AAP And After
Since the AAP made a claim to Delhi’s secretariat, Arvind Kejriwal has been the unanimous face of the party. Others, some of them prominent in their own capacity, have been happy standing next to him or being the backroom managers
Aam Aadmi Party and its acronym AAP are loaded with meaning. The full appellation is prosaic, telling the common man that it is your party, as it steals the Indian National Congress’s slogan ‘Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath’ (the Congress’s hand—its election symbol—is with the common man). The acronym tells with candid explicity that this party is ‘YOU’. As NCT of Delhi’s 70-seat Legislative Assembly is constituted following 7 February 2015 elections, AAP conquers India’s capital with 94 percent seats (66)—next only to Sikkim Democratic Front’s 100 percent in the Himalayan state—and 54 percent votes, blanking the Congress that ruled Delhi for 15 years and decimating the Modi-led resurgent, over-confident and smug Bharatiya Janata Party. Indeed, ‘conquer’ is the word for the performance of the party that was created only two years back (November 2012) following an intense anti-corruption movement that had laid a siege of the national capital.
Yet, electoral tides are not easy to sustain, ask a pompously complacent Congress of 2004-14 (two terms at the Centre and three in Delhi) and an equally vainglorious BJP (1/7th term at the Centre and nine Legislative Assembly elections later) how humility alone pays in public life and politics. Would Arvind Kejriwal’s motley AAP, which was strikingly self-righteous as it trounced a ‘who-is-Kejriwal’ Sheila Dikshit in 2013 to third position in the Delhi Legislative Assembly with a mere 8 seats (a fall of 35 seats), sustain this tide of expectations as it looks to spread its tentacles to Bihar (2015), Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamilnadu and West Bengal (2016)? Kejriwal prudently cautioned jubilant party workers in a victory speech: ‘The size of this victory is scary; let us not become arrogant.’ Narendra Modi, who usurped all political popularity charts to emerge as the party’s and the nation’s unquestioned leader in three decades, has been compelled into an introspective pause as a small pebble overturns his victory chariot.
Obviously, the rapid changes taking place in Indian politics demand striking a balance between electoral politics and the politics of aspirations and expectations. The politics of managing vote banks through policies and programmes since 2004 appeared to be strutting till the corruption skeletons began tumbling out of the political cupboard of the United Progressive Alliance II government. The responses of an uncommunicative party leadership bordered on arrogance and not being a political leader, the Prime Minister silently focused on the task assigned by the party leadership, keeping aloof from the politics of governance. It was Modi’s emergence that turned the tide in favour of the BJP, as the people responded to a leader who was directly communicating with them with a bouquet of manifesto for growth, apparently successfully experimented in Gujarat since he became the Chief Minister in October 2001. If the Congress failed to gauge popular sentiments of the young voters, the Modi-led BJP reaped the harvest of their aspirations.
This election in Delhi, a humbled Arvind Kejriwal, the bhagoda (runaway) 49-day Chief Minister of Delhi, remembered for his dharna on the Rajpath, was the only leader visible in the city state. While Ajay Maken of the Congress lacked the charisma of his main opponent to catch the imagination of and convince the Delhi’s voters—young, aspiring, varied in a migrant city with a substantial underclass population in unauthorised, under provided colonies—he was also part of the bickering within the party after the 2014 general election. The rising stature of Prime Minister Modi consciously constructed by his media managers made the party’s city leadership pigmies and they strategised to import a former colleague of Kejriwal in India Against Corruption and a former city cop Kiran Bedi, who claimed all the feathers in her cap but that of a political leader. Thus, while Kejriwal and the AAP connected—with the underclass, the middle class, the young, the aspiring class and the rest—the two rivals lacking in leadership, a committed party cadre and a manifesto that enthused the people.
In the past few years the parties and the leader working from the opposition space have had an edge. It worked for Mamata Banerjee and her All India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal a few years back when she pushed an entrenched Communist Party of India (Marxist) after 35 years of rule. It worked for K Chandrasekhar Rao who led the Telangana movement, becoming the Chief Minister of the new state in 2014. It worked for Narendra Modi, who attracted the proverbial ‘aspirational classes’ in the 2014 general election opposing corruption and dynastic leadership and proposing a new agenda for governing India. The rise of the AAP and Kejriwal too has been from that space when not only the Congress ruling for 15 years was routed, a much organised BJP too fell short of absolute majority in the Assembly election. The underprivileged of the city had hope in someone who was promising essentials at affordable price, even though in a populist fashion. Again in 2015, the dream expanded and misdeeds of dharna and abrupt resignation were forgiven. Standing in opposition, the AAP appeared a better option than Narendra Modi’s BJP, whose haughtily opulent style of leadership, despite his claim to be a tea seller’s son, has come under question from a cross section of the Delhi voters. Also, Narendra Modi’s projection of his overwhelming leadership on the capital and a parachuting a leader who would presumably work under him gave greater credence to Kejriwal’s seeking power from the opposition space.
Has identifiable leadership been an issue? Looks like! Let us consider the three contenders. Since the AAP made a claim to Delhi’s secretariat, Arvind Kejriwal has been the unanimous face of the party. Others, some of them prominent in their own capacity, have been happy standing next to him or being the backroom managers. His flip flop style, working from the opposition, space did not win him friends. His challenging Modi in Varanasi may have been considered foolhardy then, but did it give him and the AAP a chunk of the centrist space, which worked in this election? Not easy to say, but given the victory margin and the support base moving up from the underclass to the upper class, makes this guess plausible. The BJP displayed confusion of a defender and a lack of faith in its own city leadership, many of whom have been working here for decades. Did Modi-Shah team consider them a poor match to the AAP-Kejriwal plank? Did they consider that they would not be able to deliver on governance plank the way Modi expects? Or, they just planned to out-smart Kejriwal by pitting his ex-India-against-corruption colleague, who presumably has a tough, though controversial, image while being a city cop? It boomeranged on several counts—left the city leadership squirming, their supporters became disgruntled, sent a message of the party (and Narendra Modi) being uncertain about the capacity of its leaders, the Modi rush to help as the super leader only spoilt the situation, Kiran Bedi’s commanding style made it worse. The Congress’s woes had been compounded manifold from past to the present. While Rahul Gandhi has been unable to elicit confidence of the voters across the country, the party does not have any vision of leaders in state. Ajay Maken may have been an old city hand, but his popular connect has been poor in comparison to the two. In each case, it is also significant to analyse how much they have been able to connect with the new voters of 18-25 age group and the result says the order in which the leadership has succeeded.
Speaking of the Prime Ministerial style, he has focused since assuming the office on his world image in Nehruvian style. Nehru wanted to see India in the vanguard of the Afro-Asian leadership to chart a path for the underprivileged in the developing world away from the big power rivalry. Modi has attempted to seek a space for India in a globalized world with alliances with the US and smoothening of relationship with China. At home, he declared Nehru’s Planning Commission, created in 1950 with a Cabinet resolution, redundant without an alternative vision and created NITI Aayog with a similar resolution, without a vision. Is a Modi stamp on everything going well with voters looking for local issues. Indeed, after the general election Maharashtra and Jharkhand have been won, though only simple majority, and there has been a good show in Jammu and Kashmir, but Delhi is the first one a little more away from May 2014. We have to wait and watch how the politics shapes in months, if not years, to come.
The sixteenth general election was significant from the perspective that the voters looked for a party of change. The Modi-led BJP fit that role; it is significant that a Modi-less BJP may not have got absolute majority even if it had come to power. However, out of its 282 seats, only 23 came from south of Vindhya, though the NDA alliance partners did well there. Obviously, it was not a party of change across the country, as it could muster only 23 of 132 southern seats. In Delhi, given its population composition and the recent mood, it was not considered the party of change. The post-poll surveys would indicate how much support was lost by the BJP due to Hindutva campaign of its saffron affiliates, which does not convey the image of change.
Party organisation matters. On paper, the BJP had the strongest organisation, having six decade old machinery, both its own and of affiliates such as the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and several others. So has the Congress. However, the AAP scored by building an elaborate organisation from each mohalla (neighbourhood). It was much more democratic as compared to others. Both the BJP and the Congress have been lax in this. While the Congress has been laggard in power and out of it, the BJP tied itself in knots in the emerging new national leadership and party dispensation under a centralized duumvirate.
That has impacted the party outreach to the voters and the people. The AAP had undoubtedly the best outreach, with a young brigade going door to door, using the social media and carrying on a low key but inclusive campaign. The BJP’s outreach suffered in the first place because it was complacent that the Modi magic would carry it through; Modi expressed it indirectly: ‘Jo desh ka mood hai, wohi Dilli ka mood hai; Jo desh chahata hai, wohi Dilli chahata hai!’ (Whatever is the country’s mood, is Delhi’s mood too, whatever does the country want, Delhi wants too). This weakened the outreach combined with other factors discussed before. The Congress’s outreach was the worst to say the least.
Did policy promises matter? The Congress did not have much to offer, it was mild to the extent of being mute. The BJP had taken a few steps from the vantage point of its power position. 1,900 illegal colonies were regularises weeks before the elections were announced. The promises of more were made after the elections. E-rickshaws banned by the Delhi High Court were brought back with some safeguards. However, the AAP scored with his earlier promise of halving electricity bills and free water to a level to the poor, the two promises Kejriwal had kept in his brief regime. Of course, questions are being asked as to how many of them he can fulfill given the constitutional limitations of the NCT government and the limits to subsidies, but that is for later; the vision of a government that would work on power and water sector reform for the benefit of the poor, worked.
Indeed, the voting trends would indicate how the votes were distributed in this election. Clearly, the Congress down from 24.6 percent votes to 9.7, lost 15 percent of its votes from 2013, most, if not all, of it went to AAP. The BJP lost 1.3 percent (from 34 to 32.7), that too went to AAP. The voting percentage went up from 66 percent to 67.08 that too appear to have gone to the AAP. However, the AAP’s jump from 29 percent to 54 percent of votes could be explained in terms of consolidation of ‘other’ votes. Though the BJP is mulling about internal sabotage, the transfer of votes appears only miniscule, but in the highly charged contest, it mattered in crucial seats.
A half city state’s election in India, which happens to be the national capital, has aroused unprecedented interest in the country and its implications deserve analysis from a long term perspective of Indian politics. First, coming nine months after the general election, which resulted in the emergence of a national leader and absolute majority to one party in Lok Sabha in three decades, the stakes were high for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since the Prime Ministers alleged power concentration in the PMO and an individualised style of governance has come under criticism from certain quarters, there would perhaps be introspection. Second, the Congress stares at a blank political screen, completely at a loss for a strategy, would it be able to rediscover itself beyond the Nehru-Gandhis? Third, the AAP expanded within months of its disastrous Delhi experience to contest the Lok Sabha election with the same pitch and fervour. With nothing to lose, it managed to win four seats from Punjab. Considering that it made a presence felt in Delhi with its 2013 win, its reach widened. It is expected to contest in Bihar, West Bengal and Punjab. While it has given hope to those looking for the consolidation of centrist space in Indian politics, its national reach would be closely watched. The election to the 70 seats of Legislative Assembly of Delhi has thus been very significant.
By Ajay K Mehra