T N Ninan: Arvind Kejriwal has much to meditate on

Arvind Kejriwal has gone to meditate, and it is just as well. He needs to ponder over how he has been conducting himself as Delhi’s chief minister, and also as someone who apparently thinks he can be a challenger to Narendra Modi on the national political stage. A court has just given Mr Kejriwal a wake-up call, telling him in blunt terms that the lieutenant governor of Delhi is the city-state’s  boss, not the chief minister — and that challenging the incumbent in that office and making wild allegations against him is not going to win Mr Kejriwal any brownie points with the court. It next remains to be seen what another court will say on the defamation suit that Arun Jaitley has brought against Mr Kejriwal — whose tendency to resort to wild accusations crossed a new barrier recently when he asserted that the prime minister might have him bumped off. Such paranoia does not sit well on someone holding high constitutional office.

The irony is that Delhi’s man-in-search-of-a-fight has made enormous political strides since launching the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) less than four years ago. AAP emerged first as the second largest party in the Delhi Assembly, then swept the next state elections in dramatic fashion. It is now acknowledged to be the front-runner for the Punjab elections next year.

Mr Kejriwal has already started looking further ahead, for the next field of battle. His street-fighter instincts have kept him in the news, and also served to show up the lack of flair in someone who started with much greater political assets, Rahul Gandhi. Indeed, with experiments like mohalla or neighbourhood clinics to bring primary medicare to Delhi’s aam aadmi, and an emphasis on education (which has got the bulk of the state’s budgetary resources in the last couple of years), Mr Kejriwal has also shown that he has his priorities right—though he shares Mr Modi’s tendency to exaggerate accomplishments. What he needs to do if he is to climb the next few steps of the political ladder is show some maturity, and stop looking for quarrels and the equivalent of “reds under the beds”.

This may be difficult for a man who has a record of squabbling with civil society compatriots, throwing out founder-members of his political party, picking fights with the Delhi police and the Central Bureau of Investigation, and sleeping on the city’s pavements in the dead of winter as a form of protest. Some of this may have made for good theatre, but there is a hard absolutism in his general approach (“my way or the highway”) that makes many people turn away — especially when the adamancy  is expressed in the language of the street.

The problem with alienating compatriots who might have had a moderating influence is that Mr Kejriwal is left with lieutenants who are accused of faking educational qualifications, wife-beating, being drunk inside legislatures and much else. Admittedly, in a body politic where a good proportion of all those who get elected have criminal records, it is unusual that as many as 12 of only one party’s legislators should be hauled up in quick succession on a variety of charges; so one might concede that the Delhi police has developed a special love for AAP.

Still, Mr Kejriwal needs to meditate on whether all the cases can be trumped up; if not, was his candidate selection defective? What AAP does not need is classification as plain rabble. Can this mercurial politician (who has age on his side) change his spots, or will he always be a street-fighter and conspiracy theorist? It might depend on the circumstances. He showed an admirable ability to eat humble pie when he apologised to Delhi voters for having walked away from the chief ministership the first time.

At the current juncture, Mr Kejriwal would do well to consider moderating his style and persona before another rap on the knuckles by a court, or a political setback, knocks the wind out of him.

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