Arvind Kejriwal
Kejriwal is in no hurry to step down as the Delhi chief minister. | File photo

How Arvind Kejriwal plans to spin current crisis to AAP’s advantage from Tihar Jail

The wily CM has chalked out a multi-pronged strategy that he believes could hold his party in good stead during the upcoming Lok Sabha polls

A Delhi court on Monday (April 1) remanded Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to judicial custody till April 15. The Enforcement Directorate, which had arrested Kejriwal on March 21 for his alleged role in the Delhi excise policy case, informed the court that while it was not seeking an extension of the CM’s police remand, it reserves the right to recall him for further interrogation at a later stage.

When the ED may recall Kejriwal for further questioning or if the CBI, which is also probing certain aspects of the Delhi excise policy case, would be seeking the Delhi CM’s custody next is not known. What is, however, clear is that a defiant Kejriwal is in no hurry to step down as the Delhi chief minister and that instead of wallowing in the shock of his arrest, he intends to spin the current crisis to AAP’s advantage in the campaign for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Armed with the Delhi High Court’s recent dismissal of a PIL that had sought his ouster from office, Kejriwal has dug in his heels; opting to run the affairs of his government while in custody, unlike Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Hemant Soren, who had resigned as Jharkhand CM shortly before the ED arrested him on January 31.

Boosting poll prospects

The arrest of a sitting CM and his subsequent decision to run his government from jail are unprecedented developments in India’s political history. The AAP convenor and his party colleagues, however, are convinced that they can turn the present challenge into an opportunity to bolster the Kejriwal cult, neutralise past criticism by current allies about the AAP being a B-team of the BJP and strengthen the party’s poll prospects, which looked unpromising till a month ago, by raising the bogey of persecution by the Narendra Modi government.

Various AAP leaders and ministers in the Kejriwal-led Delhi government told The Federal that the wily CM has chalked out a multi-pronged strategy that he believes could hold his party in good stead during the polls while ensuring that his decision to not quit office isn’t perceived as lust for power but an act of dissent and sacrifice against a vindictive regime.

The first part of this strategy appears to be Kejriwal’s move of pushing his wife, former IRS officer Sunita Kejriwal, to the forefront of his defence. While AAP ministers Atishi, Saurabh Bhardwaj, Gopal Rai and other party leaders have been told to hold routine interactions with the media to “expose the BJP’s lies” in the Delhi excise policy case, Sunita has been roped in to address AAP cadres and the Delhi electorate as “Kejriwal’s voice”.

Within days of his arrest by the ED, the AAP had ensured that Sunita was able to send out video messages to party supporters and Delhi residents using the same set-up – a sparse office with just two national flags and a portrait each of Bhagat Singh and Dr BR Ambedkar for background – previously used by her husband for all of his broadcasts.

Fighting from prison

Unlike Lalu Yadav’s move to cede the Bihar CM’s throne for wife Rabri Devi in 1997 when an arrest warrant was issued against him in the fodder scam case, Kejriwal has been mindful of not installing Sunita formally as Delhi CM. However, given the limitations on who can visit Kejriwal while in custody – police or judicial, Sunita is the crucial go-between for communicating her husband’s decisions regarding Delhi’s governance as well as the AAP’s electoral manoeuvres.

“The Delhi High Court has said there is no legal bar on him for continuing as the CM and unless the court says otherwise, Kejriwal will not resign. Everyone knows the case against him, Sanjay Singh, Manish Sisodia and Satyendra Jain is fake; it is not the ED but Modi who has put Kejriwal in jail to cripple AAP but Kejriwal cannot be intimidated or silenced.... he will keep working for Delhi even from jail and he will also continue to fight the BJP,” AAP MLA Durgesh Pathak told The Federal, adding that though Sunita is an “apolitical person”, she has been “forced to enter this political fight for the honour of her husband”.

Sources said it was Kejriwal’s idea to have Sunita read out his “message to the country” from Ramlila Maidan, on March 31, during INDIA bloc’s Loktantra Bachao rally. Though the AAP chief’s plan to put the spotlight on his wife and evoke voter sympathy for himself may have been diluted by former Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s unexpected tête-à-tête with Sunita – visuals of Sonia, a recipient of Kejriwal’s acerbic barbs in the past, holding Sunita’s hand and comforting her continue to be viral on social media – Kejriwal could take comfort from the fact that every INDIA bloc leader stood firmly in solidarity with his wife and Kalpana Soren, the wife of jailed JMM leader Hemant Soren.

Women power

AAP sources say the party will gradually increase Sunita’s exposure to the public in the run up to the polls for Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats due on May 25; indicating that Kejriwal has resigned himself to the possibility of not being released from jail before the polls conclude. “Modi only talks about naari shakti (woman power); Sunitaji is the real naari shakti... her husband is paying the price of standing up to Modi; at a time when many seasoned politicians have chosen to compromise with the BJP to escape persecution, she is fighting the BJP head on... the people of this country can feel her pain and they will take revenge her revenge from Modi in the elections,” AAP minister Atishi told The Federal.

It is not yet clear whether the AAP will also rope in Sunita to canvass for its candidates in Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab. Sources said if Kejriwal remains incarcerated through the poll campaign, Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann, Atishi, Saurabh Bhardwaj, Rajya Sabha MP Sandeep Pathak and a few other party leaders will form the core team of AAP campaigners in the Lok Sabha polls.

The party may also reach out to Anita Singh and Poonam Jain, the wives of Kejriwal’s jailed colleagues Sanjay Singh and Satyender Jain, respectively, to also join the party’s door-to-door poll campaign in Delhi. At the INDIA bloc’s Loktantra Bachao rally, Anita and Poonam were also present on the stage though they did not address the audience.

MCC makes it easy

AAP leaders say that since the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is in force due to the elections, there is little in terms of major governance-related decisions that the Delhi CM can take until the Lok Sabha results are declared on June 4 and this would make it easier for Kejriwal to continue in office while remaining in prison. The Delhi government has already issued a statement asserting that its functioning will not be adversely impacted by the CM’s arrest.

“As per law, Kejriwal can remain CM until he is actually convicted of the false cases that the BJP has tried to build against him. He has taken a firm stand that he will continue as CM till such a time when he is legally required to resign because the people of Delhi have given him that responsibility. Whatever work he wants the Delhi government to do, he is communicating to us and, like his disciplined soldiers, we will carry it out. Formalities such as signing of files or other paperwork will be done by the ministers concerned since there is no ministry that is directly under Kejriwal. If the BJP wants to remove him as CM, it can use its LG (Lieutenant Governor Vinai Saxena) to recommend President’s Rule in Delhi... we dare the BJP to do that,” AAP minister Saurabh Bhardwaj said.

Whether Kejriwal’s well-thought-out defiance helps his party wrest Lok Sabha seats from the BJP in Delhi, something the AAP hasn’t succeeded in yet despite winning the last two assembly polls with brute majorities, will only be known when the poll results are announced on June 4. Until then though, the AAP convenor is unlikely to yield to the BJP and the cell in Jail Number 2 of Delhi’s Tihar Jail, where Kejriwal is now lodged, will be the new address of the CM’s office. Issues of constitutional propriety and political morality will, naturally, have to wait their turn till June 4.

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