Thursday, 6 November 2014

Has Kejriwal reinvented himself after AAP's May 2014 defeat?

Is a new, chastened, and more mature Arvind Kejriwal emerging from the shambles he left behind in Delhi last February? Or is it the same Kejriwal in new clothing?
From the few interviews he has given to the media ever since it became clear that Delhi will hold elections early next year, the answer seems to be a cautious yes. I issue this with a caveat, for politicians always tell you what you want to hear, and not necessarily what they actually believe in or what they will do if elected. So only time will tell whether Kejriwal really means what he is saying now or his views are mere pre-election cautiousness intended to avoid alienating key constituencies before they vote.
In this context, one must recall the refreshing pro-business speech he made at the CII when he was Delhi CM, only to see him scare off all business by his wild allegations against power and gas companies. This is not to say power and gas producers need to be put on a pedestal, but it is one thing to suspect wrongdoing, quite another to treat businessmen as guilty till proven innocent. (Listen to his pro-market, business-friendly speech he made at the CII here).
But we digress. Kejriwal's utterances this week show that he is choosing his words more carefully and also defining his politics more sensibly - indicating that defeat in May 2014 has made him a wiser politician. His decision not to contest the two recent state assembly elections, despite internal party pressures to contest at least some seats in Haryana and Maharashtra, shows that he is committed to building the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as a long-term political party. Parties need a base to build on, and right now Delhi offers the best platform for AAP.
This is in sharp contrast to what Kejriwal did from December 2013 going all the way to May 2014, when defeat stopped him for further self-destruct. He was everywhere - junking the Gujarat story one day, contesting against Narendra Modi in Varanasi another day, and getting his party to contest hundreds of seats even if it did not have a snowball's chance in hell of making a mark. He believed he was India’s new messiah, and every action, every speech of his cast him in that role.
In an interview to The Economic Times today (6 November), Kejriwal made it clear that even if his party wants to contest elsewhere, he will confine his own focus to Delhi for the next five to 10 years. This is eminently pragmatic, for AAP's defeat in the Lok Sabha polls was precisely because those who voted for him felt cheated when he had abandoned them for the national stage. From being CM of Delhi, he suddenly developed visions of being a king-maker at the centre and thought he could humble of frighten Modi in Varanasi, just as he did Sheila Dikshit in Delhi. More than his 49-day resignation drama, it was his abandonment of Delhi politics during the Lok Sabha polls that earned him the dubious title of “bhagoda” – one who ran away.
Now, Kejriwal agrees that it was a mistake resigning after 49 days as CM. He told ET: “The middle class in Delhi could be angry with us because we resigned from power. But they feel our 49 days of governance was excellent. They will vote again for AAP, but they don't want us to resign. We should see this anger in a positive way.”
He has also discovered that there is no point positioning himself against the popularity of Modi. This is why, smartly, he has positioned AAP against BJP and not Modi, and now talks of Modi running the country while he runs Delhi. In the ET interview, he anticipates the BJP pitch in Delhi ( that having a BJP government in Delhi is good when there is a BJP government at the centre), and says he is willing to work with Modi. This is a 180-degree turn from the vitriol he poured against Modi earlier this year. He said: “Basically you need a strong leader in the Centre and a strong leader in the state. (The) central government is not Pakistan. We fight elections as political parties but in government we'll have to work together. The Delhi CM will have to work together with the PM.”
This is not only smart politics, but the right kind of politics.
However, before we get the impression that the new Kejriwal is a completely changed politician, a word of caution is needed. Some elements of the old anarchist Kejriwal remain. A leopard cannot change all its spots in one go. Consider this statement on his Delhi dharna, which was widely criticised. He said: “When I sat on dharna as the CM, I did it for the safety of women. The media labelled it as a constitutional crisis. In 2007, Modi sat on three-day dharna in favour of Narmada Dam. There is a media bias against us. If need be I'll sit on a dharna again when I become CM.”
This is bunkum. To say he did a dharna for the safety of women when his law minister was busy chasing African women in the middle of the night boggles the mind. Also, to compare the Modi dharna of 2007 on the Narmada issue and his own dharna after barely a few days in power is like comparing chalk and cheese. All politicians play to the gallery with symbolic protests, but Kejriwal was trying to be too clever by half in this case. His allegations of media bias are also hogwash. If anything, the AAP was a creature of the media, and he surely cannot forget that many pro-AAP journalists gave him a free run in the media, and they then quit to join him in politics. Surely, Modi faced a more hostile media for longer (11 years, before the tide turned in 2013) than Kejriwal. Media is a creature of public moods, and this is what all politicians should understand.
It is also not clear that Kejriwal will steer away from the card-carrying secularism of the mainstream parties. Before the last Delhi elections, Kejriwal was busy schmoozing with some Islamic clerics of doubtful credentials. If he continues on this path, he will end up in the same cul-de-sac as the formally “secular” parties did. India does not need nameplate “secularism”.
But my overall assessment is that we are indeed seeing a new, improved Kejriwal whom defeat has taught a few lessons. The biggest lesson he has to learn is that the idea of AAP – as a party that strives for transparency and against corruption – is larger than the idea of Kejriwal, a politician who tries to be holier-than-thou and is too clever for his own good.