Kejriwal 3.0: The huge win doesn't mean bigger national role for him

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal attending a rally in New Delhi. Photo: ANI
The Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will be coming back to power for a third consecutive term -- its first was a short one of 49 days in 2013 and its second, a full term after its 2015 landslide win.  Among other factors, the BJP’s intensely negative campaign woven around national issues in the face of pressing matters confronting Delhi failed to impress voters. In many ways, this was a Jharkhand redux for the saffron party. The BJP is staring at defeat in several assembly constituencies it won during its clean sweep of Delhi in the general elections last year. BJP’s CAA-NRC-centred polarising politics kept Delhi on tenterhooks for more than a month. Ordinary residents suffered internet bans, closed metro stations, disrupted public transport and a volatile law and order situation – the absence of which has been taken for granted by Delhi’s residents for many years.

While the BJP’s divisive campaign was a self-goal for the party, Kejriwal’s record of efficient governance, a meticulously cultivated and nurtured image of an honest administrator and a slew of pre-poll goodies played their part in AAP’s thumping win.    

Kejriwal’s ‘freebie politics’ was a big vote-catcher for AAP. He unleashed his own brand of water politics — one based on providing this essential resource either free or at heavily subsidised rates. In 2013, when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) first came to power with the support of the Congress, Kejriwal announced 20,000 litres of water free to every household in the city. This scheme was extended after his party swept back to power in 2015. Then, in August 2019, Kejriwal announced waiver of water bills, a decision which was expected to benefit almost 1.3 million residents. Kejriwal’s slew of freebies a few months before the elections touched every stratum of society — from free power up to 200 units to all households, free bus rides for women, free treatment for victims of road accidents, and free surgeries at government and empanelled private hospitals to the city’s residents, irrespective of their economic status, and free wireless internet at select locations. The chief minister had created a storm earlier this year when he mooted a proposal for free metro rides for women, which subsequently ran into trouble with the Central Government. The party also radically altered the nature of government school education in the city, providing parents a direct interface with teachers and allowing them to monitor their children inside classrooms on their mobile phones. Despite the impressive transformation of the city in the run-up to Commonwealth Games in 2010, its health and education apparatus was in tatters. Kejriwal’s prioritised re-building these two critical areas which resonated with Delhi’s voters. They rewarded him again when it mattered.

Much before other parties could spell their vision for Delhi, Kejriwal came out with 10 guarantees before AAP released an official manifesto. It was the first party to show the future to Delhi’s voters, even as leaders of other parties were conspicuously silent or busy whetting up nationalistic rhetoric which was inconsonant with Delhi’s local electoral issues. Kejriwal’s stature as an able administrator in Delhi and the opposition’s lack of a credible leader to match his charisma further tilted the scales towards AAP. Home Minister Amit Shah, who spearheaded the BJP’s campaign in Delhi, was no match for Kejriwal. Neither were other BJP leaders like Manoj Tiwari – the most publicised face of the party during the campaign. The Congress campaign with Rahul Gandhi at the helm was uninspiring and lacklusture. The Grand Old Party failed to either project a vision for Delhi nor effectively counter the BJP's campaign.  

While some have speculated that AAP’s impressive victory in Delhi could catapult Kejriwal to a bigger national role, this would be putting the horse before the cart. Delhi’s election is an aberration in Indian democracy, primarily due to its entirely urban vote bank. Although caste and religion matter in certain constituencies, they aren’t the primary considerations like in various states in India. Kejriwal is still a ‘Delhi leader’- like former Congress leader Sheila Dixit. The late Dixit served as Delhi’s CM for 15 years on the trot from 1998 to 2013. India’s rapidly urbanising population could be a potential boon for Kejriwal’s national ambitions in the times to come, but the prevalence of regionalist and linguistic identity politics even among India’s urbanised population could be a spanner in the works unless Kejriwal radically re-invents himself, quite like what Narendra Modi did in 2014, from a high-performing state chief minister to a pan-India figure with wide and diverse acceptability. The UN estimates that almost four out of 10 Indians would be city dwellers by 2025 – when Kejriwal seeks re-election from Delhi. At the moment about a third of the country’s population is estimated to be urban though unofficial estimates suggest that proportion could be substantially higher. While Kejriwal has reclaimed Delhi, he would have to wait a lot longer to emerge as the next Narendra Modi.

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