Lessons From Arvind Kejriwal's Response to the Pogrom in Delhi

Who a leader chooses to stand by and at what juncture is an important indicator of who he is in spite of his promises.

After taking the oath of office and secrecy as chief minister of Delhi for the third time, Arvind Kejriwal assured a crowd of one lakh people gathered at Ramlila Maidan, “Your son has become CM. Call home and tell your families, ‘There is no fear now’.”

Over the next days ten days, Delhi witnessed its worst violence in 36 years. According to latest updates, 47 people lost their lives and more than 300 were injured in horrific violence. Mosques, schools, shops and houses were burnt down and we don’t yet know how many thousands have been rendered homeless. 

There is nothing but fear now. 

And the fear is not limited to northeast Delhi either.

Shouts of Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko are starting to echo around the city, including at Rajiv Chowk Metro Station in the very heart of Delhi. There is a palpable tension in the air. It seems Kejriwal’s promises of safety and well-being to the people of Delhi have turned out to be as hollow as Modi’s promises of vikas and achhe din to the people of India.

Also read: Centre, Delhi Govt Yet to Provide Relief to Riot-Affected People: Fact-Finding Report

The sad and terrible thing about India today, though, is that no one expects either the prime minister or the home minister of the country to show any empathy towards the victims of the violence, or try and salve the wounded psyche of the capital city or the nation.

But the people of Delhi expect much more from Arvind Kejrwal. 

Or at least, they did.

The violence may not have been his doing but the lack of a swift, appropriate and clear response to the unfolding pogrom certainly was. As Martin Luher King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Kejriwal’s silence when he needed to speak the most will be remembered for a long time.

A man is beaten in North East Delhi on February 24. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

In a matter of days, the CM of Delhi has gone from basking in the love and adulation of his followers to having to face their wrath. And not without reason.

Instead of leading from the front on those first two crucial days when Delhi burned, the great victor of the Delhi Assembly Elections ducked out of public view and practically went into hiding. Rather than show clear and unambiguous solidarity with the victims of the violence, the ‘son of Delhi’ chose instead to sit at Raj Ghat with Manish Sisodia and pray for peace! 

Also read: Delhi Riots: AAP Criticised for Focusing on Optics; Women’s Delegation Meets Kejriwal

Instead of coming out and dialoguing with the students of Jamia who came to protest outside his residence on the night of February 25, Kejriwal allowed the police to use water cannons on them, and if all of that wasn’t enough, his government gave its go-ahead to the Delhi Police to prosecute former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar and nine others in connection with the patently ludicrous “sedition case” registered against them in February, 2016. 

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia holding a peace prayer at Rajghat on February 25. Photo: PTI

In fact, even the relief measures initiated by the Delhi government for the victims of the violence have been found wanting. His erstwhile senior in the civil services, Harsh Mander, tweeted his chagrin and disappointment at the inadequacy of measures offered: 

Little wonder then that those who swore by Kejriwal till just about a fortnight ago are today his bitterest critics. Hell hath no fury like a hopeful voter spurned.

Kejriwal, in a word, has had a catastrophic fall from grace.

At times like these, it is always a good idea for Us, the People to ask ourselves what the events that have unfolded have taught us, for there is always a lesson to be learned. To paraphrase George Santayana, those who do not learn from today’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them tomorrow. 

I would say there are at least five lessons the events of the last few days, weeks and months have taught the people of Delhi. 

Lesson No. 1: We need to know exactly how secular our leaders are before we vote them in

We should have seen it coming when Kejriwal refused to give clear and direct answers about exactly where he stood on the protests in Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere.

Alarm bells should have gone off when he failed to clearly, unequivocally and repeatedly stress his allegiance to non-negotiable secularism. Very simply, if you are not actively promoting secularism, you are allowing communalism. 

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia meet a man injured in the Delhi riots. Photo: PTI

Lesson No. 2: We need to be wary of leaders who do not stand by university students

A leader’s relationship with university students says a lot about him or her. 

University students are invariably the strongest truth tellers in a democracy, and for that reason they usually become the first and biggest targets of authoritarian regimes. Along with civil society leaders and (some) journalists, they are often the first to see through official propaganda and subterfuge, and tell truth to power. 

Also read: Who’s Afraid of the University?

Arvind Kejriwal has not only failed to stand by young men and women in India who would be considered heroes elsewhere in the world, he has, for all practical purposes, thrown those like Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban under the bus.  

Lesson No. 3: Character is as important as competence

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “A man’s character is his fate.”

How does one gauge a leader’s character? One way is by taking a good look at the means he chooses to achieve his ends.

Are the means as honourable as the ends or is there a disconnect? Another way is by observing how he treats those who helped him get where he is today.

Arvind Kejriwal during his swearing in ceremony on February 16 at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. Photo: Twitter/@AamAadmiParty

Does he treat his mentors and compatriots with honour and respect or does he discard them once he has no more use for them? The manner in which Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, two of AAP’s founder members were expelled from the very party they helped to create back in 2015, should have given us a clue.

Lesson No. 4: We need to stop hero-worshipping our leaders and start questioning them instead

We in India have a patent tendency to hero-worship our political leaders, or at the very least, not question them. While the unquestioning love, loyalty and devotion of Modi’s devotees (or ‘bhakts’ as they are called) has become the stuff of legend, the loyalty of the “Arvind bhakts” is not too far behind.

Also read: ‘We Look to Our Leaders for Moral Clarity’: An Open Letter to Arvind Kejriwal

Leaders in a democracy don’t need bhakts. They need citizens who will be willing to ask them questions, even uncomfortable ones and not stop till their questions have been answered.

Lesson No. 5: We as ordinary citizens need to start becoming much more involved in the processes of democracy

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we all need to start running for political office. It does mean that instead of restricting our engagement with democracy to voting on polling day, we need to become much more involved in supporting the things that strengthen democracy and speaking out against the things that weaken it. It means we need to become alert, informed, educated and outspoken.

Evil prospers when good people do nothing. Our leaders get away with things they should not, because we allow them to. 

It high time we realised that the most important words in our Preamble, constitution and democracy are “We, the People of India”, and act accordingly. 

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at [email protected].