A seat-by-seat repeat of his 2015 victory, when his party bagged 67 of 70 seats in Delhi’s assembly, was deemed impossible from the word go. But Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was made of sterner stuff, apparently. He almost did it. At last count, his party had lost only five seats to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its principal rival. Power retention has rarely been so emphatic. In an electoral battle that saw India’s dominant party aim a fierce verbal fusillade at him, going to unseemly extremes to defeat AAP, he has had the gall to pull off a Gaulish act of defiance. As Kejriwal assumes office as the city-state’s chief minister for the third time, he could credit his success to a combination of pragmatic politics and ideological elasticity. He hit the campaign trail with a pitch for votes on AAP’s record on education, healthcare and civic amenities, and ended it with an overt display of his religious beliefs, and must have surprised himself with the outcome. Though Delhi is not even fully a state, AAP’s little fortress holds firm.
Confident that residents of the capital mostly approved of his measures to ease their lives, Kejriwal was able to cast aside old political divides in pursuit of a so-called people’s agenda of development. Better government schools, affordable access to basic medical care, electricity and water doles, all these were for everyone’s benefit. But his mastery of being all things to all people lay in his response to the BJP’s attempt to stir up popular fervour over saffron nationalism, a differentiator that paid it rich dividends in last year’s Lok Sabha polls, and thus portray him as a sympathizer of the “anti-national" Shaheen Bagh protest against the Centre’s new citizenship policy. As the BJP raised its rhetoric to shrill levels, with chants of bullets-for-traitors marring at least one of its rallies, Kejriwal resolutely refused to get pushed into a minority corner. Yes, he voiced support for the democratic right of protesters to protest in peace, but he also expressed empathy with all those who saw the traffic held up by that agitation as a nuisance. It was not for the chief minister to deal with it, he said, but for the central government in charge of Delhi Police.
If that wasn’t enough to hold off the BJP’s strategy of Hindu consolidation in its favour, Kejriwal advertised his own religious affiliation by reciting for cameras the Hanuman Chalisa, a hymn in honour of the deity. By election eve, the AAP leader had gone one up on the BJP by appearing to claim divine endorsement at a Hanuman temple. The Lord, he said, had told him he was doing good work and he need not worry about poll results. Indeed, he need not have. His party got nearly 54% of all votes polled. Except that the BJP seems to have dragged Kejriwal towards its very own turf. It is notable that the chief minister took care not to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly. AAP billboards even hinted of his deference to the country’s top leader. The BJP should view this with some satisfaction, for it suggests that Kejriwal, once seen as a potential prime minister, has more or less given up his national ambitions. Unless, of course, it was just a tactical retreat. Going by a banner at AAP’s office, the party is currently in search of recruits for nation building. What kind of nation it has in mind, it does not say.