The emergence of the real Kejriwal

The Delhi Chief Minister no longer needs those who hailed him as the beacon of a new politics

June 15, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 11:04 am IST

The criticism of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) enacted by India last year to grant citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian people persecuted in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh comes from two opposing perspectives — liberals see it as an exclusionary law while nativists find it too inclusive. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) founder and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s opposition to the CAA falls in the second strand — Hindu or Muslim, persecuted or not, Pakistani or Sri Lankan, why should anyone be allowed to India at all?

“I understand that the law favours Pakistani Hindus and is against Indian Hindus… We cannot and will never do that as we are deshbhakts,” he said in the Delhi Assembly in mid-March. In January, he had wondered, “What is the guarantee that Pakistan would not send spies as Hindus ...?” He has argued that as Chief Minister of Delhi, his responsibility is only to look after the welfare of its people.

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His decision, now overturned by the Delhi Lieutenant Governor, to limit private and State-government-run hospital services in the context of COVID-19 treatment only to the residents of the city who have the documents to prove that was, therefore, in line with this familiar position. India only for Indians; Delhi, only for Delhi-ites.

Mr. Kejriwal’s three consecutive victories in Delhi had raised hopes of a new model of non-ideological politics that could potentially replace the various mobilisation strategies of legacy parties. His ability to win public approval cutting across class, caste and religion had borne out that potential. Politics was no longer about representation and empowerment; it was only about management and efficiency. For the consumer citizens, Mr. Kejriwal became the most reliable delivery boy in their conception of politics as an online marketplace. Public services in Delhi became better under Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rule. Or so it appeared until the pandemic struck.

Behind the apoliticism claim

This apoliticism of the AAP, however, was always a tenuous claim. Nativism is politics and service delivery came wrapped in Hindu symbolism. Deployment of Hindu symbolism is near universal in Indian politics these days, and Mr. Kejriwal paraded them with panache, ahead of the 2020 Delhi Assembly election. He could run with the hare and hunt with the hounds on the CAA — he was counted among its opponents while pleasing anti-Pakistani voters — a politician’s dream. But the whirlwind unleashed by the Bharatiya Janata Party threw him off balance on his tightrope. Equivocation was not enough for the urban voters of the city who voted overwhelmingly for Hindutva twice between voting for him three times. In return, he cheered the stripping of Jammu and Kashmir’s Statehood even while arguing for full Statehood for Delhi. He looked the other way when an armed group went on a rampage at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in January. He offered platitudes when communal riots shook the city and claimed more than 50 lives.

Delhi riots | What Kejriwal should have done

The AAP’s 2020 manifesto promised patriotism courses in schools and to instil reverence for the armed forces among students. As the national lockdown (COVID-19) began, he said he and his family would use the time to read the Bhagavad Gita and urged others to follow suit.

The record so far

The grass-root level activists, liberal intelligentsia and Left-leaning supporters who were the most vocal supporters of Mr. Kejriwal were soon disappointed, and they were purged from the party. A recent book on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) records that its chief Mohan Bhagwat was worried over the influence of such activists in the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement in 2011-12, the precursor to AAP. The IAC was a heterogeneous crowd ranging from non-governmental organisations to the RSS; AAP metamorphosed as majoritarian in instincts and authoritarian in practice.

Mr. Kejriwal had figured the cocktail that sways politics — a hybrid of left-leaning economic measures and right-leaning cultural flashing. He repudiates the market.

Also read | What next for Arvind Kejriwal and AAP?

Taking oath as Chief Minister this year he said: “Some say Kejriwal is making everything free. All the invaluable things are free, a mother’s love for the child, a father’s staying hungry to support his child’s education... Kejriwal loves Delhi’s people, they love him back; this love is also free.”

He could harvest the sentiments of those disenfranchised and brutalised by the market, though they are now left to fend for themselves. He projects himself as the strong leader of the hard state. Sedition charges against JNU students were signed off by his government, after wavering over it for sometime. Privacy is a huge concern for a section of the intelligentsia, but he boasts about expanding surveillance and wins votes. Government schools in the city are rolling out a technology tool that allows parents to watch their wards real time. He feigns humility and claims to listen to the people. There is nothing between the people and the Leader — no cabinet, no media that can ask questions. The decision to shut out ‘outsiders’ from Delhi hospitals was taken after “90 percent of the people” in a digital poll wanted it that way, Mr. Kejriwal announced. People against people.

It has been pointed out that in the new Delhi cabinet, there are no women. The party, however, wanted the death sentence for more types of sexual offences. A Delhi government advertisement on female foeticide is instructive of Mr. Kejriwal’s views regarding women empowerment. “I am a girl child speaking from my mother’s womb...,” the dramatised voice of a child opens it, pleading for her life. Then comes Mr. Kejriwal’s voice: “I am talking for lakhs of such unborn girls..Killing an unborn child is as bad as killing a living person... As much sin... These girls will grow up to be someone’s mother, daughter-in-law, wife..and these daughters will be our nation’s Kalpana Chawla, Sania Mirza, P.T. Usha... Will bring glory to the nation” Quite a candid explanation of the instrumentality of women in the progress of the nation.

The present and the future

The intelligentsia, including feminists, might find such positions detestable, but Mr. Kejriwal no longer needs them. Questioning the majority’s view is not the smartest thing in politics. Other than the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi, no other mainstream politician who has a stake in heartland politics has questioned the Narendra Modi government’s Kashmir policy. Mr. Kejriwal’s deputy, Manish Sisodia, briefly appeared to empathise with the anti-CAA protesters in Delhi and almost lost his Assembly seat, even though he is in charge of education which appears to be doing well. Mr. Kejriwal was thought of as an alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by many. He might want to be his successor still, and if he actually makes it, it will not be by challenging Hindutva. Meanwhile, his claims of efficiency in governance are under the first real life test in Delhi as the city, and the AAP government, wake up from the lockdown slumber to a collapsing health-care system and bourgeoning cases of COVID-19.

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