Kejriwal - The Loner with a Steady Eye on the Top Post
Electoral wins in Delhi, Punjab have fuelled AAP's political ambitions
On November 26, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will mark its 10th anniversary. A decade-old political party in India is still considered an infant at best. However, this infant has grown up and seems to have hit early puberty. Born from the afterglow of India Against Corruption (IAC), a people's movement, the AAP has had a meteoric rise in its 10-year journey. Electoral wins in Delhi, Punjab and Goa Assembly elections, has fuelled its political hunger for more.
The AAP, led by its national convenor, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is now on a national campaign to project itself as the alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Perhaps also projecting Kejriwal as a future Prime Minister of India. The AAP has changed its 'Delhi's local party image' with an impressive performance in the recent Punjab Assembly elections. It now hopes to gain similar success in Himachal pradesh, and maybe even Gujarat.
Even if it does not win in the home turf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Home Minister Amit Shah, AAP and Kejriwal will surely have an impact if the early buzz on the ground is to be believed. With just three months to go for the Gujarat Assembly polls in the state, the AAP impact is evident as the BJP is banking on heavyweights like PM Narendra Modi and HM Amit Shah to counter Kejriwal's growing popularity.
The AAP leadership has been speaking at various places in the state, and are busy consolidating the cadres and on-ground volunteers. In its trademark style the AAP is doing so openly and actively, just as it did in Delhi and Punjab.
It is not for the first time that Arvind Kejriwal has taken on Narendra Modi. He did a 'dry run' of sorts in the 2014 general election. Kejriwal took on Modi, BJP's prime ministerial candidate contesting from Varanasi. It would have been a miracle if Kejriwal had won that time, but he probably knew that. He did win over two lakh votes, and was recognised, nationally, perhaps even globally, as the "Aam Aadmi who took on the 'mighty Modi' when no one else dared.
Not many even remember who the Congress candidate was from the area that year. But Kejriwal, even though he lost that election, soon became an agressive political force to reckon with.
Something that is now being seen again, this time in Gujarat. This political confidence is fuelled by the fact that in Delhi and Punjab, the AAP's broom has swept all political opponents into a dusty corner. The upcoming Assembly elections are being seen as preparation for the 2024 General Elections.
The AAP has sounded its electoral war cry that it will be a "Arvind Kjeriwal Vs Narendra Modi" election. It may be PM Modi's last election before retirement, and he may win with a massive margin yet again. But for Kejriwal, this election, like the one in 2014, will be a landmark that will help boost his image as a potential Prime Minister.
So can Arvind Kjeriwal become Prime Minister one day? "I believe so" says Ankit Lal, a long time associate and the man who fashioned communication and social media strategies for AAP since its inception. Lal was a part of the core party engine before starting his own independent consultancy, and recalled that "AAP was founded on a mission, of bringing democracy to the grassroot. Swaraj, as arvind had put it. Development agenda, schools etc all became a part of it as it progressed. On both these fronts we [AAP] have made inroads, but not as much as I would have liked. There were multiple limitations on the way… the Swaraj Bill, Jan Lokpal etc was not approved by Lt Gov."
But AAP is not harping on that as a failure anymore, it is talking about development, education and how it has made public officials accountable to a great extent. Its leaders also 'talk to the people' via regular press conferences, and public appearances. The AAP has made sure its leaders, including Delhi, Goa and Punjab MLAs, and its Members of Parliament, are "more visible, and reachable".
In the AAP backrooms, a system has been put in place and select leaders have duties to act as party spokespersons, reply to media's questions, counter allegations from rival political parties, and also meet the public. Most importantly, they make sure the public knows when any AAP leader is "targetted" or accused by any Central investigation agency, or by politician, especially those from the BJP,
"I am overall happy with where the party has reached. A decade in politics is not a long time," said Lal. Clearly it has been long-enough for the AAP to have trained a strong cadre and prepared it to engage in mainstream electoral politics aggressively.
Interestingly, AAP had once branded itself an alternative to such "mainstream" politics. "This is true to an extent. It is also true that to survive in the current scenario you have to be street smart. It is about survival, both of the idea and political survival. It has survived," said Lal.
According to Preeti Sharma Menon, a National Executive Member and an AAP spokesperson, who had joined team Kejriwal as an activist of the India Against Corruption movement in 2011, a lot of work has been done within the party in the last decade. "The people have been trained over time. The party has evolved, and elections are being fought systematically and on issues concerning the people. Surveys were carried out, ground realities studied, it has all been done systematically."
The AAP has changed, "keeping pace with the changing times and evolved just as the politics did," said Menon. However, when asked why it was only Kejriwal now as the face of the party, both Menon and Lal said that it was the nature of politics these days. Simply put, for the people AAP is Kejriwal, and Kejriwal is AAP.
A strategy that the BJP had patented since 2014, when Narendra Modi became its electoral face, and remains so even in state Assembly elections. People are voting for the party's most popular leader as its symbol, never mind who their local candidate is. Now the AAP does resemble the 'personality oriented party it once swore not to become.
Arvind Kejriwal is the face of AAP at the national level, shadowed by his deputy Manish Sisodia, while Raghav Chaddha steers AAP in Punjab, Sanjay Singh has Uttar Pradesh as a focus, and Atishi Singh so far is a presence in Delhi along with the other local MLAs.
"Though the chief ministerial candidates for the upcoming elections are yet to be decided, the people know that Arvind Kejriwal is the undisputed leader of the AAP for years to come," said an AAP insider.
Many had written off AAP in its early years, however, it has now morphed into an entity that may have surprised even its own cadres, many who maintain they remain activists at heart. It is one of the few 'regional' parties that has now ventured beyond its own 'home state' and now these 'activists' are open to turning politicians.
However, what explains the aggression that Kejriwal's speeches now have? "He has been an aggressive person in general, it is now being strategically used. Activist Arvind is a thing of the past, "because he has created a thousand like him," said Lal, referring to the 'trained' AAP volunteers and members. "As an activist and as a politician he has evolved over time. He was different in the run up to IAC, post Magsaysay award he was different, and so on," he added.
According to Menon, the AAP volunteers on the ground are also very methodical in their approach. They give feedback on the issues concerning the people, and that information then percolates upwards, helping set a targeted political strategy. "There is a system in place, but it is not that for every decision we need to approach or seek approval from the national leadership," she added.
Kejriwal, say his colleagues, was always aware of his public persona, and has his own ways to counter or use it to his advantage. He has a range of approaches when countering political opponents. According to those who know him well, Kejriwal "has dealt with Kiran Bedi, Anna Hazare, often by just ignoring their barbs". His former 'guru' Anna Hazare has said the AAP was "no different from any other party now". He is mostly ignored.
However, with PM Modi, Kejriwal takes any 'attack' (such as 'revdi' or freebie) or allegations, head on. "He has had a past cordial relationship with Kiran Bedi, Anna Hazare from his activism days. That is not the case with Modi. Kejriwal replies strongly to Modi," said a party insider. These replies, then become the party stand, and percolates down to the grassroot cardres who then mirror their leader.
Interestingly, Kejriwal's silence on communal issues, and human rights is also a sign of him now being a hard core politician rather than an activist. "He has a party to run. He does not want to take everything on at one go or be seen as taking sides," said an insider turned critic adding, "but that is his strategy, Sisodia too wears his religious beliefs on his sleeve, as he won by a thin margin in his own constituency of Patparganj, he has to respect public sentiment".
"The AAP's silence on Bilkis Bano rape accused being released in Gujarat is telling. He doesn't want to comment on it", said another who claims this is the only point of difference they have with their boss.
Strengthening a National Network
The AAP is now working on strengthening its cadres in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, and other states. Thorough so far has not yet sent feelers to regional parties to join hands and emerge as a strong opposition to counter the BJP's political strategies which are soon going to swell to giant proportions.
Though Kejriwal and other senior AAP leaders have friends from other parties, it is not yet known if any alliances are on the offing. Kejriwal was recently praised by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin on Monday. The state launched a "Rs 1,000 per month assistance scheme for girl students" based on the "Delhi model".
It was launched by Arvind Kejriwal, who reportedly said "states should learn from one another on good practices transcending party politics". According to news reports, "Kejriwal lauded Stalin for emulating the Delhi school model within six months," and Stalin "praised" Kejriwal as a "fighter". Such relationships will be essential when the national electoral campaign begins in 2024.
"Arvind respects Mamtaji a lot too. But other parties come with a lot of baggage, which the party does not deal with, said Lal adding that, "Arvind is the smartest communicator". Communication is also a key talent that the AAP's core leadership holds. Any attack on Kejriwal or any other party leader is swiftly countered. However, Menon says the party is unlikely to align with the Congress etc.
Agencies Arrive at AAPs Doorstep
In August, AAP's Member of Parliament, Raghav Chadha, reportedly said that the Centre "unleashed agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on his party's leaders to finish Arvind Kejriwal off as the Delhi chief minister". He told the media that "BJP and Modi are scared of Kejriwal" adding that people have been "considering Kejriwal as the alternative to Modi." This press conference was held soon after the CBI raided Delhi's deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia alleged irregularities in the implementation of Delhi excise policy 2021-22.
Arvind Kejriwal also said the the CBI raids on Manish Sisodia were "attempts on orders from above to create obstacles in the work of the AAP government,"stated news reports.
Senior AAP leader and MP Sanjay Singh had also reportedly said "the real motive behind the raids was not the probe into the policy but to dent Kejriwal's popularity." On Wednesday Singh tore a defamation notice sent by Delhi Lieutenant Governor VK Saxena. He told the media, "The Constitution of India gives me the right to speak the truth. As a member of the Rajya Sabha, I have the right to speak the truth. I will not be cowed down by this notice sent by a thief, a corrupt man." He then tore the notice on camera.
None of this was even imagined way back in April 2011, when IAC volunteers took to the streets to protest "corruption scandals that came to light during the Congress-led UPA regime". They demanded "the enactment of the Jan Lokpal Bill – a legislation that had been stuck in Parliamentary committees for decades".
In their own words, the AAP website recalls how "one section of IAC activists, led by Arvind Kejriwal, decided that the only way to rid this country of corruption was to join politics, enter government and clean up the system from within. Thus began the journey of the anti-corruption protest towards the political revolution called the Aam Aadmi Party."
The AAP's Fast Moving Timeline
2012: The Aam Aadmi Party is established as a "a model of alternative politics."
2013: The AAP contests Delhi Assembly election, with "the Bijli Paani Andolan", as a focus. It won 28 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly. The incumbent Congress had won only eight seats that year. Kejriwal himself defeated Delhi's three-time Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit from New Delhi constituency.
December, 2013: The AAP forms a minority government, Arvind Kejriwal becomes Delhi Chief Minister.
February 2014: After failing to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill due to a lack of numbers in the Delhi Assembly, the AAP government resigns.
2014: Lok Sabha elections are scheduled to be held in April-May 2014. Arvind Kejriwal contested against Narendra Modi in Varanasi. The AAP contested over 400 seats, and won four seats, from Punjab. A political statement had been made: it was Kejriwal Vs Modi.
2015: The AAP wins again in Delhi, where the BJP has won all seven Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The AAP slogan, "Paanch Saal Kejriwal" worked. The party won 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly.
April 2015: Core members Yogendra Yadav, Prashant Bhushan, Anand Kumar and Ajit Jha are expelled from AAP for "gross indiscipline and anti-party activities". Yadav and Bhushan say they were opposing Kejriwal's "dictatorial ways" in policymaking, administration and ticket distribution. They later formed the Swaraj India party.
2017: The AAP contests Goa and Punjab Assembly elections. It did not win any seat in Goa but in Punjab it allied with the Lok Insaaf Party and won 20 seats. Two seats were won by the Lok Insaaf Party. It also debuted in other assembly elections across the country.
2019: In these general election the AAP contested over 40 seats in Delhi, Chandigarh, Bihar, Goa, Punjab, Andaman and Nicobar, Haryana, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. However it won only one. That was its Sangrur candidate, Bhagwant Mann, now the Chief Minister of Punjab.
2020: Delhi Assembly election, the AAP records a landslide win bagging 62 out of 70 seats. Arvind Kejriwal becomes the Chief Minister of Delhi for the third time.
2021: Chandigarh municipal elections were another feather in AAP's cap, winning 14 out of 35 seats. Kejriwal announces that AAP will contest 2022 Assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand. It records a sweeping win in Punjab, and also gains a toehold with two seats in Goa.
2022: Thee AAP is now on its way to woo the electorate in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Arvind Kejriwal is leading the campaign up front.
While his 2014 Kejriwal Vs Modi election was fought to make a political point, the 2022-23 Assembly elections are all about projecting him as a future prime ministerial candidate. While the AAP may not be seated in the Prime Minister's Office in 2024, it hopes to be in governance in many more states by then, as well as have more members in Parliament. And then the PMO too may be within touching distance.