Yesterday, on 11 April 2015, Arvind Kejriwal chose to unveil the next step in his political strategy with a carefully choreographed rally at Mundka in Delhi. During the event, Kejriwal announced that there would be a compensation of Rs 20,000 per acre of damaged crops for the farmers of the capital. This declaration was clearly made with an eye to a largely rural constituency outside Delhi, which makes sense given that the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) next electoral challenge lies in Punjab, and it hopes to make inroads into predominantly agrarian states such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Caravan staffer Atul Dev reports on what took place at the rally that aimed to recreate the hype the AAP has learned to manipulate, even as members of the party sought to denigrate the media during the event.
On Friday, 10 April 2015, I made a call to the chief minister’s office to inquire about Arvind Kejriwal’s rally that was scheduled for the next day at Mundka in west Delhi. Met with stony silence on the other end to any questions I had to ask, I was categorically refused any details about the exact venue or the time at which Kejriwal would arrive without any explanation. It had been reported that the chief minister of Delhi had organised this gathering to announce compensation for farmers in the state whose crops had been adversely affected by unseasonal rains in the last couple of months. Left to my own resources, I reached Mundka by 9 am the next day, and called the party office in the area. “CM sir will come at 3 pm,” I was told by the member who took my call.
At around 2.45 pm, the time at which Kejriwal was scheduled to appear at the Sahib Singh Verma Memorial Ground in Mundka, the venue appeared to be shrouded in the lackadaisical haze of an afternoon lull. The rally had been publicised well in advance, but the promised relief package did not appear to have piqued the curiosity of its intended beneficiaries. The grounds bore a deserted look, witness only to AAP volunteers who were making preparations for Kejriwal’s arrival.
By 4 pm, the venue began filling up a little. The turban-clad farming gentry who threw wisecracks at each other occupied chairs in the first couple of rows and I spotted a few daily-wage workers taking a nap. Closer to the stage, women and children were sitting down with brooms—visibly new and unused. The open Ford jeep that was bellowing the arrival of “The Messiah of the Poor”—as the gypsy singers referred to Kejriwal during the rally—had clearly failed to lure people. The policemen I could see, sitting in large numbers at the back, played Candy Crush. A man from Azadpur, who had helped set-up the tent, yawned as we talked. “This event wouldn’t have cost anything more than 8 lakhs,” he authoritatively claimed.
Ten minutes later, a group of musicians—all men—materialised on stage. “Welcome to the culture of Haryana,” a person spoke into the mike, loudly enough to wake everyone up. I could not understand the lyrics, but the singer willingly provided some context as a prelude: “In the light of recent events, the first poem is dedicated to our Mother Cow.” The sudden spurt of activity seemed to have the desired effect, and soon more attendees started pouring in. By the end of the hour-long performance—largely enjoyed by the crowd—half the seats had been occupied. For the next hour, paeans to Kejriwal were read by anyone who was allowed to be on stage. Everyone agreed that he was going do something that no other politician had ever done. Except, of course, making it to an event on time.
A few minutes before 5 pm, Kejriwal finally arrived. By then, although still not packed, the grounds were reasonably crowded. A huge garland greeted Kejriwal. However, even the garland’s considerable length was not enough to accommodate the MLAs who were clamouring to be inside its huge circumference and pose for the camera. This was before Sanjay Singh, one of the spokespersons and a core committee member of the AAP took the stage for his speech, during which he referred to the press as “sell-outs” and “Modi’s friends”. Singh, spoke in a pitch that didn’t require amplification, which—according to the estimates of a person who waxed eloquent to me on the price of sound systems—cost Rs 25,000 and had been purchased from Nehru place, a market in Delhi known for the easy availability of electronics. During the course of his speech, Singh made it clear that he believed the central government was responsible for lawlessness on the streets of Delhi. Deep Khatri, a member of the party from what I could tell, read out from a list of farmer’s expenses with his eyes fixated on a piece of paper for “ignorant media and their friend Narendra Modi.”
Finally the leader, for whom a song from the Bollywood film ‘Azeem O Shaan Shehanshah’ had been relentlessly played on loop since the morning, came forward to announce compensation for the rain-hit farmers. When he sat down, everyone had something to whisper in his ear. The front row on the stage that had appeared straight until that point, curved into an arc, because everyone from the back wanted to come closer to the-most-approachable-leader-ever.
Kejriwal didn’t waste a lot of time after the sloganeering. He announced a relief package of Rs 20,000 per acre for the farmers of Delhi. Applause followed from the crowd, but the wilder reaction was to be seen on stage. Sukhvir Singh Dalal, the MLA from Mundka, jumped and took the mike from Kejriwal. “I can’t believe my ears! I had only asked for ten thousand!” he said. The elected representatives thanked the chief minister on the people’s behalf while jostling for the mike themselves. Things took a few minutes to calm down. Then, Kejriwal asserted, “This is not a favour. This is your money. You pay the taxes. I don’t have even a single penny in my pocket.” This was the highest compensation in the country for farmers, he added later.
“This message needed to be delivered in different states. Farmers should raise their voice in Haryana, Punjab and Maharashtra now, because if we can pay Rs 20,000 in Delhi, why shouldn’t they?” he bellowed.
The chief minister also announced his plan to give subsidised seeds and fertilisers to the famers of Delhi, which was followed by an assurance to the crowd that he was considering the demand for cheap electricity for farmers. “The families of the martyrs of Delhi, including from Delhi Police, will also get a compensation of Rs 1 crore,” he said before ending his speech with “Jai Jawan…” as the audience, spurred into activity for the first time, responded with,“Jai Kisan!” As the event came to a close, the threat of a sandstorm appeared to reiterate the sense of finality. Another journalist and I ran towards our cab, but perhaps in vain, since it proved to be a false alarm.
On our way back, we struck a conversation with the man who was driving our cab and told us of a parallel event that seemed to have gone unoticed. “The Congress was here to protest on the farmer’s behalf.” “Really?” we asked. We got our answer as he took out a flag embellished with the party’s sign, crumpled in the back pocket of his seat.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.