The emergence of Arvind Kejriwal as a masterful strategist came just about at the right time. Away from his perennially angry image that he is often identifiable with, the AAP convener ahead of the Delhi Assembly Election embraced a mellowed image, got down to brass tacks to survive and narrate the hardscrabble life of a politician who triumphed just from the brink of decimation. Instead of walking into an ambush and skilfully avoiding the plot of provocation by his rivals, Kejriwal remained focussed only on one goal " an overwhelming majority " and achieved it in style with AAP winning 62 out of 70 seats.
Addressing a rally ahead of the 8 February Delhi polls, BJP's Parvesh Verma had said, "In Delhi, many terrorists like Kejriwal are hiding. I don't understand if we should fight with terrorists in Kashmir or with terrorist Kejriwal in Delhi." In response, Kejriwal said, "I'm leaving this decision to the people of Delhi - whether they consider me a son, their brother, or a terrorist."
The leader, who came to the forefront in 2011 with the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement, started as a firebrand orator training his guns at political parties. But seven years and many political ups-and-downs later, he has donned the image of a moderately combative people's leader.
His focus on the issues faced by the people and their demand for development paid off in the Delhi elections, when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief refused to comment extensively or engage in debates with the BJP, which had made the Citizenship Amendment Act and the Shaheen Bagh and Jamia protests the centre of its campaign. Despite improving its tally as compared to the 2015 Assembly polls, the BJP fell 28 seats short of the 36-seat majority mark required to be the ruling party in the Delhi Assembly and 40 seats short of the number predicted by Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari. Such was the belief in Kejriwal's pitch for progress that BJP's only local issue " the regularisation of unauthorised colonies " fell flat.
In his book Swaraj, Kejriwal wrote, "All the leaders of the so many political parties that exist are the same. We can select leaders from one party or the other but the content of that political leader will not change. In the last sixty years, we have tried every political party and every political leader. But there has been no improvement in the condition of the country."
Bureaucrat-turned-RTI activist-turned-politician Kejriwal resigned voluntarily from the income tax department in 2006, owing to the rampant corruption he witnessed in the government. He began work in the Right to Information Act sector and his efforts won him the Ramon Magsaysay Award. With the prize money, he founded the Public Cause Research Foundation. However, by 2007, his faith in the RTI as a tool for accountability dwindled and he went on to draft the Jan Lokpal Bill, with the help of Prashant Bhushan and former Union law minister Shanti Bhushan.
With the Bill ready, he joined Anna Hazare in the India Against Corruption movement, rallying on streets and sitting on hunger strikes. Kejriwal invoked the sacrifices he made during that time for the better good even during the 2020 Delhi election campaign. "I have put my life on the line for the country. I'm a diabetic. If a person with diabetes is on insulin and doesn't eat anything for three to four hours, they collapse and can even die. In such a situation, I have done hunger strike against corruption twice, once for 15 days and then 10 days," he said.
As an anti-corruption activist, Kejriwal criticised the governments in power irrespective of the party that led the Centre. In 2012, he called the UPA's plan to make Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) a multi-member body, an attempt by the government to make the body its "private agent". He went on to call Modi a "coward and psychopath", blaming him for ordering CBI raids at Delhi government offices in December 2015. He also asked for the proof of the surgical strikes conducted in Pakistan by the army in response to the Uri terror attack. As the chief minister in 2016, he hit out at the Budget presented by late Arun Jaitley for "strangulating the jewellery business", adding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had opposed a similar move when he was the chief minister of Gujarat.
The wavering nature of his opinions did nothing to dent his credibility as the leader of the masses. Kejriwal blamed the UPA government for the birth of the Jan Lokpal Bill, saying that, "Our movement was against the corruption of the UPA government. Why did Congress not bring the (Lokpal) bill? If they did it, our movement would not have continued and Congress would have got a huge credit." It was also the current AAP chief who called former prime minister Manmohan Singh "a thousand times" better than Modi for making India one of the few countries resistant to the global economic recession of 2008 by taking timely measures. It was with the Congress' support that the AAP formed a minority government in 2013.
Launched in 2012 from the springboard of Kejriwal's anti-corruption movement, the AAP won in the 2013 Assembly elections, unseating Congress' Sheila Dikshit. But the activist took precedence over the politician when he resigned after the Jan Lokpal Bill did not pass the Assembly test. He was then re-elected with a thumping majority of 67 seats in 2015.
Amid such a turn of events, he continued to work on issues that resounded with the common man " first corruption and later water, electricity, health and education.
The Kejriwal-led party was defeated in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections in 2017. Soon after, AAP started gearing up for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls with the issue of full statehood to Delhi at hand. Terming then Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung as an agent of the Modi government, Kejriwal and AAP leaders and workers staged a nine-day long sit-in protest outside L-G's office in 2018 after bureaucrats allegedly went on a strike following reports of AAP legislators assaulting then Delhi Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash.
Kejriwal even wrote a letter to Modi, accusing him of orchestrating the strike by bureaucrats. "It is unimaginable that a country's prime minister, out of political malice, would get bureaucrats in the capital city to stop work," he wrote. Baijal, termed as an agent of the Modi government, was also accused of stalling the Delhi government's projects. The tussle ended with a July 2018 Supreme Court order stating that the lieutenant governor's powers were only limited to land, police and public order. Even up till 2019, he continued to slam Modi's "fake nationalism". "He is using the armed forces to get votes as he does not have any work to show," he alleged.
Later, the AAP's defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, in which it won only one of the 40 seats it contested and the BJP won all the seven Parliamentary constituencies in Delhi, pressed Kejriwal to rethink his approach towards the National Capital. An erstwhile activist refused to comment on the issue of CAA and NRC, issues that have the spurred a nationwide stir. From chanting Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram at election meetings and rallies, he prayed to Lord Hanuman on the counting day and chanted the Hanuman Chalisa.
In fact, his Delhi victory speech on 16 February saw him hailing "a new brand of politics -- the politics of development". The protests and strikes were replaced by newspaper advertisements and billboards hailing the success of the Delhi government's schemes. A positive campaign was held and Kejriwal told reporters in January, "Hume gaali galoch ki rajneeti nahi aati (We don't know the politics of hate and name-calling)."
Far from the "no compromise with corruption" call with which the AAP had entered politics, the Jan Lokpal Bill is an abandoned cause with 50 AAP MLAs refusing to furnish details of their assets with the Delhi Lokayukta in January 2019. Shedding the image of an anarchist, Kejriwal and the AAP now look forward to the 2022 Punjab Assembly elections.
However, after a major drubbing in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it remains to be seen if his national ambitions will be revived for the 2024 polls. Despite a transformation in his style of leadership, Kejriwal heads a state with just seven Parliamentary seats, has just over seven years of experience and lacks the resources and workers' base that the BJP enjoys. With the promises of ensuring the betterment of people and in turn the country, will Kejriwal be able to find a place among the gamut of leaders in mahagathbandhan?