Turns out, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s apology to Shiromani Akali Dal leader Bikram Singh Majithia in a criminal defamation case was just the start. On Monday, Kejriwal also apologised to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Nitin Gadkari and the Congress’ Kapil Sibal while word emerged that he was likely to apologise to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as well. And that may not be the end of Kejriwal’s apology tour.
For a leader whose claim to fame was his fearlessness in the face of insurmountable odds, the language of his letters to political rivals who have filed defamation suits against him was particularly telling. “I made certain statements, without regards to its verifiability, which seems to have hurt you and therefore you have filed a defamation case against me. I have nothing personal against you. I regret the same,” Kejriwal wrote to Gadkari, whom he had included in a list of “India’s most corrupt” in 2013. “Let us put the incident behind us and bring the court proceedings to a closure,” Kejriwal added.
The Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party began its life as an anti-corruption protest movement, with the entire premise being that it would take on those otherwise considered sacred cows in Indian public life. It was Kejirwal’s willingness to target everyone – from Robert Vadra, the brother-in-law of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, to Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man – that cemented his reputation as a truly radical entrant to India’s political skyline, even if he could not spell out any specific ideology beyond fighting corruption. His frequent allegations about the corruption of everyone in the system even turned into a punchline: Sab mile hue hain ji, meaning “they are all mixed up in it”.
So the sight of Kejriwal apologising to someone like Majithia – who was the chief villain of the Aam Aadmi Party’s Punjab campaign in 2017 when it held the Shiromani Akali Dal leader responsible for the state’s drug menace – or Gadkari is jarring. If the rumour about Kejriwal’s expected apology to Jaitley turns out to be accurate, it will be even more damning. Why do it then?
The Aam Aadmi Party’s leaders claim it is pragmatism. They have tried to portray the criminal defamation cases against Kejriwal as legal bullying, an unnecessary battle that drains the party’s resources. “For all practical purposes, criminal defamation cases are effectively a judicially permissible form of bullying,” said party leader Atishi Marlena. Delhi’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, also defended Kejriwal’s actions, saying, “We’re here to serve the people, we do not have the time to go to courts for such issues. We’re here to build schools and hospitals for the welfare of people.”
Some leaders also put out a schedule that supposedly depicts Kejriwal’s court dates, showing 17 matters in the month of March alone.
Kejriwal may not have been fully prepared for some of the reactions to his apology letters, in part because Majithia held a press conference on the matter before the Aam Aadmi Party could control the narrative. Some of Kejriwal’s last few days were spent trying to quell an uprising in the party’s Punjab unit as a result of the apology to Majithia. The situation is now at an uneasy detente. The fresh apology letters on Monday, however, have turned the matter into a bigger political image issue – one that Kejriwal no doubt is aware of.
It is likely that the chief minister is making the calculation to rip off the legal bandaid in one go and move on, instead of seeing his party funds sliced away with effort, time and money spent on fighting each one of the cases. The Aam Aadmi Party’s failure to win in Punjab left it dispirited and its fight with the Centre in Delhi has occupied much of its time.
But there are elections ahead that will need Kejriwal’s full attention. First, though the matter is in the courts, at some point there are likely to be bye-polls to 20 Assembly seats in Delhi following the disqualification of Aam Aadmi Party MLAs on the charge of holding offices of profit. Then, there are the Lok Sabha elections due in early 2019 to look ahead to. The Aam Aadmi Party will hope to win at least half of Delhi’s seven seats – all of which had gone to the BJP in the Modi wave election in 2014 – and retain some of the seats it had surprisingly picked up in Punjab that year.
Fighting those elections will take effort and money, and since the Aam Aadmi Party’s failure to win in Punjab, finances have been harder to come by. From the face of it, Kejriwal appears to be making the calculation that he is unlikely to win any of the cases in court, but he might be able to manage the political fallout of his apology tour. There is a precedent here too: Kejriwal’s decision to resign from a minority government in 2014 was widely unpopular, so much so that it seemed unlikely he would be able to win back the confidence of Delhi’s voters. However, after very publicly saying sorry, the Aam Aadmi Party chief romped home in 2015 with 67 of the state’s 70 seats.
Confined to Delhi
Although the impression of many in the middle class-run media seems to be that Kejriwal’s stature has fallen tremendously since the heady days of 2015, his popularity and that of the party remain intact in Delhi. The apologies are unlikely to dent that massively, since the Aam Aadmi Party has actual achievements to point to, which is the line Sisodia took when he said “we are here to build schools and hospitals”, instead of going to court.
The question that comes up is, where does Kejriwal’s politics outside Delhi go from here? In its early years, the party had tried to contest elections all over the country, believing it could leverage the anger it had successfully whipped up against the Congress – which mostly ended up accruing to the BJP instead. But since the Aam Aadmi Party has little in the way of ideology, its entire approach to a new territory is to loudly denounce all the incumbents and present itself as an alternative.
At least for a little while, Kejriwal will be unable to make any accusations about rival politicians, since everyone will simply bring up the question of whether he will turn around and apologise soon after. The party’s success in governing Delhi, despite challenges from the Centre, gives it a base on which it can continue to grow in the Capital. But it has not been so successful that it can sell a “Delhi model” to other areas it would like to expand into. The only thing then for the party to leverage in campaigns outside the Capital is Kejriwal’s popularity. Considering that many have complained about the party turning into a personality cult, what will it mean for the Aam Aadmi Party to now be more dependent than ever before on its mercurial founder?