Arvind Kejriwal: The decade’s biggest political story

By Subhro Majumder

When Arvind Kejriwal first made his mark in India’s public life, he was seen as a well-intentioned, sincere civil society activist, using the Right to Information Act to empower citizens.

When Kejriwal truly became a visible public figure, as a leader of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, he was seen as an angry disruptor. He was channelling the fury that many felt at the infirmities and the corruption in the system; he was also providing a tangible solution by suggesting that having a strong Lokpal would tackle this systemic issue.

When Kejriwal set up a political party, became chief minister, went on dharna, contested against Narendra Modi in Varanasi, and attempted to expand the party nationally, he was seen as a bit of an anarchist, whose ambitions far outstripped his party’s base and experience. He hunkered down, went back to the basics, and won Delhi in 2015.

When Kejriwal decided to confront the Centre on governance issues in Delhi, oppose demonetisation, and take on the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition in Punjab, where he finished a distant second to the more established Congress, he came across as a strident Modi critic who had slipped away from the focus on governance in the city where he was elected.

To his credit, Kejriwal learned from all these episodes — and the public perception around it — to evolve. He also, possibly, looked at what other chief ministers who had been successful, and had retained power, were doing. From 2017, his politics has been different. His leadership style has both seen elements of continuity, but also a degree of rupture. And this has paid off now, with the Delhi CM re-elected for his third term in office.

What, then, are the components of this leadership model?

The first is complete control over the party. The AAP began with Kejriwal as the face, but also as a political formation that relied largely on collective decision making, with a set of other prominent leaders such as Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav. But Indian politics is largely driven by personality-based formations where it is a single leader who drives decisions.

Be it the current BJP, where Narendra Modi or Amit Shah are in the driving seat, or the Congress, which is a party where the word of the Gandhi family is supreme, or a range of regional satraps — from Nitish Kumar to Mamata Banerjee, from Stalin to Naveen Patnaik, from the Badals to Sharad Pawar — the party is of the leader. The AAP is Kejriwal’s party, and those who have a problem with that, can find other alternatives.

The second element is recognising the power of the media. Kejriwal was among the first leaders, when he was leading the Anna Hazare agitation, to sense both the power of television and social media. His was the politics of theatre, which appealed to television audiences. His party, like the BJP, was as active on all social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp.

Over the past year, Kejriwal has kept up this engagement with media, to broadcast his message with striking regularity and precision. What helps is Kejriwal’s entirely distinctive style, which is conversational; this allows common citizens to relate with the CM. The third element is messaging, and keeping the message simple.

Kejriwal recognised that, as an incumbent, negative politics and just blaming the Centre would not work. Instead, he carved out a positive platform based on microeconomics, almost like Narendra Modi did in 2019. This involved improvement in public schools, public health, provision of water and electricity at subsidised rates, and free public transport. The specific elements of the governance campaign were weaved under the framework of projecting the AAP as a force which delivers development and governance.

This welfare model is not unique — from Patnaik in Odisha to the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, a range of formations have attempted it. But the singular focus on health and education helped the AAP stand out as a party that cares. It was, therefore, usual to hear on Delhi streets, in the run up to the election, a common refrain: “Kejriwal ne kaam toh kiya hai” (Kejriwal has got work done). The message hit home.

The fourth is the decision not to take on the BJP on the question of national leadership. The resounding mandate in favour of Narendra Modi in 2019 convinced Kejriwal that if the contest became a PM versus CM contest, he would be at a disadvantage. And that is why he made a conscious attempt over the past nine months to not be seen as aggressively confronting Modi — a major departure from his politics of five years ago. This was aimed at winning the support of those who may have voted for Modi in 2019, but could be brought back to the AAP since they may not be a committed voter segment of the BJP. The ploy worked. If AAP went up from its 18% vote share of 2019 to over 50% now, the decision not to take on Modi — even as the BJP made the PM the face of the campaign — worked.

The fifth is the decision to assert his religious faith and nationalist identity. Quite early on, during the Anna agitation, Kejriwal was careful to stay away from a paradigm which could come across as “anti-national”.

Remember the “Bharat Mata ki jai” chants in Ramlila Maidan. As the BJP successfully painted one opponent after another as anti- Hindu and, by extension, anti-Indian, Kejriwal carefully sought to ensure that he did not get placed in the same pigeonhole. Be it his recitation of the Hanuman Chalisa, his visit to the Hanuman temple, his advertisement of organising pilgrimages for the elderly, his tweets against Pakistan, his support for the nullification of Article 370, Kejriwal played with the same textbook that the BJP had used adroitly.

There were two moments which could have derailed his plans, though: the violence in Jawaharlal Nehru University, when AAP leaders, despite pressure, decided not to visit; and the Shaheen Bagh protests, especially after deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia expressed his support for the protests. But Kejriwal immediately got into damage control mode, took charge of the messaging, placed the onus on Amit Shah to clear the protests, and stayed away from the site himself.

It is this combination — of control over his party, the recognition of the media as an important tool of communication, the power of simple messaging, which is positive and revolves around delivery rather than being merely a critique of the opposition, keeping the focus local rather than confronting the PM, and proudly asserting one’s own religious faith and nationalist identity — which explains the new Kejriwal school of leadership. It is an example many regional leaders will soon seek to emulate.

Commenting on Kejriwal’s mode of functioning and leadership, Neelanjan Sircar, political scientist associated with Ashoka University and the Centre for Policy Research, said, “Kejriwal is following a trope that has been taken up by many regional leaders who came up in the 1990s — a charismatic leader that demonstrates control over media and state machinery. He has benefited from a city-state in Delhi… Kejriwal’s innovation is to distil this strategy without an explicit identity-based or language-based appeal. He has demonstrated the success of a version of politics that does not rely on identity, or at least a version of identity that does not descend into identity politics explicitly…”

About the author

Subhro Majumder is a Content Writer who is a sports and technology enthusiast. His other varied interests often sway him into reading about history, politics and international relations.

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