Imagine how dull our lives would be without the muffler-clad presence of Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s 47-year-old chief minister. He is either the mouse that roars or the Don Quixote of Indian politics forever titling at imaginary windmills, but few politicians have taken on the rich and powerful like he has, or courted controversy with such passion and perseverance. The cliche ‘love him or hate him but you can’t ignore him’ sits well on him. Much of it may be theatrics and bluster, which makes him the undisputed drama king of Indian politics, but there is also a method to his madness, a carefully calibrated strategy to raise himself to the level of his targets, currently Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his finance minister Arun Jaitley. Whatever the occasion—and accusation—the former bureaucrat has the ability to milk every one of his quixotic crusades to maximum effect, and maximum media exposure. In the bargain, he often shoots himself in the foot while shooting from the lip. The near-maniacal gleam in his eyes while taking on his opponents often betrays a naivete and immaturity. Modi may be seen in Opposition circles as a Machiavellian character and the PMO as conspiratorial Nixon-era Watergate burglary plotters, but to call the prime minister a ‘psychopath’ and a ‘coward’ as Kejriwal did in response to a CBI raid on his office is a new low, even for someone as self-righteous and preachy as the second-term Delhi CM.
Former aide Abhinandan Sekhri makes some insightful observations about Kejriwal. “He takes on battles that almost guarantee failure.... Over the years I have learnt that Arvind will bet the bank—all or nothing. If that means he falls flat on his face and loses, he’s okay with it. He will get up and start over.... But if he wins, he will make history. For a man like him there will always be big defeats purely because of the size of the battles he picks.” It explains his decision to take on Modi in Varanasi during the last Lok Sabha elections. In the current context, he could not have picked a bigger battle than taking on the Centre, specifically Modi and Jaitley, far more formidable foes than the Lt Governor and the police commissioner. Kejriwal’s problem is that he is constantly in battle mode. He has described himself as an “anarchist”, a description he wears like a badge of honour but one that is at odds with the responsibility and status that goes with being a chief minister. There is one other aspect of Kejriwal’s character profile, one that irritates the hell out of some people, and that is his constant and self-serving effort to paint himself as the innocent victim. That may be a common trope when it comes to opposition CMs and politicians, but Kejriwal makes it an excruciating experience, often like Snow White surrounded by Big Bad Wolves. After a while, he starts to lose sympathy. That would be an even more accentuated fact if it is proven that the CBI raids have credibility and one of his close aides did, indeed, dip his hand in the till. That would be hugely damaging for Kejriwal’s political future, so far, almost entirely based on his anti-corruption image. All crusades have a shelf-life, and, in Indian politics, being holier-than-thou is not a virtue that wins battles. Ask Manmohan Singh. Now that he has plunged headfirst into his biggest battle yet, against a take-no-prisoners PM and his wily finance minister, Kejriwal faces the biggest test of his fledging political career. Sadly for him, it’s a battle that has no winners.