Arvind Kejriwal: From disruptor to Delhi’s leader

To get a sense of how far Arvind Kejriwal has travelled in his short political journey of less than a decade, compare two images.

The first is from his first term in office. In 2014, the chief minister of Delhi decided to sit on a dharna in the heart of the capital. It sent out a message that Kejriwal, who rose as a result of the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement, would remain a disruptor. He resigned soon after, with his term lasting 49 days. The message was simple: He would change the system, the system would not change him.

The second image is from outside the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) office last week, as Kejriwal won a resounding mandate in the assembly elections. He chanted three slogans — Bharat Mata ki Jai, Inquilab Zindabad, and Vande Materam; he thanked Hanuman (who, during the campaign, he said he was a devout follower of); and he declared that the victory was a victory of the people of Delhi for the development work that had been done in the past five years.

In these six years, from January 2014 to January 2020, Kejriwal evolved from being seen as a disruptor to a leader committed to governance; from a political entrepreneur who wished to take on Narendra Modi and expand nationally, to a chief minister who was committed to governance and focused on Delhi; and from an “anarchist”, a descriptor often used by rivals, to a public figure who would operate within the framework of Constitution, at ease with the idiom of Indian nationalism.

As Kejriwal takes oath today for the third time, and prepares for his next term, it is this new image he must hold on to — and build on. In a way, his task is made easier, for he has to just translate his campaign into governance.

During the campaign, the AAP stuck to what it had done in the spheres of education (improving government schools, both in terms of infrastructure and quality of education), health (providing primary care through mohalla clinics and ensuring free supply of medicines, diagnostics and even surgery), public transport (which has been made free for women), and subsided and regular supply of electricity and water.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried hard to reshape the campaign around the issue of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and AAP’s alleged support for the protest against it at Shaheen Bagh — Kejriwal deftly stayed away from it. Left and liberal activists of civil society condemned him for not visiting Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia — he did not get ruffled. It was this focus, this ability to keep his eyes firmly on the target, the stubborn refusal to get distracted and swayed by either the Left or the Right, and, instead, fight the election on his own, positive, platform that explains Kejriwal’s victory.

It is this very focus that he needs to now deploy, both in politics and governance. Politically, many sympathetic observers, who are constantly in search of an alternative to Modi, have already begun prodding Kejriwal to go national and take on the prime minister. The CM has done this in the past. Remember Varanasi of 2014? Or the consistently confrontational approach against the Centre — which was indeed being obstructionist and sought to undermine the Delhi government — till 2017-18? Or the effort to cobble together a front of regional parties against Modi in 2019? It did not work.

Kejriwal appears acutely conscious of the fact that many of his voters are Modi voters as well, who both in 2014 and 2019 went with the BJP at the Centre. He also appears conscious of the fact that his electoral victory was unique — owing to the particularities of Delhi’s location, fiscal situation, demographics — which cannot be replicated nationally. He is also, perhaps, well aware of the limits of the AAP’s organisational reach.

To be sure, as both a citizen and an important political figure, Kejriwal is entitled to take positions on national issues, or collaborate with like-minded parties. But more than a national front against Modi, what the AAP really needs is to win the municipal elections in the city in 2022. And the way to do it is by sticking to the idiom of local governance, keeping his politics local, and focusing on service delivery.

If politically, he must remain rooted to Delhi, in terms of governance, it is time for Kejriwal to both build on his achievements in terms of service delivery of the past five years — and work on new areas.

The most important policy priority is tackling pollution. To his credit, in an interview with Hindustan Times before the elections, the CM said that this would be a key agenda in the third term. Pollution has emerged as the primary public health crisis of our times. It is affecting every citizen across class boundaries; it is undermining Delhi’s reputation as an attractive destination for diplomats, investors, students, professionals; it is causing a range of ailments annually, with pregnant women and children most deeply affected; and it has both environmental and economic consequences.

To be sure, there are a complex set of factors behind the spike in pollution — including stubble burning in neighbouring states — which are beyond the control of the Delhi government. But Kejriwal must make this his primary political objective in this term. It can be the defining element of his legacy five years from now.

There will be tens of thousands of people today at Ram Lila Maidan, cheering on Arvind Kejriwal as he takes charge again. He would do well to look into their eyes, and recognise the mandate for what it is — a mandate to continue reforming delivery systems and providing services, and improving the lives and incomes of citizens, of Delhi.

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