The political journey of Arvind Kejriwal is a fascinating story. He has been on our cover six times in the short span of seven years. I must confess I was quite taken by him when he launched his party — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — and fought his first election in December 2013. I wrote in my letter from the Editor at that time: “His sudden emergence as a possible game-changer in the forthcoming Delhi assembly election has made him a symbol of hope for the aam aadmi, who believes that he will deliver a land free from corruption and self-serving politicians.”
The former IRS officer turned social activist managed to come to power in alliance with the Congress, but his government lasted only 49 days because of his political naivete. Then, in February 2015, he stormed back to power with a thumping majority — the AAP won 67 of Delhi’s 70 assembly seats — soon after the BJP’s big win in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. His political start-up showed other non-BJP parties that a rag-tag party could beat the mighty BJP election machine with all its top gun leaders as long it had the right message and a credible leader. Now he has done it again, with a majority almost as good as the last time and, again, within eight months of a big BJP win in the Lok Sabha election. He has delivered on the promise of corruption-free, good governance, and the voters of Delhi have rewarded him in return.
The IIT-ian turned government servant has had many avatars. He championed the cause of the Right to Information (RTI) and later became a key figure in the tumultuous Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement in 2012, before taking the plunge into the rough and tumble of electoral politics. In 2014, his fledgling party decided to spread its wings across the country and Kejriwal’s national ambitions prompted him to contest against Narendra Modi in Varanasi. Rather prematurely, as it turned out. His party bit the dust. Two shock defeats just two months apart in 2017 — in the Punjab assembly election and the Delhi municipal election — set him on a path of transformation from a cantankerous activist in perennial protest mode to a low-key, result-oriented politician. Bolstered by a significant Delhi High Court ruling that ended his tussle with Delhi Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, Kejriwal used what his aides say is his biggest strength — a laser-like focus — to work on his original message of good governance. The AAP improved access to healthcare and education and subsidised electricity and drinking water, all within the state’s budget. He cleverly used Delhi’s budget surplus to give freebies, from free public transportation for women to fully-paid pilgrimage yatras for senior citizens, and much else. He bolstered his various schemes with a high-octane, personalised advertising campaign well before the dates of the election were announced. He made himself the face of the campaign. In a way, he did a Modi on Modi.
Kejriwal ran a positive campaign, focusing on his track record over the past five years. Shrewdly, he stopped making personal attacks on Modi 27 months ago when he realised that criticising a popular prime minister was doing him no good. It was in sharp contrast to the BJP’s shrill rhetoric and divisive campaign of aggressive nationalism where the ruling party deployed its heavy artillery against Kejriwal, calling him a terrorist and anti-national. The campaign failed spectacularly. In his brief speech to his workers at the party office in Delhi after the victory, Kejriwal retained his composure. He thanked the people for voting his government back to power, emphasised the delivery of public services as his priority for the next five years and, hearteningly, did not once criticise or name the BJP leaders who had targeted him. In fact, he urged everyone to forget all the bitterness now that elections are over.
Our cover story this issue, ‘How Vikas Won’, has been put together by Senior Editor Kaushik Deka and Assistant Editor Gulam Jeelani. Senior Deputy Editor Uday Mahurkar examines how the BJP botched its own campaign and the lessons it needs to learn from the Delhi debacle. It may be too early to infer whether the verdict will resurrect Kejriwal’s national political ambitions and whether AAP will venture out into other states again or become the standard bearer, rallying other opposition parties to form an anti-NDA front. What we do know is that Delhi has delivered another blow to the Modi-Shah combine’s aura of electoral invincibility. It is worth remembering that Delhi is a microcosm of India, with its patchwork of classes, castes, sub-castes, religions and regional affiliations. The clear message from these elections is that people want a government that delivers good governance and development. They do not want the politics of hate and division. They will reward performers and punish those who don’t deliver on their promises. Most importantly, it is a rising tide of economic well-being and social justice that lifts all boats. It’s a lesson every Indian politician needs to heed.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, How Vikas Won, for February 24, 2020)