Water and electricity are the only things that matter to 62-year-old Deep Chand, who drives an auto-rickshaw in the National Capital. “This is the biggest thing for people in Delhi,” said Chand, who lives in an unauthorised colony in West Delhi’s Inderlok. Chand said that the ruling Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government had delivered on this front and he was voting for the party in the February 8 assembly election.

Yet, in the Lok Sabha elections in the summer of 2019, Chand had voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party, swayed by the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP went on to win all seven seats in Delhi – a huge embarrassment for Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, Kejriwal had been locked in conflict with the Modi government at the Centre, with AAP making full statehood for the Union Territory its main campaign plank. The politics of confrontation did not work: AAP was relegated to the third place with a vote share of 18.1% behind the BJP and even the Congress.

What had changed since then?

“We have seen a change in Kejriwal,” said Chand. “He has risen above his activism.”

After its loss in the national elections, the AAP has dialled down its criticism of the central government. Instead, it had focused on promoting its work, filling up newspapers and billboards were filled with advertisements about the success of its schemes. Over the last five years, AAP has adopted a welfare-oriented governance model, reducing electricity and water tariffs, setting up mohalla clinics that offer subsidised primary healthcare, building education infrastructure and providing free bus and metro rides to women.

Such is its keenness to fight the assembly elections on the plank of performance, AAP has avoided getting drawn into the current contestations over the Citizenship Amendment and the National Register of Citizens.

As Delhi votes on February 8, how exactly has the party shifted its stance? And will it benefit from it?

Arvind Kejriwal at the site where a major fire broke out in a factory on December 8. Credit: PTI

Perception change

The Aam Aadmi Party was formed in 2012 and was born out of the India Against Corruption movement led by activist Anna Hazare, that seemed to overtake all of India and helped build anger against the Congress-led central government at the time. The party fought its first Assembly elections in Delhi in 2013 but hastily quit the government it formed with the Congress’ support within two months. In 2015, AAP won a spectacular 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi elections.

But after forming the Delhi government, AAP found itself in constant friction with the Centre. Delhi is a Union Territory with an elected Legislative Assembly that also has a Lieutenant Governor as its administrative head. This means that, while the government has some powers, it is often at the mercy of the Centre-appointed administrator.

As chief minister, Kejriwal frequently protested against the Lieutenant Governor. In 2018, along with other Cabinet ministers, Kejriwal held a nine-day long sit-in protest outside Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal’s office after bureaucrats were allegedly on a strike. The bureaucrats had allegedly stopped attending work after AAP legislators were accused of assaulting then Delhi Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash. Aside from this, the Lieutenant Governor was accused of stalling the Delhi government’s projects.

During Kejriwal’s sit-in protest in 2018, he also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, accusing him of orchestrating the strike by the bureaucrats. “You have arranged the strike of IAS [Indian Administrative Services] officers in Delhi for the last four months,” Kejriwal said. “It is unimaginable that a country’s prime minister, out of political malice, would get bureaucrats in the capital city to stop work.”

Yet today, this aggressive attitude is not part of AAP’s campaign. How did this change?

AAP legislators and party leaders point to the Supreme Court’s verdict in 2018 that marked the end of the tussle with the Centre. In July 2018, the court’s verdict declared that the lieutenant governor’s powers were only limited to land, police and public order. A year later in February 2019, the Supreme Court stated that the matter of public services that would include the transfer of postings, would remain under the Centre.

“We only raised our voice against them when they have unnecessarily troubled us,” said Rajya Sabha MP and AAP leader Sanjay Singh, who heads the party’s Delhi election campaign. “Now, we are being asked why we have not spoken in the last six months. It has been more than a year since the Supreme Court decision came out. That is why you see less confrontation because we are able to do the work that was earlier stopped.”

Another reason for this change was the losses suffered during the Lok Sabha elections as most of Delhi’s voters voted for Modi, said a party member who did not wish to be identified. “It does not make electoral sense to take a hardline stance against someone who is so popular, got elected again, and then enter an election.”

So instead, the party shifted its focus to its work, the member said. In December 2019, Kejriwal announced through a tweet that the party had hired Indian Political Action Committee, a political advocacy group led by national vice-president of Janata Dal (United) Prashant Kishore. Kishore is also credited with planning Modi’s election campaign in 2014 and is currently handling the Trinamool Congress’ campaign for the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2021.

A shift in the AAP chief’s focus was immediately visible. While addressing a press conference on January 6, Kejriwal said that they would run a “positive campaign.” “Hume gali galoch ki rajneeti nahi aati.” We do not know the politics of being abusive.

On Kejriwal’s social media, pictures of him smiling and celebrating festivals with his family and children are frequently found. There is also a video of him singing at an event.

Political analysts said Kejriwal’s rebellious stance had backfired at the party, and that changing its perception was a sign of political maturity.

“The initial attempts by Kejriwal to attack corrupt politicians and bureaucrats boomeranged with several defamation cases filed against him and others in the party,” said Praveen Rai, a political analyst at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “The anti-graft initiatives were publicly perceived as obstructionist with no perceptible political gains.”

Politics is about perception, said Biswajit Mohanty, who teaches political science at Deshbandhu College in Delhi. “If the Modi government is giving a strong message of fulfilling election manifestos then Kejriwal is doing the same,” Mohanty said. “The perception among voters that Kejriwal is a symbol of good governance and is a non-divisive leader is being created.”

‘We are running away from this’

But becoming the symbol of good governance while also shedding the image of a perpetual protestor has run parallel with Kejriwal distancing himself from ongoing protests against the amended Citizenship Act and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens.

The protests began in Delhi in the second week of December. The Union Home Ministry, which oversees law and order in the National Capital, imposed a ban on public meetings in several parts of Delhi including around the historic Red Fort area. Internet services were also temporarily snapped in many parts of the city.

On December 15, 2019, protests at Jamia Millia Islamia turned violent after police stormed into the campus and used batons and tear gas at students, leaving several injured. The incident triggered a wave of protests in Delhi. On January 6, in the backdrop of these protests, clashes between opposing student groups turned violent in Jawaharlal Nehru University with students alleging inaction by the police.

In both instances, Kejriwal took to social media to appeal for peace.

He also criticised the Citizenship Amendment Act, which fast tracks Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Instead of denouncing it for discriminating against Muslims, he emphasised that it would hurt everyone.

This is a misconception that Indian Hindus will be safe from this law,” Kejriwal said. “Hindus who have come from Pakistan will receive documentation from the government. But an Indian Hindu who cannot produce the right documents will have to leave the country.”

But, unlike the past, when AAP took to the streets to protest against the moves of the central government, this time, it stayed away from the protests against the CAA and NRC.

“If we protest then we are called anarchists…that we do not run the government and only protest,” said AAP’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh. “If we do not protest then we are asked why we are not protesting.”

“We do believe that it [CAA and NRC] is against Ambedkar’s Constitution,” he added.

Other party members also echoed similar statements about the party’s absence from protests despite their opposition to the legislation. “We are intellectually opposed to this so why should we be on the roads?” asked an AAP MLA who did not wish to be identified. “Is it necessary for a politician to be on the streets?”

Another party member who did not wish to be identified said that “elections would be over” if Kejriwal had joined the protests. “Headlines would portray it as ‘Kejriwal with tukde tukde gang,’” he said, using a term coined by the BJP to malign its critics as people working to break up India.

The AAP member also said that the party’s political messaging before the Assembly elections was more important than playing the role of an opposition party.

“Kejriwal’s stance is not particularly anti-Hindu,” he said, defending the decision. “He instead turned it into a class issue.”

AAP was reportedly not invited to the meeting of Opposition parties on January 13, which culminated in a multiparty resolution to withdraw the CAA and stop the NRC and National Population Register process in Opposition-ruled states. But AAP leaders also said that they would have skipped the meeting even if they received an invite.

‘More mature’

While AAP has worked to change its perception, some of it seems to have worked with Delhi’s voters.

Thirty-seven year old Praveen Kumar, who works as an operations assistant in a firm, said that Kejriwal had become “more mature”. “He is the chief minister now so he has to think before he says anything,” said Kumar, who is a resident of South West Delhi’s Palam.

Another voter said that he noticed a change in the party and its chief after the Lok Sabha elections. “He has come into the political mindset now,” said 61-year-old Bharat Prasad, a retired government official who lives in South Delhi’s RK Puram. “He rose from an agitation. But he has made compromises now.”

Several voters approved Kejriwal’s decision to distance himself from the ongoing protests against CAA and NRC.

Deep Chand, the auto-rickshaw driver whose support for AAP was based on its water and electricity policies, said that Kejriwal had “done the right thing” by not attending the protests. “These protests are just to brainwash the nation. It is to trouble the police and the public,” he said.

Bharat Prasad, the retired government official, said this was a clever strategy on part of the AAP. “They would have lost votes if they joined the protests,” he said.

Political analysts concurred with Prasad. “Kejriwal would lose a majority of the middle-class Hindu votes if he aggressively attacks the NRC,” said Biswajit Mohanty, the political science professor. “It would be prudent to avoid the issue now. The majority of Hindus who support CAA and NRC in Delhi would become antagonised by Kejriwal’s street dharnas.”