Arvind Kejriwal is a tough nut to crack for Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The battle for Delhi will further prove that Modi Magic is on the wane despite the violent assertion of his Hindutva agenda. There is no denying the fact that Kejriwal is not the same brand as five years ago. Then, he was a political greenhorn but he was the one politician trusted by the public for not being a seasoned politician. He was seen as a man who had entered politics not to do politics but to change politics. He is still trusted by the public - but now as a politician. The story of the last five years of Arvind Kejriwal is his dramatic transformation from being an 'idealist' anarchist to a 'pragmatist' politician.
If anyone thinks that Kejriwal's charisma has lost its magnetic touch with voters, they are living in a fool's paradise. Kejriwal might not sway voters at the pan-India level but he is still No. 1 in Delhi. It is an undeniable fact that under his leadership, AAP has performed miserably in any election it contested in the last two years. His party could not muster even one percent votes in the assembly elections in Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. AAP lost very badly in the parliamentary elections in Delhi - AAP was the No. 3 party in terms of votes polled. Even the Congress had more votes. AAP also lost very badly in the 2017 Delhi municipal elections. But the Delhi assembly elections are a different ball game altogether.
Three things will decide the fate of AAP:
One, like Modi, Kejriwal has no competitor in Delhi. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, Modi was seen as the one leader head and shoulder above the rest. The TINA factor worked in his favour. Similarly, in Delhi there is a TINA factor working for Kejriwal. The BJP is leaderless. Manoj Tewari, Vijay Goel, Harsh Vardhan and the others are no match for him. They have neither the charisma, stature or social base. In Delhi, the affluent and upper middle-class may be disillusioned with Kejriwal but he is the darling of the lower middle-class, poor and those who live on the margins. Unlike BJP leaders, he is always mobile and since losing the MCD elections in April 2017, he has been visiting every nook and corner of Delhi and addressing big and small rallies on a daily basis. He has regained his touch.
Secondly, the Congress in Delhi is on its deathbed. It showed sparks of regaining its lost ground during the parliamentary election and surprisingly emerged second after the BJP with 22% votes. Muslims seemed to be deserting AAP and drifting towards the Congress due to AAP's ambiguities on the issue of minorities. But after the parliamentary election, the Congress returned to its factional infighting. Then it was badly affected by the death of Sheila Dikshit and the resignation of Rahul Gandhi as party president. In the absence of a leader, the Congress was rudderless for months and the morale of party workers sank. AAP and the Congress share the same social base in Delhi. A resurgent Congress spells disaster for AAP, a demoralised Congress is a boon for Kejriwal. Now the division of anti-BJP votes is a remote possibility.
Third, for all its frailties, the AAP government is seen to be working and delivering on its promises. In the run-up to the elections, the AAP government has showered freebies on the public. But what is seen to be tilting the balance in its favour is free electricity and water at half the price. This has directly benefited the lower middle-class and the poor. AAP claims that this scheme has benefited 80% of the Delhi electorate and this is not very far from the truth. The work done in the health and the education sectors is highly talked about and has impressed its critics. The transformation of government schools has helped AAP in gaining a major leap at the perception level. This has created positivity for the party.
The fourth factor working in favour of AAP is Kejriwal's silence. After a massive victory in 2015, Kejriwal was seen as too belligerent. He was seen to be taking on Modi on each and every issue. Modi and his team successfully trapped Kejriwal to create the perception he was always spoiling for a fight and was not interested in governance. Kejriwal, due to a lack of administrative experience and political skill, antagonised the bureaucracy and the entire political class. The middle-class which was looking at him with hope was greatly disillusioned with his theatrics and abuses. This was the time when he was advised by his well-wishers to not speak too much, to not write too much on twitter, to not engage with bureaucrats negatively - but he listened to none. This was the time when AAP was expected to form the government in Punjab - it suffered a catastrophic loss instead.
This was the great learning curve for Kejriwal. He realised his mistakes and reinvented himself. The muted Kejriwal of 2020 is more dangerous than the roaring tiger of 2015. The duo of Modi and Shah has to watch out. The margin of defeat and victory in Delhi might not make or break the Modi government but it will definitely send a signal across the country.
(Ashutosh is a Delhi-based author and journalist.)