The Aam Aadmi Party has ambitious plans but can it expand to deliver nationally?
Is AAP imploding and exploding simultaneously as the media asked relentlessly in the last few weeks? Many have concluded that the AAP dream is over as they head from disaster to disaster, most visible in the sex scandal involving a now sacked minister and, the continuous territorial disputes with the Centre and lieutenant governor of Delhi, that do not appear to be going AAP’s way.
But if we take our attention away from the constant eruptions of noise and fury around AAP, there are some very basic facts that no political analyst can ignore. Besides the BJP, the AAP is currently the only growing political force in India. Both the Left and Congress are in decline while regional parties are limited to specific zones outside which they do not have bases. Indeed the constant coverage of AAP in itself promotes the process of positioning them in the vacuum created by the traditional opposition.
What must also be noted is that it was the Congress that the AAP had damaged to rise to its current position. The Anna movement of 2011 and subsequent creation of AAP in 2012 knocked the wind out of the ruling UPA II and this facilitated the BJP’s conquest of 2014.
In the two states where the AAP is now hoping to expand – Punjab and Goa – it is the Congress that would have been the natural alternative.
Expand or perish
Today, AAP is poised at a point where if it fails to conquer Punjab (Goa would be an icing on the cake) it will be pilloried and attacked even more than it has been. If there appears to be a coordinated attempt to crush AAP, it’s because it is fundamentally an anti-system force that has created various sets of lethal enemies. These include the Centre and LG of Delhi and big corporations that the party has always attacked, who partly influence the media narrative. The Congress and BJP are both entrenched in the system and united against AAP. Regional parties like the JD(U) that once seemed friendly with Arvind Kejriwal, appear to be lukewarm these days, although TMC has been more supportive. The Left parties have mostly watched the spectacle, without taking a strong position against the many frivolous arrests of AAP MLAs.
If AAP does perform well in Punjab 2017, they would make one of the quickest political expansions in our electoral history. But on the face of it, even in Punjab there have been eruptions with former convenor of the AAP, Sucha Singh Chhotepur being removed after a sting operation that allegedly showed corruption. Bhagwat Mann, popular comedian and AAP MP, has also been mired in controversies.
The entry of another prominent Sikh face, Navjot Singh Sidhu, has not materialised; conversely Sidhu has presented a front that seeks to damage AAP. However, since Sidhu has left the BJP and is known to be anti-Akali, wouldn’t Sidhu be more damaging to the ruling alliance?
AAP has spent a year and a half building an organisational structure in Punjab. Sidhu would have been a great addition to any party, but is he likely to be an effective standalone, except in the comedy nights circuit?
Why is AAP so confident about Punjab?
It is quite remarkable that the AAP leadership should radiate complete confidence about winning Punjab. It is “lock stock and barrel with us” says a key figure in the political team of Arvind Kejriwal, “take a bet and ignore the stories”. So what is the confidence based on?
First, AAP has certainly taken to speaking up against the Akalis and set the tone of a campaign that can lead to a crescendo, given the conditions of anti-incumbency after a decade of rule. AAP believes that the state is thirsting for a new kind of politics and Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign skills are proven. There was certainly a huge crowd at Moga where Kejriwal came up with a slew of promises in the Kissan manifesto for Punjab.
Part of AAP’s confidence comes from the fact that Punjab has a Dalit population of 32% that has traditionally been more inclined towards the Congress. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when AAP surprised by winning four seats, they substantially broke into the Dalit vote even with seats that they did not win. According to confidential internal surveys done by two parties, the Dalit and urban poor are forming the backbone of a silent vote that is crystallising around AAP.
Yet, all the leaders around whom there have been speculation in the media are Jat Sikhs who make up 22% of the state’s population. Since the formation of Haryana in 1966, Punjab has had only Sikh chief ministers (66% of the population) and most except Giani Zail Singh have been Jat Sikhs. In recent times they have been strong supporters of the Akalis and not particularly inclined towards the Congress; but if the ruling alliance is losing they would be looking for an alternative. Similarly, the AAP would like to believe that the BJP vote among Hindus would collapse because of the party’s association with the Akalis.
Should this Punjab victory happen, then there are enough signs to suggest that Arvind Kejriwal could become the chief minister of the state. He would off course be going against the ‘dominant caste’ theory of politics, but in that Kejriwal has something in common with the man he attacks the most (in 2001 Narendra Modi, from a backward community with insignificant numbers replaced the BJP chief minister from the dominant Patedar community of Gujarat).
What’s also happening is that since there is no clear chief ministerial face in the volatile Punjab unit of AAP, Kejriwal may also be ‘compelled’ to assert his authority. The campaign would certainly be built round him.
Punjab would certainly be a prize, a full state, unlike Delhi, where the next assembly election is in 2020 after the 2019 general election. Till then, with the kind of monster majority AAP has in Delhi, they cannot be removed in the national capital, although problems can mount and have their powers curtailed.
A party of subalterns
Soon after winning 67 of Delhi’s 70 seats Arvind Kejriwal told this columnist, “I know every section of society has voted for us but it’s the poor who will never leave us.” Given the nature of the campaign and promises of cheap electricity and free water besides the anti-corporate line, this conclusion by the chief minister made sense. Every section of society voted for AAP in Delhi 2015 but the richer the voter, the lesser the appeal of the party. AAP was way ahead of the BJP among poorer sections, getting 66% against 22%. Among the middle class AAP got 51% against 31% that went to the BJP, while among the rich or upper class, the gap narrowed to 47% for AAP and 43% for the BJP.
Still, it’s been a rough ride for the party in the national capital and one can believe that among all strata of society, support for AAP could have come down, but less so among the poor. The electricity and water does go some distance, besides which steps like the Mohalla clinics (over 100 now) and reforms in education are targeted at the poor. According to a BJP MP from Delhi, one of the reasons why AAP is still holding strong among the urban poor is because, the power of the middlemen who lorded it over slum clusters and ghettos has been curtailed.
The real disaster is in civic issues that have caught AAP and the BJP in a tug-of-war. There is an epidemic of mosquito borne diseases that impacts every section of society in Delhi, even as the issue of garbage piles up. In the end, voters do not really get into the details of who is responsible for what. Although elections to the assembly are some distance away, those to the municipal corporations (MCDs) take place in April next year soon after the Punjab and Goa polls.
Since it’s unlikely that the Delhi government would be able to broker peace with the MCDs, AAP has hit back with protests against all the ward councilors of Delhi. These began on August 15 and by the end of September each of the 272 ward councilors will be confronted with protestors.
Since AAP rose after crushing the Congress in Delhi, that is really the party they should watch out for in the long run. The possibility of the Congress gradually staging a revival in the national capital exists and the MCD polls can be suitable ground.
Like Mayawati and Lalu Prasad Yadav before them, AAP is increasingly getting immune to bad press because they believe their voters do not care about the issues that the media highlights. The difference is that the AAP leadership is not representative of the subalterns themselves and is overwhelmingly middle class and upper caste.
The irony is also that the Anna movement, the precursor to AAP, actually took off because of round the clock media coverage. Since Anna Hazare has lately taken to asking AAP for some introspection, it would be worth recalling that the entire movement was actually conceived by Kejriwal who was looking for a face to lead it. He found Anna Hazare and the rest is history. The story of how India Against Corruption began and, the direction in which it turned is quite fascinating, from chest thumping nationalism to radical anti-corporate positions.
It’s all been conceived by Kejriwal, the supreme leader of AAP, something that remains the party’s greatest strength and potentially a weakness. The foundational ideology of the party is also unclear on some critical issues and it sometimes appears that a line is formulated after the leader has put out a tweet on social media. This is what happened when AAP defended the controversial act of a Jain preacher addressing the Haryana assembly, surprising the constituency that they would like the party to uphold the principal of separating the state and religion.
Here, it would be a good idea to recall that the Anna movement, the brainchild of Kejriwal, was a mish-mash of ideas of patriotism and nation worship even as AAP morphed into a party with strong views against the corporate sector and ideas that would be labeled as Left leaning.
Sociologist Ashish Nandy, however, maintains that only the Left and the BJP have ideological moorings and it’s a mistake to criticise a party for that. “I think the AAP ideology is to stand by the downtrodden,” he says, adding “but they look dysfunctional at times because they cannot keep a check on their own followers. They have a historical role to play but it’s difficult to make predictions about them.”
AAP remains a force to watch, not because of sex, lies and videotape, but because of its political potential and ambitious plans.