The white cap trick of Kejriwal
News analysis

The white cap trick of Kejriwal

S. Sivadas

S. Sivadas

From defeating the three-time Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit in her constituency to have won the Delhi State Assembly elections for the third time Arvind Kejriwal had created a hat-trick of sorts that would be hard to emulate. Considering that Sheila Dikshit’s tenure had been quite successful and the Capital went in for a major transformation during that time, it was surprising that the electorate chose a total new comer.

For this 50 year-old former bureaucrat who stormed into politics on the plank of the anti-corruption campaign that Anna Hazare had mounted in 2011 and became chief minister two years later and had a tumultuous run of agitations and falling out with all those warriors who had led the movement, from Anna Hazare, and Yogendra Yadav to Yogi Ramdev and Kumar Viswas and Ashutosh and Shazia Ilmi it was an amazing run. It was also a turbulent time with Nirbhay case and the fog that settled on the capital, so it got the sobriquet of rape capital as well as pollution capital, and the lingering image of its chief coughing into the cameras with a muffler around his neck, these images had become indelible. Along with these also came other images of young men and women donning white caps and smiling, that were like a fresh breath of air.

But after the landslide victory in 2015, there was a different Kejriwal though there was no let up in his combativeness. It was a leader who was totally different, who did some things that caught the eye and the imagination of the public. The commissioning of the discarded DTC buses to be used as night shelters in the AIIMS hospital came as a great relief for the attendants of patients who would otherwise be sleeping in the cold, was just one small step.

He introduced the ‘odd even’ number for vehicles on the road that was to bring the pollution down but that did not quite work. He blamed the adjoining states like Haryana and Punjab for the stubble burning that was sought to be made the villain. The blame went as far as Pakistan and even Oman where too the haze was seen and that seemed to have blown all the way down like the Arab falcons.

But all these didn’t dent his popularity or the people’s faith in this miracle worker. By then his party men were never quiet. They went on from making one innovative measure after another all for the welfare of the people.

Kejriwal’s brushes with the neighbouring states, and closer home with the Lieutenant Governors, Jung and Baijal were never ending and since he had also been a bureaucrat of sorts he knew enough fundamental rules and supplementary rules to handle them. These tussles were so esoteric they were beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals but most felt these were being waged for their sake.

Since law and order was always a state subject, here because of the peculiar position the police was placed under the Union Home Ministry, he had constant friction with North Block. He did not hesitate even to call the prime minister a psychopath, but that being the fashion of the progressives that did not evoke any response or shock. Anyway it was a season when basic courtesies had all been dispensed with and terms like termites, and chor and neech were freely used by even the elite Khan Market gang.

But somewhere along the way there was a slight course correction that many did not notice. And that was the tremendous restraint that Kejriwal began to exercise. He stopped calling others, rival leaders or his political enemies and he began to work with his team in more quiet and subtle ways. There were the Narcissistic manifestations like full page advertisements in newspapers on how to control dengue or how to keep the surroundings clean. Slowly the posters of the broom, the telltale election symbol, that used to be stuck on the auto rickshaws that plied all over the city began to vanish. There were some stickers with ‘I Love Kejriwal’ that replaced them, a counterpoint to the Uber taxis with the stickers of ‘We honour women’ labels. A court ruling against such stickers put an end to this manifestation of allegiance. And the autos all seemed to have had a spring bath.

During the Lok Sabha elections, despite all these changes and innovations, the party got wiped out with the BJP making a clean sweep. Within just two years of that how could Kejriwal have made such a transformation? Either the electorate is unpredictable, or they have a way of springing surprises. In the past so many months ever since the CAA and NPR and NPC legislations were introduced and passed by Parliament there has been a turmoil and the Kashmir action had also not been accepted. The ferment in campuses like the Jawaharlal Nehru University and later Jamia Millia Islamia had particularly been acrimonious and had led to violence. This had its reverberations across the country from universities as far away as Aligarh and Jadavpore and Hyderbad, and all these have attracted much attention abroad as well.

Surprisingly, these did not seem to sway Kejriwal who had been non-committal on many of these contentious issues of national concern and none of his otherwise active party volunteers were seen in the precincts of the two campuses that were under siege. After his victory Kejriwal was to claim modestly, ‘It is not just my win. This is a win for every family whose children are not receiving good education in school, family members who are not getting good treatment in hospitals.’ He said he had constantly campaigned for greater autonomy for the state and control of its police force. He had also been credited with turning round government-run schools, establishing affordable neighbourhood clinics and providing cheap water and electricity. Of all these populist measures the one to touch a chord had been the free ride for women in transport buses. For the poor who have been shunted to far-off resettlement colonies a free ride to their place of work has certainly been a boon. It was as imaginative as that of the railway minister in the Janata Government Madhu Dandavate who placed on railway wooden passenger seats a three- inch thick cushion. It would be difficult to compute the relief given to millions of ordinary rail passengers.

But not everyone was impressed and gave only grudging credit. His old comrade –in-arms Yogendra Yadav said that ‘judging by the craft of electoral battle field this is undoubtedly a memorable victory, bigger than the previous one. Coming at the end of a full term and rattled by a hostile Centre an electoral victory is rare and should call for compliments.’ It was also one of the most aggressive and vicious campaigns mounted by the ruling party at the Centre, where it employed the full force of its machinery; five state chief ministers and the Union Home Minister campaigned and the prime minister addressed five massive rallies. The minister of state for finance took a break from the budget making process and made the speech where a reference was made about stoning the opponents. All this was unprecedented. Later they tried to wriggle out by lame excuses like Amit Shah’s mention that slogans like ‘goli maro’ did harm to his party’s prospects and another minister Prakash Javadekar making the strange excuse that the ‘disappearance of the Congress’ was the reason for his party’s poor performance. ‘It was a different matter whether the Congress disappeared on its own, or the people made it disappear,’ he commented.

There were many refreshing and subtle shifts that happened in the process that hardly attracted attention. Kejriwal’s sudden fondness for Hanuman and visits to temples did not ruffle secularist feathers. But his remarkable restraint in campaigns when he only harped on development and did not attack opponents did attract notice. This was quite in contrast with the campaigns of the two main national parties that had touched a new low. This was quite in contrast to speeches by AAP’s new leaders like Atishi and Raghav Chadda that were urbane and civilised. Perhaps at the end this is what mattered. The white caps prevailed in the end, and not the heavy artillery.