Though miffed at not being invited for the all-party meeting chaired by the Prime Minister on June 19 to discuss the tensions between India and China, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal remained silent. A few days later, the Delhi chief minister sprang a surprise at the end of his customary Covid-19 briefing.
He said, “Aaj pura desh China ke khilaf do yudh ladh raha hai: ek China ke dwara bheje hue virus ke khilaf, aur doosra China ke khilaf border par yudh ladh raha hai (Today the entire nation is fighting two wars against China: one is against the virus that has come from China, the other is against China at the border).”
The CM then tweeted a similarly worded message, which was a well-considered statement.
आज हम चीन के ख़िलाफ़ दो युद्ध लड़ रहे हैं – भारत चीन बॉर्डर पर और चीन से आए वाइरस के ख़िलाफ़। हमारे 20 वीर जवान पीछे नहीं हटे। हम भी पीछे नहीं हटेंगे और दोनों युद्ध जीतेंगे। https://t.co/DaBag9jkIk
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) June 22, 2020
Effectively, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said what even Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not at the all-party meet: he named China in as many words for being responsible both for the spread of the virus and the tensions at the LAC. In his way, he also sought to question the PM’s statement at the all-party meet that there were no Chinese troops on Indian territory. Interestingly, the same phrasing—Covid-19 sent by China, and troops sent by China— was used by home minister Amit Shah in an interview to ANI on June 28. While it is true that Kejriwal had read the public sentiment accurately, why did the chief minister, seen as hemmed in by the central government and struggling for control over Delhi during a pandemic, choose to speak on such a sensitive issue? Senior political journalist Neerja Chowdhury explains: “Arvind Kejriwal’s China bashing does not come as a surprise. He has now vowed to win the twin battles against China—the face-off at the LAC, as also the fight against the coronavirus. He made a point of calling it a virus ‘from China’, thereby underscoring its China connection, and, without saying it in so many words, pointing to it being another war imposed on the world by China.” “Kejriwal’s words on China were calculated to win him brownie points at a time when he is facing huge challenges combatting Covid-19 in the capital. It was not surprising that Amit Shah dittoed the sentiment soon after”, Chowdhury underscores. Just recall Kejriwal’s response to demonetisation and surgical strike where he went for the jugular, targeting the central government and the Prime Minister. Earlier, if Kejriwal’s direct attacks attracted widespread attention, his now mellowed approach towards PM Modi is analysed and commented upon. Kejriwal’s political instincts and manoeuvres are turning out to be far more sharper and in line with majoritarian public sentiments than previously allowed for. “There is every indication that Kejriwal is now positioning himself differently, so as to be able to inherit the constituency that stands behind Narendra Modi today, were opportunities to make this possible,” says Chowdhury. “He is out to win to his side Hindus, who have been ‘Hinduised’ over the years. And he is trying to do this by offering a mix of nationalism, identification with Hindu symbols, and delivery on bijli-paani-school-medicine promises, without indulging in Modi bashing that he indulged in during his first two terms in office, having gone to the extent of calling the Prime Minister a ‘coward and a psychopath’.” Targeting people right at the top had been Kejriwal’s most distinctive political strategy— be it Robert Vadra, Nitin Gadkari, the late Sheila Dikshit, the late Arun Jaitley, the list is long. However, after being re-elected in Delhi following a high-voltage and divisive election campaign, with 62 seats, Kejriwal’ s strategy towards the central government has also undergone a change. As Chowdhury, a keen AAP watcher, says, “He ( Kejriwal) knows he cannot take an antagonistic position against a powerful Centre beyond a point, if he has to deliver. Kejriwal’s strategy into his third term has undergone a change. In fact, the shift had begun to be visible soon after Modi won his second term with a convincing mandate of 303 Lok Sabha seats. One indication of it was Kejriwal’s support to the government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and divide Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories (at a time when he himself was raising a full-throated cry for statehood in Delhi) and it came as a surprise to many.” In fact, in the last week of May when Delhi government’s own panel projected that the capital will touch 1,00,000 cases by the end of June, of which 60,000 would be active cases, and with the same panel predicting 5.5 lakh cases by the end of July, as well as with lieutenant governor (L-G) Anil Baijal overturning two critical decisions of the AAP government on restricting hospitals of the Delhi government only for Delhiites and on testing, the chief minister made a quiet visit to home minister Amit Shah.
Met Sh Amit Shah, Hon’ble HM. Discussed the situation on corona in Delhi in detail. He assured of all cooperation.
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) June 10, 2020
While, it has meant that the chief minister has had to share space with the union home minister, it was perhaps one of the most important decisions that Kejriwal took, one that will have far- reaching consequences. It is also important to note that while other states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, etc, that are hitting the headlines for rising Covid-19 cases and the consequences — shortage of beds, inadequate testing— Delhi is a union territory where the L-G and union home ministry have considerable say under the Epidemics Act that is in force.
At the peak of his February 2020 election campaign, Kejriwal unexpectedly went on to recite the Hanuman Chalisa in an interview to News18. As time would reveal, it became a leitmotif in the AAP’s campaign.
The CM also makes a conscious reference to the pulse oximeter, an important instrument for a Covid-19 patient to monitor pulse rate and oxygen levels, as “suraksha chakra (circle of protection)”, something that reverberates with popular sentiment as well as is easily understood. Should one have a quarrel with that ? Neerja says, “At every given opportunity he refers to Hindu symbols to make a point of identifying with the community. As Delhi went into a lockdown, he said he was happy that he would be able to recite the Bhagavad Gita with his family and urged others to do likewise. So far he has only used Hindu symbols, as opposed to pursuing the Hindutva ideology, underpinned by a hatred of the Muslims, fuelling their fears and insecurities, and provoking a counter-reaction in the majority community.”
Chowdhury adds that Kejriwal took a calibrated position on the CAA/NRC controversy, which had unleashed huge protests across the country with Muslim women in the vanguard and Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh becoming its defining image. The response of the Aam Aadmi Party was nuanced. In the past it would have been very different. This time, deputy CM Manish Sisodia criticised the CAA, while AAP MLA Amanatullah Khan supported the protesters, but Kejriwal only called the amended citizenship law arbitrary and impractical. He did not want the CAA, which had become the BJP’s major plank, to polarise the situation in Delhi, pushing out the local issues, on which AAP was fighting the February 2020 polls. And it brought him back to power with 62 out of the total 70 seats.
The AAP chief has his eyes set on Punjab. A win there will give him full freedom to govern and, therefore, showcase the “Kejriwal model of governance” that AAP keeps talking about. But, with Kejriwal pitching his tent differently, what implications would it have for Punjab?
However, in Punjab, the challenge for AAP is not just a divided house, but a credible face that the party and people can rally behind. Chowdhury, who has tracked the party’s fortunes closely in Punjab, says, “The rub for AAP in Punjab lies in the absence of a ‘face’, a local leader, who holds an appeal for Punjabis and can galvanise them. It is early days yet, but Kejriwal has been in touch with cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu again to explore the possibility of bringing him on board for the 2022 battle. Sidhu had quit Captain Amarinder Singh’s government in July 2019.”
The battle for Punjab will certainly not be easy. But, Kejriwal has set his targets high and gone over the hump when it comes to chiming with majoritarian sentiment