NEW DELHI: The high voltage Delhi elections are finally over. After the hype and the hoopla what remains is one dominant image: this was essentially a one-man show. This was a campaign that was centred around a single candidate—the persona of Arvind Kejriwal. What dominated the narrative was his model of governance, his campaign blitzkrieg, and even the extent of his Hindutva credentials. Kejriwal would be the last to agree, but wasn’t his campaign a deja vu of the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha shows starring Narendra Modi? And just as the BJP asked in the Lok Sabha, “Modi vs who?”; the AAP asked in Delhi 2020, “Kejriwal vs who?”.
Unlike the BJP, whose campaign really took off in January this year; or the Congress whose campaign is yet to take off even after the polling booths have closed, the Aam Admi Party began its battle for the national capital eight months ago. One of the first steps that Kejriwal took was to shrug off his anarchist image, and stopped his daily feuds with PM Modi. He was perhaps the first opposition leader to realise that opposing PM Modi did not give electoral dividends, especially not in the aftermath of a reinforced Lok Sabha mandate. He was quick to support the BJP on Article 370, thereby nipping that debate in the bud. (The move was then followed by Sharad Pawar and Bhupinder Singh Hooda in the Maharashtra and Haryana state polls.)
Now that he was no longer Modi’s fiercest critic, Kejriwal decided to carve an identity of his own, one that was based on his own positives rather than someone else’s negatives. Sometime in July last year, when he announced tirth yatra (pilgrimage) freebies for the elderly, AAP workers began to refer to him as Dilli Ka Shravan Kumar, a caring-sharing sort of son who looked after the elderly. This was followed by schemes for women—from CCTV cameras to free bus rides—thereby extending his patronage to the women voters. (Just as the PM had done with this Ujjwala scheme and triple talaq move.)
Finally on election eve, all this along with the free water and electricity subsidies (Bijli Ka Bill Zero, Kejriwal Hero), merged into the larger Lage Raho Kerjiwal campaign. The slogan did not harp on one issue, but became a sort of organic entity that adapted itself to various issues.
With hoardings splashed against a warm, turmeric-yellow background, and radio adverts that had him earnestly explaining his various development initiatives (note—no mention of Modi), Kejriwal ended his campaign with a blitzkrieg of town halls. The locations and the crowd were organised by AAP volunteers, but channels were invited to anchor and broadcast these. Everyone agreed, because in Delhi elections 2020, the hottest selling TRP was Kejriwal himself. And just as in the Lok Sabha polls, PM Modi’s televised interactions at various chambers of commerce and across university campuses dominated the narrative, so did these town halls, with Kejriwal firmly at centre stage, waving his manifesto. He was also quick to remind the voters that unlike some pedigreed politicians, he was an aam aadmi like them. Now, where have we heard this song before? And when BJP leaders called him a terrorist he took up the charge and pitted his record on development to counter it. (One only has to go back and compare Modi’s response to the “maut ka saudagar” slur in the 2007 Gujarat polls.)
Into this mix came the Shaheen Bagh protest and the Jamia violence. Both were live-wire issues that had the potential to polarise and both targeted the BJP’s politics. The Kejriwal of old would have jumped into these head-on, muffler firmly in place. The new (and some would say politically mature Kejriwal) refused to engage. He muttered something against the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA), which was at the core of the Shaheen Bagh protest, but when pushed further he pointed out that there was little state governments could do against what was essentially a Central legislation. Unlike Congress leaders, he did not go to Shaheen Bagh. In fact, when he realised that the protest was polarising votes towards the BJP, he even requested the protestors to go home.
As the BJP played up the CAA and built a campaign high on nationalism with religious overtones, Kejriwal realised he would have to do more than stay silent on CAA. He would have to take a stand. And so very cleverly without talking Shaheen Bagh, he talked Pakistan. He visited the Hanuman Mandir, recited the Hanuman Chalisa during interviews and went to cast his vote with a tika (religious mark) on his forehead (after taking his blessings from his parents, in full glare of TV cameras, again a very déjà-vu move).
While these moves had the liberals worried, Kejriwal’s supporters immediately understood his game plan. “Arvind knows that Shaheen Bagh will not cut any ice with the voters. What he is trying to ensure is that the Hindu voter should not be divided on these lines,” says Ashutosh, a former AAP leader and founder, Satyahindi.com. Adding, “Don’t forget he got 67 seats last elections; 84% of Delhi’s population is Hindus. They must have voted for him as well. Why should he let that vote get divided? We get flabbergasted that he is reading Hanuman Chalisa. But he knows where his voter is. He also knows that the Muslim voter will not vote for BJP or waste its vote on Congress.”
So instead of falling into the BJP’s trap and hotfooting it to Shaheen Bagh, Kejriwal carved a niche for himself—in the right of centre. He realised that the Congress had abdicated the middle ground, there was a void that needed to be filled and so he slowly but surely moved from the left (with his freebies and subsidies) towards the right. Rama Lakshmi, Opinion Editor at ThePrint.in explains: “AAP ran a campaign that was carefully choreographed to capture the right-of-centre political space. Much of the Left ecosystem that shapes the anti-Modi narrative lives in Delhi. But he chose to ignore their issues and concerns in recent years. He deliberately avoided going to JNU, praised Balakot airstrikes, supported Article 370 dilution, and did not visit Shaheen Bagh even once. By doing all this he moved right-of-centre, from the left of centre space that he had situated himself with free electricity, water and bus rides.” She adds, “This is why I call him an ideological gymnast. He is a pragmatic, post-ideology politician. Whether this will make AAP into a ‘catch-all’ party in the mould of Indira Gandhi or it ends up displeasing every section is something 11 February will reveal.”
If Kejriwal wins Delhi then he will not only score an electoral win but he will also have successfully experimented with an ideological counter to take on the BJP’s hyped up right wing narrative. It could be the game changer the opposition is looking for.