Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi chief minister could not quite pull off the super-size image he built but he seems to have been rewarded by Delhi with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) winning the prestigious Bawana by-election on August 28. The victory — the first good news for Kejriwal after the Punjab debacle and the subsequent defeat in the Delhi municipal elections saw him and his newbie party bite the dust — comes after he practically went back to the drawing board and scaled down his ambitions as a national contender to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) win in the municipal elections of Delhi ensured that Bawana became a make-or-break for AAP. Delhi, much like a patient lover who had given Kejriwal every chance, seemed to have decided that it was not a shared ardour; the capital was looking to cut loose.
So Kejriwal changed several things. First, the inveterate Modi baiter who had once called the prime minister a "coward and a psychopath" on Twitter after his office and his chief secretary's office were raided by the CBI on December 15, 2015, went quiet on Twitter.
Post the Punjab loss and a lot of soul searching with some aides, including Preeti Sharma Menon who represents the party in Mumbai, Kejriwal stopped all political attacks as they were contributing to a completely "negative perception".
Despite the central government's serial provocations — the latest being the CBI raid on Delhi minister Satyendra Jain — Kejriwal kept mum.
Kejriwal went local with a vengeance.
Interestingly, the Delhi CM realised that his political isolation was complete as even the shambolic Opposition did not want AAP to be part of the parleys for the presidential elections.
Campaigning for Assembly elections 2017 while simultaneously keeping the suspense about his undeclared desire to be Punjab CM had kept Kejriwal pre-occupied 24/7, but the electoral loss acted as a sharp wake-up call.
Delhi's disenchantment with the man they had rewarded with a historic tally of 67 out of 70 seats in the 2015 Assembly polls, the seething rebellion within his party — with co-founder Kumar Vishwas wanting to leave and his own minister Kapil Mishra's open revolt — proved that AAP, which had pitched itself as an alternative, was not going to reduce itself to being a vehicle for one man's giant ambitions.
The Punjab loss gave all of Kejriwal's detractors a chance and he had to stave off a plot to unseat him as Delhi CM, which would have spelt finish for his political career. Kejriwal ate the humble pie and came to an uneasy truce with Kumar Vishwas. Both the men don't trust each other and the sniping is constant, but for now Vishwas is in the party. Sources say that a "coterie" around Kejriwal is extremely keen that they get the Rajya Sabha seats which will come to AAP and want to ensure that all competition is cut down. Vishwas, who founded the AAP along with Manish Sisodia and Kejriwal, feels that he has never got his due. The other camp says that Vishwas is an RSS proxy. I asked Vishwas about this and he said, "I am a nationalist and I have nothing to do with the RSS. I am poet and have admirers in all political parties. I have been offered RS seats by several parties and turned them down. I am not leaving AAP. I founded it."
Kejriwal also went local with a vengeance. He started meeting Delhiites every day and became the same old accessible "paanch saal Kejriwal" of the AAP campaign song.
The party's success story, particularly in education, and his crackdown on private schools over charging parents exorbitant fee were perceived as positives after what Delhi citizens saw as "incessant whining and blaming Modi for every pot hole on Delhi roads".
While the potholes remained because of the Centre's obdurate attitude, Kejriwal toned down his response. The realisation that Delhiites remembered a time when Shiela Dikshit got things done with the same powers was a bitter pill, but was swallowed by Kejriwal.
The incessant Modi bashing was not just yielding diminishing returns but was being seen as a real negative by his constituents.
The party also reconstituted its various teams and toned down the aggressive approach. After all, how long can the CM of a state keep pretending to be an outsider fighting the system?
So what is next for Kejriwal and AAP? Make no mistake, Kejriwal still has outsized ambitions, it's just that he's learnt to conceal them better.
Perhaps, only Delhi could have given a chance to a new, urban party and now AAP — despite the constant battle of attrition being waged by the Centre — wants to showcase its own innovative schemes for governance.
There has been no let-up in the Centre's campaign against AAP for a second; it's just not hitting the headlines. Meanwhile, Kejriwal has scaled back his ambitions and is unlikely to contest the Gujarat elections due December 2017, as AAP was earlier planning to.
With two years to go for the big fight of 2019, Kejriwal wants to be in a position where he can still pack a punch well above what being Delhi CM entitles him to.
The newer, quieter Kejriwal is still seething inside, but has realised that he needs to walk the talk in Delhi before his show can go national.