How this Delhi leader fought and defeated Modi’s BJP — and why it matters

Aam Aadmi Party chief and Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal, center, his wife Sunita Kejriwal, right, and Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia visit Hanuman Mandir in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Str/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Aam Aadmi Party chief and Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal, center, his wife Sunita Kejriwal, right, and Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia visit Hanuman Mandir in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Str/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

One of India’s newest political leaders — who studied to be a mechanical engineer at one of the country’s most prestigious institutes, became a government revenue officer and started his journey in public life as an anti-corruption crusader — has just taken on and beaten the might of the Bharatiya Janata Party in a stunning political victory in Delhi.

Arvind Kejriwal is set to be Delhi’s chief minister for a third time, winning in the face of the most divisive, hate-filled campaign the national capital has seen in decades. Given that Home Minister Amit Shah, the second most powerful person in India, personally ran the war room against Kejriwal, the win is extraordinary. The BJP deployed parliamentarians, chief ministers and thousands of party workers, including from neighboring states, and spent freely from its bank of millions of rupees. Worse, some of its key leaders, including ministers in the central government, actively incited violence by exhorting crowds at their rallies to chant “shoot the traitors.”

After his win, Kejriwal blew kisses at Delhi’s people and said he loved them. His dramatic win has offered a new template for how to take on the power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah. In a country polarized between the right and left like never before, Kejriwal has been able to define a new political centrism.

Unlike other opposition figures, Kejriwal avoided attacking Modi personally. When I asked him in an interview to describe his relationship with the prime minister, he called it “excellent,” even though another BJP figure had just labeled him a “terrorist.” He stood up for Modi against a Pakistani politician on Twitter, solidifying his nationalist credentials. And he taped a special message for Modi voters who chose the BJP in the national elections, urging them to choose him in the Delhi polls.

It worked.

He has been voted back in with more or less the same percentage of votes he won in 2015, but in a much tougher, almost hostile environment.

His Aam Aadmi Party — whose name alludes to the ordinary Indian citizen — defended its turf against the backdrop of an extremely shrill BJP campaign around India’s contentious new citizenship legislation. The law excludes Muslim migrants from a fast-track citizenship program and has triggered massive protests in the capital, including a two-month-long women-led vigil in Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated neighborhood.

Shah sought to make Shaheen Bagh the political epicenter of the BJP campaign, attempting to wrench open social fissures by playing to both Islamophobia and jingoism. Even the prime minister mentioned Shaheen Bagh at the stumps.

Kejriwal’s party has voted against the citizenship legislation in Parliament. But he tried not to talk too much about it during the Delhi polls. His campaign has been managed by Prashant Kishor, a clever and enigmatic strategist who has worked for Modi in the past but has now emerged as one of the key voices against the new citizenship law. Kishor was on the same page as Kejriwal about sidestepping the protests, especially the high-octane Shaheen Bagh gathering, understanding that it was smarter to avoid the minefields the BJP was laying for them and to live to fight another day. Muslim voters did not seem offended by this: They have overwhelmingly voted for the AAP.

It was just one of several subtle measures Kejriwal’s team took to ensure the BJP could not trip it up in the final stages. When the BJP used anti-Hindu labels for Kejriwal and his party, Kejriwal went on camera to recite the “Hanuman Chalisa,” a Hindu devotional hymn; his team’s strategists ensured that all the AAP candidates were spotted at their neighborhood temples. This attempt to reclaim Hinduism from the BJP’s political Hindutva upended the old left-leaning ideas of secularism that required religion to be kept out of the public eye. These tactics helped Kejriwal keep the focus on what actually mattered: his governance record, focus on turning around schools, work in the public-health sector and the game-changing offer of subsidized (and sometimes free) electricity and water.

Kejriwal understood that he had to be fiercely centrist — left-leaning on economic issues and right on matters of national security — to ensure the BJP didn’t find an opportunity to shift the conversation from development to nationalism or identity politics. No surprise, then, that he supported the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status. “I am a staunch nationalist,” he told me. The AAP has even promised to offer a patriotism curriculum in Delhi’s schools.

This centrism — which blends effective administration, a strong personality, visible Hinduism and proud nationalism — has appealed even to those who may be BJP supporters otherwise. Irrespective of where people stand on the citizenship legislation, there has been a growing disquiet at the way student protests against it have been handled by the police, who directly report to Shah’s ministry. There has either been police brutality inflicted on unarmed student protesters, or police apathy. Gunmen have surfaced on university campuses and at Shaheen Bagh. And at a women’s college last week, there were reports of a mass sexual assault; students said among the molesters were several drunken supporters of the citizenship law.

It still hasn’t stopped. Just hours after the result, a newly reelected legislator from Kejriwal’s party was shot at; one volunteer has since died from bullet injuries.

These may well be hooligans hiding behind the cover of what they believe is the dominant narrative. But the damage has been done — and it has bruised Delhi and exhausted us all.

Kejriwal’s landslide win may not alter the course of national politics, but it has definitely nudged him toward a national expansion. And with no pan-India contender to take on Modi in sight, it is state elections that seem to be putting in place the checks and balances a democracy needs. For the sheer vitriol with which the BJP fought him, Kejriwal has become more important than ever before.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning TV journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is the author of “This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines.” Dutt is based in New Delhi.

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