Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (File) Image Credit: ANI

Legal issues aside, the stunning incarceration of a sitting chief minister makes you wonder: does the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not fear that the arrest could backfire, create a sympathy wave in favour of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party?

Kejriwal is no lightweight. He has defeated the BJP twice in a row in Delhi state assembly elections with 3/4th majorities. By winning Punjab, he showed he is able to cross the Delhi barrier, have governments in two states, the only party other than the BJP and the Congress to do so.

It is not easy to put popular mass leaders in jail even if they have committed big crimes. Clearly, the BJP has calculated that any sympathy wave will be manageable. It is not just that the BJP is all-powerful today but also that Kejriwal is not as popular as he could have been.

The Aam Aadmi Party was formed 11 years ago, in November 2012. In these 11 years, Kejriwal has committed several political blunders that diminished his stature rather than raise it. Here are at least 11 such mistakes.

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Contesting Delhi before India

The AAP was born out of the local movement which shook up national politics. But the man who made a national impact chose to become chief minister of Delhi, which doesn’t even enjoy full statehood. By doing so he immediately lowered his stature. He should have worked to win a Lok Saha seat and entered national politics from day one.

Contesting Varanasi instead of Amethi

Kejriwal was so confused about the road to take that he made excuses to resign from the post of Delhi CM to focus on the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He then went and contested the Varanasi seat against Narendra Modi. While Kejriwal waged a hard, memorable campaign in Varanasi, it was clear he wasn’t going to win a seat held continuously by the BJP for decades.

More importantly, he positioned himself against a rising new order. He should have fought Rahul Gandhi in Amethi instead, positioning himself as the real challenger to the old order. Or perhaps the New Delhi Lok Sabha seat, which he would have had a better chance of winning.

Sacking Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav

The Lokpal movement of 2011 seemed like a new force coming from society. But after winning 67/70 seats in the Delhi assembly elections of 2015, Arvind Kejriwal sacked Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav from the party. This high-profile undemocratic move converted AAP’s image overnight from a broad-spectrum social force to one man’s private fiefdom, like any number of regional political parties. AAP looked less and less like a new force.

Not building a party organisation

The AAP’s “volunteers” moved on with their lives and Arvid Kejriwal, too busy chasing political dreams, didn’t want to do the hard work of building a party organisation. The responsibility was given to novice aides who could not deliver. This made the AAP, much like other non-BJP parties, an army without soldiers. The general thought he was enough. Today BJP workers can go door-to-door across the country persuading voters that Kejriwal’s arrest is a strong crackdown on corruption and not motivated by politics. AAP doesn’t have workers to counter this narrative.

The state-by-state strategy

Arvind Kejriwal chased national politics one state at a time. Much like the Congress, he thought the road to the Parliament lies through the state assemblies. In fact, both the BJP and the Congress rose to power through national politics and national campaigning. Whether it was the freedom movement or the Ram Mandir movement, it was national positioning that later delivered states to the parties. The state-by-state strategy takes far too long.

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Messing up Punjab

The AAP got lucky in Punjab, winning 4 Lok Sabha seats there in 2014 out of the blue. And yet they messed up the 2017 assembly election there, which they should have won on a platter. All the decisions resulting in securing a defeat from the jaws of victory were taken by Arvind Kejriwal and his novice aides, sidelining the party leaders who mattered on the ground in Punjab. Kejriwal even dreamt of becoming Punjab CM himself. The Punjab defeat in 2017 set the party’s plans back by a few years.

Ideological vacillation

Arvind Kejriwal though he could have his cake and eat it too, play secular or communal when it suited him. For a while, he succeeded. He managed to poach both BJP and Congress voters in Delhi by evading ideological questions. But after the 2020 Delhi riots he decided he needs to start playing the religion card too. The result is that today AAP has lost its core supporters and failed to win over the right-wing supporters.

Forgetting Lokpal roots

Arvind Kejriwal rose to prominence with the Lokpal movement, demanding accountability in governance and an end to corruption. But as pubic mood moved on from corruption, so did Kejriwal. This made Kejriwal come across as a rank opportunist who didn’t really mean what he said.

Excessive negative campaigning

What worked for Kejriwal with the Lokpal movement is that he didn’t just point to a problem (corruption) but offered a solution (a new law). Thereafter he won Delhi by saying that he would solve the problem of inflated electricity bills — which he did. But in his efforts to expand nationally, he took a wrong turn, focusing mostly on negative campaigning, over-the-top Modi bashing, and Congress bashing. The negative campaign eroded his support that came from the sentiment that he offered an “alternative”. Around 2017-18 nobody was sure what he actually offered, what he stood for.

Forgetting education and health

His deputy, Manish Sisodia, gave the AAP a new narrative, one of focusing on education and health. Kejriwal himself appropriated this narrative only when it seemed to work. This came to be known as the “Delhi Model” and helped the AAP finally win Punjab in 2021.

Once again, positive campaigning worked. But after Sisodia’s arrest in February 2023, Kejriwal was back to negative campaigning. He should have stuck to what was working best for him — education and health. This would have kept his public ratings high and perhaps prevented his arrest for the fear that jail could make him a martyr. But Kejriwal chose politicking instead of “Delhi model of development”.

Becoming an ‘insider’

Kejriwal began his political innings by projecting himself as an outsider who wanted to change the system. He called himself an “Aam Aadmi”, the common man. But he ended up becoming more of a politician than most politicians.