New Delhi CM is a quick learner: Understanding Arvind Kejriwal’s speech

Arvind Kejriwal’s speech to Delhi soon after being sworn in as Chief Minister today (14 February) by the Lt Governor has many subtle messages embedded in it. But fundamentally he was trying to do two things: one was to lower and reset public expectations from him after the overwhelming mandate his party got; and the other was to stake out a future position for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the national arena. The position would be as an alternative to the BJP in the “secular” space.


Among the words we saw him use frequently were “ahankar” (arrogance or ego) and various synonyms for god – “Ishwar, Bhagwan and Khudrat”.

Both have enormous significance. The “ahankar” he was talking about was what brought him down in the Lok Sabha elections, and the same “ahankar” was what got the BJP and Narendra Modi badly burnt in the recent Delhil elections.

Kejriwal’s references to “ahankar” were a tacit realisation that the unexpectedly large mandate given to him was as much the result of the BJP’s gross mistakes as the AAP’s own positive programmes. He knows that the public can as soon turn against him – as it did in the Lok Sabha elections – as it turned against BJP this time. He knows that getting 67/70 seats in the assembly is no guarantee that the public will always be with him.

His references to “Ishwar”, “Bhagwan” and “Kudrati karishma” is yet another acknowledgement that while AAP worked really hard for this victory, it could not have made such a huge splash without luck playing its part. It is also his way of saying “touch wood.”

In India’s history, parties which received extraordinary mandates have always been in trouble two years later. Cases in point: Indira Gandhi after her 1971 victory, the Janata party after its 1977 mandate, and Rajiv Gandhi after his 1984 sweep. Modi’s mandate in 2014, in contrast, is smaller than all of them, and especially in comparison to Kejriwal’s this month.

Kejriwal knows that the public will accept even fewer excuses from Kejriwal than from Modi, and this is why he is trying to reset public expectations to more realistic levels. He knows that he cannot deliver all that he has promised, much less what people assume he has promised, and hence the need for telling people his victory is not his, but god’s.

He also said that he was not the CM, but the people were. This may sound humble, but it is essentially meaningless beyond the apparent humility of the statement. The people are not going to do his job for him. He has to deliver.

But what the speech proves is that Kejriwal is a quick learner. He has learnt from his mistakes of February 2014, and also from Modi’s mistakes in recent months.

One of the reasons for the BJP’s fall was the super-high expectations from the Modi government and the Prime Minister’s inability to lower them. Barely three months after he took over, Modi was taken to task for alleged non-delivery on promises: where was the black money he promised to bring back and where was the “achche din” he had talked about so eloquently during the campaign?

Kejriwal anticipated the media’s future questions by explicitly requesting it to not ask him after a few hours or days about his promises. He specifically said that he would deliver only over five years. Smart move, but this is not going to stop the media from asking.

Kejriwal also reset expectations on the things he can do nothing about without the centre’s cooperation: law and order (which is taken care of by the Delhi police which comes under the home ministry), and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which comes under the urban development ministry, and is the city-state’s primary land developer.

While demanding full statehood for Delhi, he also hinted that he would not be in a rush to fault the Centre on this issue or on the DDA or the police. In fact, he managed to score a political point by emphasising that Modi should look at the big issues confronting the country, and not little things like women’s safety or church attacks in Delhi. This was a subtle putdown of Modi, who yesterday summoned the Delhi police chief to crack down on those who may be attacking churches.

However, the reference to “church attacks” has a larger implication beyond seeking police powers over Delhi.

Kejriwal knows that the minorities voted en bloc for him in Delhi; he also knows that the minorities are looking beyond the Congress and regional parties for an alternative. His references to church attacks – blown out of proportion by the media even though so far there is no evidence of them being linked to the Sangh or the BJP- are essentially a signal of his intent to position AAP in the secular space occupied by the Congress so far. The Congress should be worried.

It means that AAP will first try to displace the Congress where it is weak (which is everywhere except Karnataka, the north-east and HP), and then the regional parties. Kejriwal is likely to position himself against the “communal” BJP in the coming months. Hence his effort to  sing about communal and caste amity and “bhaichara”, though largely of tune.

Kejriwal also made a pointed reference to members of his party wanting to contest elections in Bengaluru and other states and said this was another sign of “ahankar”. This can hardly be true, for where is the “ego or arrogance” in a party seeking to spread its base?

The purpose of this statement was to reassure Delhi that he would be their CM – after having promised Paanch Saal Kejriwal, that was the least he could do – without specifically ruling out the possibility of campaigning for his party in other states.

In any case, there is no reason for him to abandon his chief ministership any time till 2019. Modi was CM of Gujarat and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate all through from 2012-end to May 2014. Kejriwal can do the same; he has the additional advantage of being CM of Delhi, which is also the seat of the central government. Whatever he does in Delhi he will be visible to the world.

But this is also a disadvantage. If he makes mistakes, they will also be magnified.

However, just in case you think he fully meant to remain only Delhi CM and wanted nothing else, the appointment of Manish Sisodia – his closest confidant – as Deputy CM tells us something else. It means he will run Delhi if Kejriwal is out somewhere else building his party.

The bottomline is this: it was a great speech, full of apparent humility, but pregnant with political messaging.

But it is not easy to lower heightened public expectations that easily. He will have his work cut out for him.

From Asterix, the wily warrior, to Obelix, who demolished the BJP army, to Cacofonix, who attempted to give his message in a song, Arvind Kejriwal played them all today.