New Delhi: “Agar koi bhi pareshani ho, toh ghar aa jaana (If you face any problem, just come over to my house).” These were Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s parting words to a crowd gathered at an election rally in outer Delhi’s Bawana last Sunday. The words, perhaps, define the AAP chief’s latest attempts at recasting himself as an accessible “man of the people”.
While the Aam Aadmi Party is confident going into the Bawana bypoll scheduled for August 23, it is wary that this election will be a test for Kejriwal’s course-correction attempts. The Bawana assembly constituency fell vacant in March when AAP MLA Ved Prakash quit to join the BJP. With Kejriwal’s relentless outreach in Bawana, the AAP hopes to recapture the vacant seat.
Where is Arvind Kejriwal?
Those familiar with Delhi CM’s Twitter tirades against Prime Minster Narendra Modi are asking the question: “Where is Arvind Kejriwal?”
According to an AAP leader, “He is with the people of Delhi.” Party insiders confess that Kejriwal has scaled back the attacks on the PM after the party’s defeat in the Punjab assembly polls and the municipal polls in Delhi.
One AAP leader said the party and its leader were on a “course-correction” to shake off the image that Kejriwal was a non-resident CM of Delhi. “Every day, he opens the doors to his office to the people of Delhi. Anyone can come in without an appointment and meet him. People mostly go back with their complaints resolved. He is very much a hands-on CM,” says a source.
After these meetings with common citizens of Delhi, Kejriwal drives off to his own constituency or to one of his MLAs’. He has also been proactive in preventing crisis, a leader says.
“After the Gorakhpur tragedy, in which over 60 children died, Kejriwal’s first response was not to lash out at UP CM Yogi Adityanath but to ensure first that everything was in order in his own home state. He immediately called for a review meeting of Medical Superintendents from all Delhi government hospitals. He asked them to present a status report on the stocks of medicine and equipment, including oxygen cylinders, available with the hospital and mention the reason if stocks are not adequate."
Kejriwal in Bawana
Over the last two months, the residents of poll-bound Bawana have had multiple visits from the Delhi Chief Minister. In July, images and videos of Kejriwal in Bawana flooded AAP’s social media circles. One video showed Kejriwal admiring the prowess of local wrestlers in Bawana. Another showed him taking a walk through the water-logged streets to meet residents.
“I promise you this — we will start constructing this road in a month. Within two months, you will have a paved road ready,” he is seen telling locals, as partymen chant ‘Arvind Kejriwal Zindabad’.
According to AAP spokesperson Deepak Vajpayee, who is also in-charge of managing the campaign in Bawana, Kejriwal’s “charisma” has not diminished. “His appeal is that of a common man and it is very much alive. The crowd receives him warmly in Bawana and this personal touch will help us in the bypoll. We are very confident going into this election,” he says.
In an address at a Mahapanchayat in Bawana, Kejriwal says: “Chaudhary Brahm Prakash, who was the first Chief Minister of Delhi, did a lot of good work for the capital’s rural areas. In the last two years, our government has worked tirelessly for rural areas. Our government sits in the Secretariat but works on the ground. Until Delhi’s villages develop, the city can’t progress either.”
Even when training his guns on opponents, Kejriwal has been measured in his responses. “In the last 15 years, the Sheila Dikshit government did nothing for farmers. The BJP may raise slogans of nationalism but they don’t actually do anything. If a soldier from Delhi is martyred, the state government gives compensation of Rs 1 crore to his family. The Centre does not do this; neither do the other BJP-ruled states. When farmers’ crops were destroyed, we gave compensation within four months.”
Anger against previous MLA?
Apart from belief in Kejriwal’s outreach, the AAP is also banking on the “resentment” against Ved Prakash for “deserting” the people of Bawana. “There is a lot of simmering anger in the people of Bawana against Ved Prakash. He quit his post as MLA to join the BJP when he was elected to serve the people of his constituency,” says Vajpayee.
Another AAP leader says, “The BJP used to be strong in Bawana but not anymore. Their 2013 assembly election candidate joined the AAP, without even asking for a ticket. Ved Prakash was never a vote puller. Now he is a liability for the BJP. Besides, our candidate Ramchandra has strong credentials. He comes from a humble background and was actively involved in the India Against Corruption movement. He was earlier with the BSP but has been with us for a few years now. He has been given a ticket because he worked for the party and people, without any expectations.”
A resurgent Congress?
Senior AAP leader Gopal Rai, during Sunday’s Mahapanchayat, may have cautioned voters against “wasting” their vote by voting for the Congress, but party sources admit that they are wary of Congress’ growing footprint in Bawana.
“The BJP is nowhere to be seen but the Congress has been constantly hitting the ground. Bawana used to be a Congress stronghold and they are now trying to win it back. We still think we will win but will not make the mistake of underestimating the Congress. They expanded their vote share significantly during the MCD polls and this is sure to be a three-cornered fight.”
Sharmistha Mukherjee, Delhi Congress Vice President, dismissed the notion that Congress was a non-player in the election. “BJP and AAP are trying very hard to dismiss the Congress in the election but the fact of the matter is that Congress is growing faster than the other two parties. Our vote share had dipped to around 9% in the 2015 elections but during this year’s municipal elections, we rose to around 25%. This proves that the people still have faith in the Congress,” she told News 18, adding, “Our candidate in Bawana is very strong and has strong links with the local communities. We are confident of winning the election.”
Speaking on the other parties’ candidates, Mukherjee said, “We are the only party that has one of our own as its candidate. AAP had to poach a BSP leader and BJP had to poach a former AAP MLA. This shows how poor their bench strength is.”
People angry with AAP, not Ved Prakash: BJP
There is one question that has perplexed both AAP and Congress camps: Why is BJP missing in action? It wasn’t until Monday, the last day of campaigning, that the BJP hit the campaign trail in a major way. One senior Congress leader said, “We are very confused with the way BJP has been missing from the scene. Perhaps they have sensed that this election is a straight fight between AAP and Congress and they want to distance themselves from Ved Prakash early on. But this is very uncharacteristic of a party that takes every election, no matter how small, very seriously.”
But according to BJP MP Parvesh Verma, son of former CM and BJP veteran Sahib Singh Verma, the party is on a strong wicket. “If there is one party that has gone to each and every house in the constituency, it is BJP. Our connection with the people is very strong and you will see a repeat of Rajouri Garden in Bawana.”
When asked if there was anger against their candidate, Verma said, “The anger that people had was not against Ved Prakash but against the AAP government. The anger ended the day he quit the AAP. In two and a half years, they have no concrete work they can claim. BJP is very confident of winning this election.”