<i>Once regarded as the twin pillars of a crusade against corruption, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi are now opposing poles of a heated poll contest in the capital. We decode the star candidates of the Aam aAdmi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party to see how they are strikingly similar, yet worlds apart</i>
Just a few years back, the country was rocked by an anti-corruption campaign. If veteran social reformer Anna Hazare was the calm face that launched the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement in 2011, Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal were his feisty lieutenants, boosting the crowds at Ramlila Ground in Delhi.
The duo complemented each other perfectly—Kejriwal was credited with bringing in the masses, while Bedi managed to rope in the classes. They fought together, travelled together and strategised hand in hand, acting as the twin pillars of the crusade.
After all, they had much in common. Both started with the same angst against the system. The IIT alumni—Kejriwal graduated in mechanical engineering from Kharagpur, while Bedi did her PhD from its Delhi campus—went on to pursue careers in the civil services, but quit prematurely to launch their own social service campaigns (both won the Magsaysay Award as well).
They even had controversies of a similar nature—he of the chartered flights kind and she of the alleged discrepancies in her past travel expenses.
Cut to the present. Both are again campaigning aggressively on the streets of Delhi, but for no idealistic movement. This one is with the chief minister’s chair in sight, with the former friends contesting against each other.
People involved in Hazare’s movement say they could feel Bedi’s leanings towards the BJP even during the IAC days. And this political inclination was where Bedi and Kejriwal differed. “I won’t say Bedi was politically ambitious, but I definitely feel she seemed to be moved by the BJP’s point of view on many things,” says a person close to both of them, adding: “It was quite evident that she hated the Congress more. But having said that, there was no ill feeling because of that.”
However, former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde, who was part of the IAC, has a different view. “I did not expect Kiran Bedi to join the BJP and fight against Kejriwal. I am disappointed by her decision.”
It’s a known fact that Bedi had been warming up to the BJP for a while. Political pundits were aware that she would be fielded in the Delhi polls, but the dramatic way in which she ended up being the chief ministerial candidate just four days after she joined the party took many by surprise. BJP leaders say the decision to make a departure from the tested practice of seeking mandate in the name of PM Narendra Modi was taken by the top brass of the BJP, including Modi himself, party president Amit Shah and finance minister Arun Jaitley.
Sources say after getting the go-ahead from Modi and Shah, it was Jaitley who approached Bedi. BJP leaders say Bedi had a condition that she be named the CM candidate if she were to lead the campaign as a direct competitor to Kejriwal. “She was clear that the party was in need of her. She was just waiting for an offer that would suit her standing in the political circles,” says a party leader, pointing out: “Who would know Kejriwal and his tactics better than Bedi?”
As a result, the once inseparable comrades are now at two ends of the political spectrum. They are domineering, highly opinionated and don’t like to hear the word ‘no’. They have shown that politics is all about people and not just political parties. While on one hand, there is this self-righteous former civil servant without a spot of doubt in his integrity, but who apparently let people down just after 49 days of coming into power, on the other is a former top cop who ruled the streets and hearts of Delhi before deciding to take up the role of a crusader and now a politician vying for the coveted seat of the national capital. This makes for an interesting battle, as Delhi gears up for yet another showdown.
Bedi, now the BJP’s CM candidate for Delhi, cuts a different figure from her IAC days, when she preached the crowd not to vote. Today, she is pleading for their votes. Hands folded, with marigold garlands around her neck, her days are full of intense campaigning in the capital, especially her constituency, Krishna Nagar in east Delhi. She begins her roadshow on a chilly morning in an open SUV along with Harsh Vardhan, who was till recently the party’s choice for the top seat in the national capital. Krishna Nagar is considered a BJP safe zone, hence the idea of fielding Bedi from the constituency instead of Greater Kailash, which was the one she had requested.
With a few cars and some supporters running alongside, it’s a study of contrasts in comparison to AAP chief Kejriwal’s roadshows. The day Kejriwal was to file his nomination, he was joined by thousands of supporters during the seven-km-long jeep ride on his maiden show of power this season. The crowd grew so much that 46-year-old Kejriwal was forced to postpone the filing of his nomination papers for the New Delhi assembly constituency.
At one of his jan sabhas in Krishna Nagar, the crowd mostly comprised schoolchildren, who had forgotten to change their uniforms in excitement, cheering and clapping at the sight of the prospective CM on the podium. About 5,000 people were vouching for him at the meeting.
For Kejriwal, this election is a double challenge. Not just asking for votes, but persuading people to forgive him for his infamous resignation from the CM’s post in less than two months of coming to power. He has been holding twice as many public meetings as he did for the 2013 assembly elections. As per party sources, he has about 120 public meetings lined up across constituencies, pleading with voters to give him another chance, and promising not to repeat past mistakes. Trying to match the BJP’s firepower, he has already addressed 95 jan sabhas, with 25 more coming up before campaigning ends. For the previous elections, he had held just about 50 roadshows.
But are people in a mood to forgive and forget? “The answer is yes, and this is what our political and public opinion feedback tells us. His resignation may have been an error of judgment, but it was not at all a moral flaw. He never compromised on our integrity,” clarifies AAP’s chief spokesperson Yogendra Yadav.
Kejriwal started campaigning in December right after the Centre dissolved the Delhi assembly, asking for fresh elections. The names of Bedi (BJP) and Ajay Maken (Congress), the third contender for Delhi’s top job, were announced only recently.
Surprisingly, Kejriwal is not holding even a single public meeting in his own constituency, New Delhi. Says Gopal Mohan, Kejriwal’s campaign manager, “There is not much challenge in New Delhi. BJP’s Nupur Sharma and Congress’ Kiran Walia have little idea about the constituency. Our victory margin will set a new record.”
Mohan adds: “A large number of government employees live in New Delhi. They cannot be seen attending political meetings for obvious reasons. In his constituency, Kejriwal mostly does padyatras, relying on people-to-people contact.”
Kejriwal defeated three-time former chief minister and Congress veteran Sheila Dikshit from New Delhi in 2013 by a margin of over 25,000 votes. He also spent his annual development fund of
R4 crore, earmarking it for more than a dozen projects, including construction of toilets, badminton courts, gyms and setting up of surveillance equipment.
AAP is quite confident of good results citywide. “No doubt our resignation disappointed people. This did affect us in the Lok Sabha elections. They have punished us once, they will not punish us twice for that one mistake,” Yadav adds.
Same turf, different war
Only recently, Kejriwal was reportedly heard saying the BJP’s decision to pick his former comrade was a way of acknowledging it wasn’t going to do well in Delhi and the party only wanted Bedi as a scapegoat. On her part, Bedi has dismissed Kejriwal’s call for an open debate.
While the war of words continues, people close to the two leaders say their working styles had always been different.
As per party old-timers, while Bedi was someone who preferred going by the book and playing it all alone, Kejriwal was more of an improviser and had the power to pull in the masses. “Kiran wasn’t good with volunteers, she was only good with Anna. Give her a room full of volunteers and she would not be able to strike a chord. But if Arvind was the go-to person for volunteers, Kiran’s impressive body of work and contacts helped the movement garner support from the who’s who of society. She brought star power to the movement, which Arvind could not have done. Their roles complemented each other,” says a volunteer, who continues to work for AAP and was a member of the IAC.
The road ahead
The political momentum jolted by the IAC in 2011 shaped the general elections of 2014 and turned it into one of the country’s most actively participated events. Currently, as Kejriwal and Bedi face off as the chief ministerial faces for their respective parties, their comrades are pensive, with some even wishing things could have been the opposite.
“I was shocked when I heard that the BJP has selected Bedi as their CM candidate, for I remember when we were contemplating about AAP, she was the one who had a problem with it in the first place. In a way, Bedi was never a member of AAP,” says Yadav of AAP.
Veteran jurist Shanti Bhushan, another pillar of the IAC movement, and his activist-lawyer son Prashant Bhushan point out the sheer commonalities between Kejriwal and Bedi. “While Kejriwal is good with the masses, Bedi has extensive administrative and bureaucratic know-how. Had they been together, AAP could have been a much bigger political force,” they say.