The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

India’s Common Man With a Common Mandate: Arvind Kejriwal’s Image Shift

In Delhi, Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party has just defeated Modi’s BJP. But this is not the same Arvind Kejriwal we knew before.

Krzysztof Iwanek
India’s Common Man With a Common Mandate: Arvind Kejriwal’s Image Shift
Credit: Image via Krzysztof Iwanek

Do middle-aged punks exist? Can one still wear the anti-establishment mask while being a part of the establishment? Anti-establishment politicians who join the mainstream often resemble teenagers in the process of growing up: sooner or later the visit to a hair salon comes and the spiky hair gives way to the trim hair of a businessman.

In a way, a similar thing happened to India’s Arvind Kejriwal. A social worker turned politician, Kejriwal launched his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2012. Over the rollercoaster of its initial years, his startup party failed in nearly every single election it fought. Kejriwal also faced Narendra Modi himself, competing with him in a constituency battle during the national elections of 2014, an uneven battle that he lost.

But there is a region where the AAP has scored tremendous successes against the odds: the national capital Delhi (which is a separate administrative region of India). After few plot twists, the AAP emerged as the largest party in the elections for Delhi’s Legislative Assembly elections in 2015. Kejriwal’s small and poorly funded entity embarrassed two old, established national parties – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress – by taking home 67 of 70 seats.

The AAP stayed there for a full tenure. In practice, it remains a regional party, the influence of which is now limited to Delhi, though it is more popular and well-entrenched there than any other party, no mean feat given that it was established just seven years ago.

On February 11, the results of the Delhi Legislative Assembly recent elections came out: the AAP nearly repeated its success, having acquired 62 seats this time. Kejriwal and the AAP’s rising wave in Delhi was not even halted by all the power of the BJP, the party now ruling India, and the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the Kejriwal who defeated Modi’s party in 2020 is not the same Kejriwal that lost to Modi in 2014 – not in the sense of image.

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The Kejriwal of 2012-2014 was an anti-establishment activist. While most people, across political divides, sympathized with his main cause – a crusade against corruption – many did not endorse his methods and style. He did not pull his verbal punches while clashing with his political rivals, a stand that often landed him in the courts. In 2013, he cut off a power line in Delhi to protest against the city’s exorbitant electricity bills. At the same time, the AAP called the residents of the city to participate in a “civil disobedience movement” by not paying the bills.

Another pillar of Kejriwal’s popularity was his appearance as a simple citizen. He made his unimpressive look his weapon: his successes were amazing exactly because he looked like nobody special, a junior-level government clerk at best. Kejriwal became famous for wearing a simple muffler, or scarf, when protesting outdoors and using public transportation when commuting to his chief minister’s office. He held janta darbars, or people’s assemblies, to meet with the common people and register their grievances. His carefully nourished image even included such perplexing details as tweeting that he was once unable to come to his office due to an upset stomach. Derided as a “muffler man” by his rivals, to his well-wishers he is common citizen whose voice could not be muffled.

But a part of this changed in the run-up to the 2020 elections. The AAP no longer appeared as the activists’ party. No more sit-in protests, civil disobedience, unauthorized raids: the AAP in Delhi is now the party of the establishment. It even stayed away from one of the main national issues faced by the capital in the recent months: the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act introduced by the central government of the BJP. The “old” Kejriwal would have jumped right into the middle of the crowd at Shaheen Bagh, the current center of the protests in Delhi, given that this would have provided him with a perfect chance to ideologically clash with the BJP and electorally tap the protesters’ disconcent.

And yet the “new” Kejriwal and the AAP largely stood aloof from the demonstrations. Ground-level research conducted by Vasudha Venugopal before the elections indicated that even in the constituencies where the protests are taking place the AAP focused on “small” policies and everyday problems. In the subsequent elections, the AAP won all of these constituencies.

This tactic evidently paid off. With the benefit of the incumbency, Kejriwal focused on his track record of concrete policies in the campaign, not allowing his rivals to provoke him into ideological battles and debates on national issues. The AAP knew that an electoral battle for the city – even if one of the most populous ones on the planet – should be fought on the agenda of the everyday problems of its inhabitants. More or less, this was the same in 2015, when the party’s chief electoral promise was the reduction of the electricity bills. The difference between the AAP of 2015 and the AAP of 2020 is not in its goals, but in its image.

This change ran parallel to a modification of Kejriwal’s own image. He is now the administrator, not the activist; a balanced chief minister, a bit more careful in words, and no longer so belligerent toward his political rivals. His “muffler man” look has been modified too: he now often appears with a stand-up collar rising from beneath of his sweater (as in the poster photo attached to this text). And while the AAP was established as the new alternative for an Indian party of the Left and thus coherently professed secularism, in the recent months Kejriwal started to flaunt his private religiosity more publicly. He appeared on TV singing the Hanuman Chalisa – a prayer to the Hindu god Hanuman – and tweeted in Hindi that he visited the temple of the same god, bizarrely declaring that the deity spoke to him and praised him for his good work.

Kejriwal’s transformation was perhaps inevitable sooner or later. But we should also remember that all of this happened in the context of Delhi. Kejriwal might not have lost his appetite to emerge as a leading figure on India’s national political scene, however. Should the AAP take the plunge and risk facing the BJP on the national level, it would have to look for national level issues, and would enter the ring in the position of the contender (and the much weaker side). We may thus see the AAP returning to its older activist image and Kejriwal donning his trademark muffler again.