Acknowledging Arvind Kejriwal‘s political acumen would be the first step for his opponents to derive an antidote to the AAP

Clearly, Arvind Kejriwal is gambling by choosing among his supporters and settling for the numerically larger grouping.


Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Now that the dust has seemingly settled on the latest face-off between the activist Delhi state government led by Arvind Kejriwal and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), it may be a good moment to take stock of what took place last week.
Broadly there have been two responses to the Aam Aadmi Party‘s (AAP) actions: severe, indignant condemnation of the vigilante actions of the party and its activism that dislocated life in and around the protest venue in Delhi, and, of course, defiance from within the AAP ranks as they rallied behind their much-harried law minister Somnath Bharti.
Both these responses, I argue, flow from whichever prism–rich, middle class or poor–through which we choose to view the events of last week. Viewed this way, we can understand the actions of Kejriwal, even if we don’t agree with them. The upstart party has actually managed to unleash a class conflict in Delhi, something that the Left parties in their heyday or the marathon textile mill workers’ strike in Mumbai could not achieve.
If you look at it from the point of view of a section of the middle class–especially salaried government employees or professionals–the response will be indignant: the “how could you be so unreasonable, especially since we voted for you” argument. For some, being unconventional, like a chief minister sitting on a dharna, is also uncomfortable. And this is true even of liberals, who had started viewing the AAP as their new weapon, now that the Congress has already thrown in the towel, to blunt the growing electoral power of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The super rich of Delhi don’t really care–and are electorally irrelevant. Cocooned in their gated communities, even voting for the AAP was really an indulgence, like taking up a new hobby.
And of course that brings us to the third demographic constituent–the so-called bottom of the pyramid. Not just the poor, but also what Rahul Gandhi defined as the “sandwich class”–the daily-wage painters, carpenters, plumbers and so on who are sandwiched between the poor and the middle class. It is this segment that in the past tilted the balance in favour of the Congress in three consecutive elections in Delhi, and in the just-concluded assembly polls voted for the AAP, resulting in the decimation of the Congress.
The support of this demographic constituent for the AAP has not wavered after last week. If anything it has only become stronger. As a colleague reports from Seemapuri, one of the loyal AAP clusters of Delhi, the events of last week have only renewed their faith.
In essence, Kejriwal, a shrewd strategist, is messaging to his base–the bottom of the pyramid. In their world view, subjected to daily atrocities (think, for a moment, about who is blamed, even before police investigations, when there is a theft in your home: the domestic help), the policeman is inevitably public enemy No. 1. For the first time, this demographic segment had skin in the game when they voted for the AAP. Now here was the chief minister once again standing by their world view.
In politics, often it is not what you do but what you are perceived to be doing that matters. No one understands this better than Kejriwal–time and again he has employed imagery to his advantage and to out-step both the Congress and the BJP. Targeting the police is therefore a calculated political action. Pictures of him huddled up on the footpath on an extraordinarily cold night under a quilt and with his signature muffler would only have further fired up his base. To them, the system has rarely delivered. So what may seem to be anarchy to us is, in their view, an action to deliver them from the clutches of the system.
In this messaging, he has been consistent and very thoughtful. His first pronouncements were subsidized power and water for the poorest. Later, the police protest was orchestrated in the ghetto environment of Khirki village in South Delhi. And on the weekend, he got a rickshaw puller to inaugurate a new hospital.
Clearly, Kejriwal is gambling by choosing among his supporters and settling for the numerically larger grouping. It is a gamble that has the potential to go awry, especially since the middle class is already restless. Implicit in this choice of Kejriwal is a calculation that sooner, if not later, the Congress will withdraw support from the AAP minority government in Delhi, forcing a re-election probably in sync with the forthcoming 16th general election.
Given the short time-frame and the complex governance system, AAP is conscious that it may not possess too many deliverables to showcase in the election campaign. It would, however, have shown its willingness to be unpopular even if it meant crossing swords with the media.
In the final analysis, it should be evident that Kejriwal is pursuing a deliberate strategy. The more he is cornered, especially a ganging-up by the organized political parties, the greater will be his appeal to his base and deeper the class conflict–and given the numerical superiority of the bottom of the pyramid, this is undoubtedly a challenge. Acknowledging his political acumen would be the first step for his opponents to derive the antidote for the new force of Indian politics. Mere hand-wringing and public rebukes of the AAP is living in denial and will achieve only the exact opposite outcome.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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