Kejriwal quits in a risky gamble for the Aam Aadmi Party

By Shivam Vij

(This article first appeared in on 15 February 2014.)

In a recent TV interview Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav admitted that his organisation had lost some ground in the perception battle after the Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, staged a dharna calling for making the police accountable to the state government and not the Centre and after the law minister, Somnath Bharti, raided Khirki village, which Yadav nevertheless defended.

Arvind Kejriwal’s resignation on Friday evening marks the next phase in the AAP game, after it formed the government following a stunning result in the Delhi poll. It is a calculated gamble, a move on the political chess board, one that carries a high risk and a high reward because it could either backfire or catapult the party to an even bigger stage than what it initially sought to inhabit.

The risks are high because the game is too obvious for anyone to miss: the Kejriwal government upped the ante to the point that the government was no longer tenable. It was desperate to make the Congress withdraw support and for the government to fall, which it did by putting its ally in a Catch-22 situation in which it could not vote for or against the Jan Lokpal Bill.

Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, based on advice from the central government, disallowed the bill to be tabled at all. How could the Delhi assembly enact a law giving itself powers vested with the central government?

But Kejriwal would argue that there was no point being in power if the Congress’s support to his minority government was a millstone that would prevent him from overhauling the system the way he wants to. But his critics — the Congress, the BJP and the media — will all say that Arvind Kejriwal desperately wanted to leave the Delhi secretariat and return to the streets to campaign for the Lok Sabha election, barely two months away. The fledgling new party just didn’t have the bandwidth to work simultaneously on two fronts: govern Delhi and expand the party nationally.

As election dates are expected to be announced by March 15 and the AAP government could not have taken any policy decisions thereafter, it was forced to do a lot of things in a hurry.

The party feels it would have been on the losing side of the perception battle anyway, whether or not it had continued in government, largely because the media is against it. “We are convinced that the media will remain against us until the Lok Sabha election because the media is supporting Narendra Modi. We know that many editors are getting orders from the top,” a top Aam Aadmi Party leader told recently.

This also explains the party’s case against Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, because it believes that directly and indirectly, Ambani has a disproportionate influence on the media.

But the news channels are only one front for the AAP; it continues to wage war against the established order through simple but powerful methods such as door-to-door campaigning, social media, word-of-mouth and innovative means like advertising on auto-rickshaws.

The AAP will probably tom-tom many of its dramatic decisions taken in the past 49 days. Its focus areas for the Lok Sabha are all seats around Delhi-NCR, western Uttar Pradesh, all of Haryana and Punjab, and the big urban seats in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka.

Concentrating on these 70 to 80 seats, AAP is likely to work on the ground and care little about what the media and the intelligentsia say. Winning not just a few seats but also a share of the votes will give it the national momentum it hopes for. Yogendra Yadav has his sight set on contesting Gurgaon for Lok Sabha and pitching himself to be chief minister of Haryana, which will see an assembly election in October.

Just before that, around August or September, expect the next Delhi assembly election. By that time president’s rule will be over. If AAP is able to win the perception battle by showing the results of the Lok Sabha election in mid-May, it will stand to perform very well in the Delhi and Haryana assembly election.

If a minority government can shake things up in a short while, it is anybody’s guess what an AAP government with a simple majority might do. Winning a simple majority in Delhi may not even require winning the support of the media and intelligentsia: it did a lot in their 49 days of power for various segments of Delhi voters to ask them for another, fuller chance.

It reached out to BJP-voting traders by cancelling FDI in retail for Delhi; to Sikhs by asking the Lt Governor to set up a Special Investigation Team to bring to justice perpetrators of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom; it kept Dalits happy by announcing 15,000 new auto licences only for SC/STs. It showed that corruption can be reduced by turning every citizen into a hidden-camera spy. Most of all, it appeased the poor by making electricity cheaper and water free.

None of this is going to help it win the perception battle because critics will point out it was not serious about running Delhi, too eager to leave, too ambitious to change things, only to score a point.

As he takes on a bigger battle, Arvind Kejriwal will need new one-liners to fight with.

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