Kejriwal-bashing is a fashionable pastime in the upper reaches of the middle class in India, and certainly in its capital. As Delhi chief minister Arvind Kerjiwal completes three years in office, only a black humourist would associate the third anniversary of his tenure with Valentine’s Day, but then facts are facts. I have firm reasons to believe that he is more loved than hated in the bottom of Delhi’s voter pyramid. You can’t write him off, even if he loses the next election, as his rivals will hope.
The former bureaucrat’s pithy, dismissive, combative style of politics can be deemed better only than that of the cantankerous Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal. But, much like her, there are two who love Kejriwal down the ladder for everyone who hates him up the stairs.
There are plenty of things Kerjiwal has done – or not --- that would raise eyebrows among those of us who saw him as leading a new wave of cleanliness in Indian politics. He fell out with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) colleagues like Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan in a manner that undermined his party’s democratic structure. Then he controversially appointed 20 of his MLAs as parliamentary secretaries that resulted in their disqualification by the Election Commission. AAP’s poet leader Kuman Vishwas is in a royal sulk that makes headlines often.
Kejriwal has named moneybags Sushil Gupta, a defector from Congress to boot, to be a Rajya Sabha MP, defying his “aam aadmi” talk and postures against crony capitalism. His fights with the lieutenant governor of Delhi would make us think he was spending more time wrestling than governing. AAP minister Saytendar Jain faces a CBI investigation on corruption and money-laundering charges.
Phew! What a lot of stuff for a negative image for a man who vowed to clean up Indian politics!
But look beyond loud headlines, quarter-baked TV anchors and Kejriwal’s decidedly chip-in-the-shoulder persona, and you would see a government that seems to have performed where it really matters for a state government: water, education and health. This is where AAP has changed Delhi politics in a fundamental way that cannot be ignored. A report card shows the party has clearly done some good work at the grassroots, taking a leaf out of populilst leaders like the late J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh.
Of these, the controversial 50% power subsidy on electricity bills, free water and 8,000 new-age classrooms stand out, as do 180 “Mohalla” clinics.
There are unfulfilled promises and flaws in quite of his promised schemes, but there is no denying that the slum-dweller in Delhi has tasted blood in a way that the Congress and BJP would have to fall in line if they come back to power.
Also, as a “third front” in Delhi, AAP has qualitatively altered what I call the city’s Lazy Anti-Incumbency Syndrome. AAP activists and Kejriwal loyalists visibly show an energy that makes rival party leaders sleepless as they cannot simply take a rebound victory for granted.
Kejriwal’s odd-even scheme to reduce air pollution remains a gimmick gone wrong. But it is important to note that even an online poll that hardly touches those without smartphones or personal computers shows the AAP government getting more than 50% (pass marks) in areas such as power, water, education and health. My guess is that below the online surface, the marks would be higher.
This does not necessarily mean that Kejriwal and his AAP will win the next election to rule the capital, whose politics is very complex and demanding. It is also relevant that barring pockets of Punjab and Goa, AAP remains a Dilliwali party. Air pollution is one issue on which AAP believes in rhetoric more than action and the average Delhi-ite has seen through that.
However, all said and done, the grassroots transformation of Delhi’s politics is something that AAP has proved for good in terms of ideas and approaches. The big question remains: Can AAP sustain its energy and momentum and grow its activist base? Can it come to a middle ground where its beginner’s luck needs to be replaced by sober long-term governance? That would be another story.
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)