by doing things such as restoring snapped power connections.
Now that Delhi has so emphatically voted its faith in his idea of governance, Kejriwal will also have to live up to people’s expectations and walk the talk. From his impulsive self not long ago, he will have to be a calmer, more inclusive and tactful chief minister.