From a self-proclaimed anarchist with a penchant for hitting the streets at the slightest of provocations, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal of late has turned into a reluctant crusader.
The transformation is not simply stark, but uncharacteristic too for a man who is a product of an anti-corruption protest of which, incidentally, he was one of the prime architects in 2011.
Nine years later, as the country is once again going through a churn and people, mostly students and women, are leading protests and squatting on the streets of Delhi and other cities and towns demanding scrapping of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Kejriwal is caught pussyfooting over the contentious issue.
Kejirwal, once termed infamously as protestor-in-chief, is conspicuous by his absence from the scene of action, despite claiming to have his support for the cause of the protestors. In contrast to Kejriwal, many of his counterparts from the non-BJP ruled states even took part in the protest marches.
What makes his absence more glaring is his past.
Rise of Kejriwal
Until the anti-graft movement, spearheaded by social activist and Gandhian Anna Hazare, erupted in Delhi in April 2011, not much was known about the middle-aged, bespectacled man, with loosely-hanging shirt and trousers, and a typical common-man look. Prior to that he had only made a brief headline in 2006 after being awarded Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership.
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As the agitation for a central anti-corruption ombudsman, christened Lokpal, gained momentum, Kejriwal emerged as a hero for the Indian middle-class, long starving for an inspirational story.
Kejriwal perfectly fit into their script. Raised in a middle-class family, he had attained all that Indian middle-income group would dream to aspire. Kejriwal graduated from the awe-inspiring Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. He then went on to achieve another middle-class dream milestone by gaining entry into the Indian Revenue Service, a branch of the Indian civil services.
If Kejriwal’s academic achievements were remarkable, for the man-on-the- street, his decision to quit a lucrative career to devote himself to social service was simply heroic. As more information about the man trickled in, it became well-known that he was in the forefront demanding enactment and implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, a landmark transparency initiative passed by Parliament in 2005.
Kejriwal did not waste much time to cash-in on his sudden cult-figure-like popularity to take a plunge into politics, ostensibly to clean the system. In 2012, he launched a political party and conspicuously, named it the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), to further reinforce the connect he had with the common man.
In the 2013 Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, his party bagged 28 of Delhi’s 70 seats, little short of majority mark but enough to form a government with the outside support of the Congress, the party he once dubbed as corrupt. Politics truly is a great leveller.
In his new avatar as a politician, Kejriwal did not quite change his spots and continued with his maverick ways. One of his early actions as chief minister was sitting on a dharna with his ministerial colleagues near Rail Bhawan in 2014 to press for suspension of three police officers who refused to make arrests as ordered by his ministers.
He had then even called upon the people to join him on a 10-day protest, cheekily announcing, “Yes, I am an anarchist.”
As he felt it was “more important to fight corruption than to run a government,” Kejriwal pulled the plug on his government even before it could complete 50 days in power.
The audacious decision many thought would be the end of Kejriwal, more so as his attempt to extend the footprint of his party beyond Delhi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections failed miserably. It contested 432 seats but won just four. Kejriwal himself was trounced by a whopping margin of 3.37 lakh votes in Varanasi Lok Sabha seat by Narendra Modi, a bigger cult figure.
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It did not, however, take time for Kejriwal to spring back in his home turf. In 2015 assembly elections, his AAP swept the polls, winning 67 of the 70 seats, surprising many political pundits.
Even after getting such a massive mandate, Kejriwal came across as a confrontationist chief minister, often crossing swords with Delhi Lt Governor, Central government and top bureaucrats. In 2018, he and three of his cabinet ministers staged a nine-day-long sit-in protest at Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal’s office demanding action against striking bureaucrats. In short, Kejriwal never shied away from confrontation.
Soft paddling part of strategy
Why is then Kejriwal this time evading going into a direct confrontation with the BJP-led central government over the twin issue of the CAA and the NRC (National Register of Citizens)?
Taking a dig at Kejriwal, senior BJP leader and Union home minister Amit Shah addressing an election rally at Rithala in northwest Delhi, even dared the Delhi chief minister to visit Shaheen Bagh, the centre of an ongoing round-the-clock sit-in protest mostly by Muslim women against the CAA.
“You say that you are with Shaheen Bagh. If you have the courage, then go and sit with them. Let people of Delhi then decide who to vote for,” Shah said.
Uncharacteristically, Kejriwal has so far been mostly ignoring such diatribes. He is referring to the CAA-NRC and the protests around it only when he is asked a direct question on the issue. But even then he is cautious not to be seen too close to the protestors. In a recent press conference, replying to a question, he even stated that the Shaheen Bagh protest is indeed causing traffic disruption and hardship to the people. For this he, however, was quick to blame the Centre and said it was the duty of the Union government to try and talk to the protestors to end the stalemate.
He even accused the BJP-led Central government, which control the Delhi Police, of not clearing the road blocked due to ShaheenBagh protest, deliberately.
Political observers say it’s a deliberate strategy to try and dent the BJP’s potential weapon of identity, which it uses in every election to polarise votes.
“Kejriwal is intentionally avoiding engaging with the BJP on issues like the CAA-NRC. The focus of his campaign is on the work done by his government,” said Dr Anil Kumar Thakur, a professor of political science in Delhi University. He said it’s a smart political move.
According to AAP insiders, there is another reason for Kejriwal’s soft peddling of the twin issues. A party leader, on condition of anonymity, said the party’s core support base was “genetically right leaning”, who would prefer to see Kejriwal governing the state while Narendra Modi ruling India.
Will not such non-commitment on an important national issue backfire on him?
A former JD (U) general secretary and a prominent face of anti-CAA protest in New Delhi Arun Kumar Srivastava thinks otherwise.
“All of us who are opposed to the CAA-NRC are with Kejriwal in Delhi elections despite him not directly taking part in any agitations over the issue,” Srivastava told The Federal. According to him, BJP stands a chance in this assembly election if only it can polarise the voters, which Kejriwal is determined not to allow.