AAP: The Deflated Challenger

AAP leaders Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann on a roadshow in Ahmedabad (Photo: AFP)

A CERTAIN SELF-LOVE AND FANCY FOR melodrama are the two key traits that Arvind Kejriwal used to be known for among his peers at IIT Kharagpur. He proved that he still retained them within years of joining active politics after launching the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2012. When he lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi by a huge margin in Varanasi in 2014, besides failing to secure a single Lok Sabha seat in Delhi, Kejriwal rolled on the floor, sobbing, disheartened by the poll reversal, as this author had written in a book quoting the Delhi chief minister’s then colleague and journalist Ashutosh. At the height of the 2014 General Election campaign, Kejriwal fanboys, who had descended on the ancient city considered holy by the Hindus, had created a myth surrounding the former anti-corruption activist as an indomitable crusader headed for an emphatic win. He lost by a margin of 3,70,000 votes. Poll triumphs continued to evade AAP in the Lok Sabha polls in Delhi in 2014, as well as in 2019.

But bluff and bluster continue to characterise Kejriwal, who now openly claims to be a strong contender for power at the Centre. Not that he has been any less ambitious before, but the attention he gets with the main opposition party Congress losing its sheen and political heft at a fast clip—from among the anti-BJP spectrum of political interests—has emboldened him to aspire for the role of a giant-killer.

In the run-up to the first phase of polling in Gujarat, Kejriwal claimed that there was a huge craze for AAP among women and youth in Gujarat and that his party would win more than 92 out of 182 seats in the Gujarat Assembly. He also told reporters that he would “write it down” for them if that could reassure them about his prophecy. He made that statement after interacting with diamond traders in Surat. Kejriwal was quoted as saying, “All our surveys show we are much ahead of BJP in the support of youth and women. I appeal to them to ask all members of their families to vote for AAP. AAP will form the next government in Gujarat,” he told reporters. His confidence stemmed from AAP’s wins in the 2021 civic polls in the city when it won close to 28 per cent of the vote share and replaced Congress as the second-biggest party there. In the end, AAP had to contend with five seats in Gujarat where it lost deposits in more than 125 seats. Worse, in the Himachal Pradesh assembly election, the party got fewer votes than those counted as NOTA in more than 25 of total 68 constituencies.

Certainly, the tone of his campaign that re-emphasised his exaggerated sense of self-importance was not new to anyone. An apocryphal story has it that even as early as the 2017 Punjab elections, he had confided in favourable journalists that Punjab was just a stepping stone for him and that it was Gujarat that was his next big climb before he made a pitch for a hefty national role. As it turned out, even some of his favourites among the scribes refused to run any report of his claims back then, sensing the incongruity of his ambitions. It is said that Kejriwal was crestfallen because he relied on advertising his credentials before making a foray.

Of course, Kejriwal deserves credit for lowering entry levels for political aspirants and capturing the public imagination with the promise of decentralisation of power. It helped him come to power in Delhi in 2013 first (for 49 days) with Congress’ backing, and in 2015 with a landslide, winning 67 of 70 seats. He repeated a good show in 2020 as well, securing 62 seats. AAP won 92 out of 117 seats in the 2022 Punjab Assembly elections too; a remarkable feat for a new political entity. His populist slogans did click, as he relied on offering people good education, healthcare and other public services, such as water and power supply. But then, his is a party that came to the limelight as an anti-corruption movement, with the pledge to weed out graft from politics. While stepping down after 49 days of assuming power in 2014, he had said he did so because he could not table the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Assembly over reported opposition from other political parties. Kejriwal had tapped public anger against corruption in the time of UPA II that saw widespread governmental apathy and concomitant protests, including the one launched by Anna Hazare, of which he was a part until he parted ways with his former mentor and launched a political party to further his cause.

FOR A PARTY THAT WAS BORN OF A MOVEMENT against corruption (India Against Corruption) and the right to information, AAP is now embroiled in corruption scandals and some of its key leaders are either jailed or under investigation in high-profile cases handled by national agencies. Its cabinet minister Satyendar Jain was arrested by Enforcement Directorate on May 31, 2022, on allegations of money laundering. According to the Delhi government website, “He [Jain] served as Health and Industries Minister in the first AAP Government from 28th December, 2013 to 14th February, 2014. He was re-elected from Shakur Basti Assembly Constituency in the recent Assembly elections and is presently serving as Minister of Power, PWD, Health & FW, Industries and Gurudwara Elections, Govt. of NCT of Delhi.” An inquiry committee constituted by Delhi Lieutenant Governor VK Saxena has found that the jailed Jain had “misused” his official position and met the co-accused in a money-laundering case. He is currently in a Tihar Jail cell from where leaked videos suggested that he was getting VIP treatment, including massages.

The attention Kejriwal gets with the main opposition party Congress losing its sheen and political heft at a fast clip—from among the anti-BJP spectrum of political interests—has emboldened him to aspire for the role of a giant-killer

Again, one of AAP’s founding members and the No 2 in the party, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, is being investigated by CBI as well as the Delhi Lokayukta in multiple cases of corruption against him. One is about irregularities in the construction of schools and classrooms, and the other is on charges of corruption, criminal conspiracy, falsification of accounts, and undue advantage in connection with Delhi’s now-revoked liquor policy.

No wonder that although AAP won the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) polls by securing 134 seats in the 250-seat body on December 7, it was BJP that secured three out of four MCD wards in the Patparganj Assembly constituency of Sisodia. Similarly, BJP also won all wards in tainted Jain’s Shakur Basti Assembly constituency: Rani Bagh, Paschim Vihar, and Saraswati Vihar. “This is a setback for us. We fought elections on an anti-corruption plank. Any corruption charge, whether foisted on us or not, is going to backfire. I am not saying all of these are corrupt, but there could be some,” a state AAP leader told Open on condition of anonymity. This leader however refused to comment on the charge that Sisodia had repeatedly changed his phone numbers—as many as 45 times in short periods—that investigating agencies believe was a neat ruse to beat the rap.

Kejriwal has performed political acrobatics, too, besides being at his histrionic best at times. He tendered an apology to both the late BJP leader Arun Jaitley and to Shiromani Akali Dal leader Bikram Singh Majithia following which both decided to withdraw court cases against him. It is quite remarkable that he had no qualms about making unfounded allegations as well as apologising when he realised that he was in legal trouble.

For a leader who has accused opponents of propaganda, Kejriwal is the master of spin, advertising himself to glory at taxpayers’ expense. For a dispensation led by a common man’s party, the Delhi government spent massively in the media to project its so-called achievements. It is also alleged that in return for these ads, AAP was able to demand favourable media coverage, a charge that is difficult to ascertain. AAP’s rivals have accused the communications in-charge of the party, Vijay Nair, who is now being investigated for alleged irregularities in the Delhi excise policy case, of being the de facto ‘editor-in-chief’ as he had reportedly dictated news stories to editors as a quid pro quo arrangement. AAP had denied the charges and hurled counter-charges at its accusers. Kejriwal, meanwhile, had called Nair “AAP ka ek chhota sa karyakarta (a small functionary of AAP)”. In truth, Nair was anything but ‘small’, and had all kinds of party resources at his disposal, including official accommodation.

To be sure, the Delhi government’s spending on advertisements increased by 4,273 per cent over 10 financial years ending with 2021-22, according to Right to Information (RTI) replies by the Directorate of Information and Publicity provided to a Bihar-based RTI activist, say reports.

The drubbing AAP has received in Gujarat as well as the performance that trailed expectations in the MCD polls make AAP much less of a contender to reckon with. That its vote share in Himachal Pradesh is abysmally low is an understatement. In Delhi, the party suffered reverses in the 2020 riot-hit areas of northeast Delhi where it took the Muslim voters for granted, assuming that they will resort to tactical voting, whether or not they stand up for them. That did not happen. The party was a pretender to power earlier in Uttarakhand, Goa as well as in Gujarat in 2017. Incidentally, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had paid Kejriwal a visit while in Delhi not long ago, was shocked by the theatrics of the Delhi chief minister who dwelt on what he called ‘Operation Lotus’, which Kejriwal said was an alleged plot to unseat opposition governments, including in Delhi. Even Kumar, who has no love lost between him and BJP, was taken aback by the overplay.

The lesson is: yes, there is space for non-BJP opposition, but there is a limit to which theatrics can take you.

First published in Open

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