Kejriwal's political voyage has come to a full circle

Will Kejriwal emerge stronger from his imprisonment, is the question

TOPSHOT-INDIA-POLITICS Broom bristles: A Kejriwal supporter at the INDIA bloc rally in Delhi on March 31 holds up a sign that reads: ‘Kejriwal is Modi’s biggest fear’ | AFP

It was in Sunder Nagri, a resettlement colony in North East Delhi, that Arvind Kejriwal gave shape to the two objectives of his political career―taking on corruption and serving the urban poor. About two decades ago, in these congested lanes that he called his karmabhoomi (land of duty), Kejriwal launched an NGO called Parivartan that used the Right to Information Act to expose corruption in the lower levels of government.

AAP leaders are holding regular meetings with the cadres to ensure that there is no letup and the momentum of the campaign is sustained. However, they admitted that the party would have to be wary about attempts by rival parties to exploit the situation and get leaders to jump ship.

He operated out of a one-room office in Sunder Nagri; there was minimal furniture and a small team of youngsters drawn mostly from the area. One of them was Santosh Koli, a chirpy girl who was knifed by the ration mafia in 2005, and who died in a road accident in 2013. Once, Kejriwal, with Koli, had taken a bunch of South Asian journalists―there as part of a UNDP workshop―around Sunder Nagri and enthusiastically briefed them about the work they were doing. It was about exposing corruption and giving the residents of the area the amenities they were entitled to.

Kejriwal had quit the Indian Revenue Service to become a transparency activist and was awarded the Magsaysay award in 2006 for his social work. Soon, he would put together what was to be independent India’s biggest people’s movement―the India Against Corruption campaign―which not only changed the course of politics in the country, but also paved the way for Kejriwal to become part of the system he was railing against.

What is ironic is that, now, the 55-year-old Delhi chief minister, who started his public life as an anti-corruption crusader, finds himself in judicial custody in a graft case. The Enforcement Directorate arrested him on March 21 in connection with alleged corruption in the framing and implementation of Delhi’s excise policy.

The irony does not end there. On March 31, when the INDIA bloc came together at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi to attack the Centre for allegedly targeting opposition leaders, it was not lost on anyone that this was where Anna Hazare had sat on a hunger strike, Kejriwal by his side, and had attacked several of the leaders who are now standing in solidarity with the AAP.

31-Kejriwal-at-his-India-Against-Corruption-office-in-2012 Crusader mode: Kejriwal at his India Against Corruption office in 2012 | Sanjay Ahlawat

Kejriwal walked into Tihar jail on the evening of April 1; this was not his first time there. He was jailed alongside Hazare in August 2011. The second time was in 2014, when he had refused to furnish a bail bond of Rs10,000 in a defamation case BJP leader Nitin Gadkari had filed against him.

The current turn of events, however, is the biggest crisis that Kejriwal and the AAP have faced in their roller-coaster journey. The party is synonymous with Kejriwal. He has been the AAP’s mascot, its main vote catcher, its principal decision maker, and the source of the political cunning that has helped it outsmart established political parties.

“Certainly, the absence of Kejriwal will pose difficulties for the AAP,” said Professor Badri Narayan, a political analyst. “He is the party’s face and its chief strategist. We have to remember that now almost the entire leadership of the party is in jail. It will definitely not be easy for the party to manage things with elections just around the corner.”

All for Arvind: AAP supporters protest the arrest of Kejriwal in Delhi on March 31 | REUTERS All for Arvind: AAP supporters protest the arrest of Kejriwal in Delhi on March 31 | REUTERS

Kejriwal has successfully built his pro-poor agenda by fashioning himself as the ‘son’ and the ‘elder brother’ of Delhiites. A forceful effort is now being made to project him as a political martyr. The messaging from the party is about the victimisation of a leader who has the wellbeing of the people at the heart of his politics. They claim Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP are targeting Kejriwal because they see him as a threat.

Kejriwal, on his part, has projected himself as a leader who will not submit. He has refused to resign, and his party insists he will continue to govern Delhi from jail. “We are optimistic [about Kejriwal walking out of jail soon] given how frivolous the charges against him are,” said senior AAP leader Jasmine Shah. “Sooner than later the charges will be thrown out by the courts and he will be back. Till that time, he will continue to guide the party and the government from wherever he is.”

Kejriwal has conveyed messages to the people through his wife, Sunita, and has communicated two orders to his cabinet colleagues from within custody, which the BJP has questioned. The unprecedented scenario of a chief minister governing from jail has raised questions about ethics, constitutional propriety and practicality.

Sunil Gupta, former spokesperson and legal adviser at Tihar Jail, said it was not feasible. “It is nearly impossible to run a government from jail as it would require changes in many of the jail rules,” he said.

That Kejriwal does not have a portfolio, said Delhi government officials, means the day-to-day functioning of the various departments is not likely to get affected in his absence. Also, as the model code of conduct is in place, no major cabinet decisions are expected.

However, there is the practical difficulty of getting Kejriwal’s opinion on files; also, all files sent to the lieutenant governor are routed through the chief minister. AAP leaders insist there is no legal or constitutional requirement for Kejriwal to resign, and they would look to the courts for direction on the practical difficulties of a chief minister being in custody.

There is, meanwhile, intense speculation on whether the BJP-led Centre would explore the possibility of imposing President’s rule in Delhi over the “constitutional crisis” following Kejriwal’s arrest. AAP leaders, though, said the party was prepared. In fact, they felt it would only strengthen their argument that the BJP’s only intent behind arresting Kejriwal was to unseat the AAP from power using undemocratic means. They said the party could go to the people with the narrative that the BJP had gone all out to grab power because it could not defeat the AAP in elections.

That the party organised a rally at Ramlila Maidan is being shown as an example of its ability to continue to hit the streets and take on the BJP. A ‘Main Bhi Kejriwal’ campaign was also launched to reach out to the people.

However, the ED’s description of him as the ‘kingpin’ and the ‘key conspirator’ in the excise policy case could build a negative perception, which the AAP would have to counter. It is felt that if he is not released soon, people would begin to say that there must be some truth to the charges given that there is no relief from the court. However, the AAP is banking on public sympathy for Kejriwal. Sunita, in one of her video statements, had launched a campaign inviting messages for him from the public.

While the arrest has robbed the party of its face and lead campaigner, AAP leaders said that this had also given them their main talking point for the Lok Sabha elections. Party leaders are holding regular meetings with the cadres to ensure that there is no letup and the momentum of the campaign is sustained.

However, AAP leaders admitted that the party would have to be wary about attempts by rival parties to exploit the situation and get leaders to jump ship. Some exits have already taken place, including Lok Sabha member from Jalandhar Sushil Kumar Rinku, who recently joined the BJP and will contest on the saffron ticket from the same seat.

AAP leaders at the forefront now include Atishi, Sandeep Pathak, Saurabh Bharadwaj, Jasmine Shah and Gopal Rai. That senior AAP leader Sanjay Singh has got bail―the ED had arrested him in the same case six months ago―comes as a big relief to the party. He has been among its most vocal leaders, has a great hold on the cadre and is well connected with the others in the INDIA bloc.

Sunita has also upped her public presence amid speculation that she could step into her husband’s shoes. “However, associated with it is the danger of being attacked for promoting parivarvaad (dynasty politics), which the AAP itself opposed at one time,” said Narayan.

Professor Sanjiv Ranjan, who teaches political science at Motilal Nehru College, Delhi University, said, “A similar situation arose in Bihar politics when Rabri Devi, who first came out in support of Lalu Yadav, eventually became chief minister. Like Rabri stood in for her husband, Mrs Kejriwal appears to be entering a more active role.”

Party leaders said the presence of Sunita in the public domain was a way of keeping the organisation together; she could act as a rallying point for leaders and workers. This strategy was evident when AAP MLAs in Delhi met Sunita to declare their solidarity with Kejriwal. “The MLAs told her (Sunita) that the BJP would exert immense pressure on Kejriwal to resign,” said Delhi Health Minister Saurabh Bharadwaj. “And if he does so, they will say that the chief minister has run away. It is the policy of the BJP to lay a trap and force the chief minister to resign.”

At the moment, the AAP is keeping its Kejriwal campaign centred on Delhi, where it is pitted against the BJP; the campaign might not be as effective in Punjab as the BJP is not the AAP’s main rival there.

The popularity of Kejriwal and the AAP in Delhi is largely a result of their welfarist agenda. The party has a support base that mainly consists of the poor and the underprivileged, including residents of slums and resettlement colonies.

The BJP, despite holding on to its vote share in Delhi in the past ten years, has failed to dethrone the AAP. This has made the confrontation between the AAP-led Delhi government and the BJP-led Union government bitter, and has complicated governance in the city-state.

“Arvind Kejriwal is the first chief minister who has not resigned after getting arrested,” said BJP leader Sudhanshu Trivedi. “Lalu Prasad had at least resigned before he went to jail. This is an unprecedented situation. The corrupt are demanding that no action be taken against them.”

The BJP is trying to make this election about Modi and the government going after the corrupt and bringing them to book. In this, Kejriwal’s arrest is occupying prime space in the party’s publicity campaign.

On the other hand, the INDIA bloc is talking about the targeting of its leaders by the alleged misuse of investigating agencies. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said at the Ramlila Maidan rally that the government was trying to fix the match by arresting two members of the opposition team before the game began. He was referring to the arrests of Kejriwal and former Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren in a land scam case.

“The sea of people for the INDIA bloc rally to oppose the manner in which the ruling BJP is autocratically crushing every democratic voice and arresting elected chief ministers shows that the election this time has become a revolution and the entire country is moving ahead to save constitutional and democratic values,” said Delhi Development Minister Gopal Rai.

The arrest also seems to have brought bitter rivals―the Congress and the AAP―on the same page. Senior Congress leader Sandeep Dikshit, whose mother Sheila Dikshit’s 15-year-rule in Delhi had met with an inglorious end at the hands of Kejriwal, had in February advised the chief minister to appear before the ED in the face of repeated summons. However, he was among the first to reach Kejriwal’s Civil Lines residence in an expression of support following the arrest. Moreover, Kejriwal’s defence in the court is being led by the Congress’s legal eagle Abhishek Manu Singhvi.

A lot has certainly changed since 2002, when Kejriwal began his journey from Sunder Nagri. He is now an established member of the same political system he had once campaigned against. His critics, in fact, would say there is little that now differentiates him from the rest of the political class.

However, Kejriwal has, over the years, shown an astonishing ability to surprise and get the better of his political opponents. The country’s political history, too, is replete with examples of leaders emerging stronger from their imprisonment. Kejriwal and his party would now be looking to do what they do best when in crisis―go to the people.