A RADICAL leftist friend had her mobile ringing continuously as soon as it became palpable on the morning of February 10 that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was on its way to a landslide victory in the Delhi Assembly elections. Among her callers was an RTI (Right to Information) activist from Gujarat, who was then visiting the village of Pansina in Sundernagar district, where, he said, farmers had committed suicide over the losses incurred in growing Bt cotton.
As the AAP led in 40 seats, then crossed 50, galloping and leaping astonishingly over the 60-seat mark, Pansina began to jubilate. To the confounded RTI activist, a villager explained, “The AAP’s victory has empowered us.” Once it was announced that the AAP had bagged all but three seats in the Delhi Assembly, the radical leftist friend received a call from the communal hotspot of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. At the other end was a hawker, through whom she periodically gauges whether or not the decaying town is, yet again, writhing in the fever of violence. The hawker told her: “Madam, the AAP has won. It is Eid today.”
The friend engages in issues that agitate people. Perhaps that was the reason why she received calls from those whom the socio-economic system had battered and bruised and who consequently saw in the AAP’s comprehensive conquest of Delhi a glimmer of hope. But many in Delhi, including this writer, too had friends and relatives calling from different parts of India, even from abroad, breathless with excitement, trying to decode the significance of the AAP’s triumph. They all had their prescriptions for the AAP, the manner in which it should negotiate its future, as also that of the country.
In the end, these prescriptions were so many variations of just one theme—that the AAP should go national, participate in one State Assembly election after another, edge out the existing political parties from their turfs, and become the new national alternative to both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress in the 2019 general election. On listening to this babble, you would think AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, Hamlet-like, must be muttering: To go national or not, that is the question.
It speaks of the immense popular pressure that those who reside outside Delhi, as much victims of a venal, insensitive system as the capital’s denizens, have brought to bear upon the AAP. Indeed, to AAP leaders lolling around in the courtyard of its North Avenue office, basking in the sun and glory of victory the day following the announcement of results, the one question almost all journalists tossed at them was: Is there a plan to go national? Which State will the AAP now turn its gaze on? Their answer was almost always the predictable: “The party will take the decision on this issue.”
This display of caution is because the AAP’s overweening ambition badly burnt the party only a year ago. It quit the Delhi government, fielded over 400 candidates in the Lok Sabha constituencies in 2014, and pitted Kejriwal against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi. The AAP’s only ostensible takeaway from the Lok Sabha elections was to earn the sobriquet of “zamanat zabt party”, or the party which forfeited its security deposits. Crushed between its own ambitions and the tsunami wave Modi triggered, the AAP nearly unravelled, prompting its leaders to return to the drawing board and prepare afresh a blueprint to reclaim its bastion of Delhi. It has—and how!
Yet the fervour the AAP has generated among the people through its spectacular performance in the Delhi Assembly election only makes it see the ghost of 2014 now. Nothing is more revealing of the AAP’s new mindset than what happened on February 10. As it sewed up the 67 seats in its kitty, a former Prime Minister of a neighbouring country called Kejriwal’s office, wishing to congratulate him. No, said the AAP leader, he was not going to take the call.
No hubris this. Really, have you ever heard of Prime Ministers of foreign countries congratulating an Indian Chief Minister on winning a State election? This episode signified that Kejriwal was not willing to get projected, even willy-nilly, as a national alternative, a long-term challenger to Modi. Such a projection would have been inevitable as the former Prime Minister too had called Modi that day last summer when he was swept to power.
This episode is a testament to the new awareness in the AAP that it is a party confined to Delhi and that it will not become blind to this reality because of popular expectations or media buzz. This in itself raises the important question: Among all the State-based parties, why is the AAP expected to grow wings, fly out of its local nest, and, to use the avian analogy, lay eggs all around the country?
For one, most State-based parties opted for either a regional or a caste identity. Those consciously regional could not, by definition, have an appeal beyond the linguistic group they represented. In fact, their rise was predicated on being local, in opposition to the parties considered national—primarily the Congress earlier, but increasingly now the BJP—and seeking to establish the dominance of national culture, however defined. No wonder the periodic attempts of regional outfits, such as that of Mamata Banerjee more recently, came a cropper.
The other group of State-based parties sought to build a multi-caste solidarity, particularly of subaltern social groups, but their expansion was circumscribed because their leaders relied primarily on the caste to which they belonged. This earned them the hostility not only of upper castes but also those groups placed more or less on the same step of the Hindu social ladder.
Also, each of these emerging groups had their own leaders in different States. Think Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad, both spending much of their political careers encroaching upon each other’s area of influence and failing ignobly. Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) did manage to expand outside Uttar Pradesh to a degree, relying on the presence of Dalits in substantial numbers countrywide. But she failed to find leaders who could be the party’s face in different States, and was too engaged in the political battles of Uttar Pradesh to spare the time and energy required to have a national presence of some import. Now, even the BSP’s turf in Uttar Pradesh is under pressure.
By contrast, the AAP was born in the crucible of a movement which touched upon the themes of corruption, crony capitalism, the abject failure of the system to work for the disempowered, and the pressing need for a new political culture. These issues have a national resonance beyond the class-caste divide but perhaps having a greater relevance for urban India than rural Bharat. Then again, the movement against corruption was arrayed against the Union government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). National leaders and Union Ministers spoke against the movement’s leaders, raising the stature of the movement’s leaders and turning them into household names countrywide.
The AAP perceived the Delhi Assembly election of 2013 as an opportunity to test the political waters. Delhi was chosen for this experiment not only because it had been the hub of the anti-corruption movement but also because class more than caste is the principal driver of the city’s politics. For sure, it is more amenable to the pursuit of cross-sectoral vocabulary, which defines the AAP’s language.
No less an important factor was Delhi being the hub of media and politics. Even a crime in Delhi—the ghastly rape of the physiotherapist in December 2012 is an example—gets magnified. Could this not also happen for the AAP’s brand of politics? There was a veritable preset script for the AAP’s quest for power. Kejriwal had hoped to win at least a majority and introduce policies to showcase a style of governance remarkably different from that of other mainstream political parties. There had been a plan to convene the Assembly in the Ramlila Maidan to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill, to convey to the people the true meaning of representative democracy. Delhi was supposed to be the AAP’s diving board to plunge into national politics.
The AAP dived and, in the manner of an inexperienced swimmer, was hurt grievously.
There were five lessons it drew from its Lok Sabha debacle. It realised it was impossible to convert goodwill into votes without an organisational structure comprising a network of committees from the constituency to ward to booth levels. This is the structure most political parties possess, considered vital to ensure that their sympathisers cast their votes and to counter the possibility of rigging.
Second, the AAP realised that though Kejriwal is its magnet to pull in votes, his presence can yield dividends only if his efforts are augmented by having local faces with whom people can identify. In other words, every State must have its own little Kejriwal. Third, the AAP must have a State-level campaign team possessing a unity of purpose, identifying and raising issues people consider important, and boasting the capacity to raise finances.
Four, the AAP came around to accepting the reality of the Indian democratic polity. Regardless of its self-avowed idealism, the AAP had to accept that electoral contests are a messy battle. Money and muscle power cannot be wished away, particularly outside Delhi, where the quest for power can often become a violent zero-sum game. In what way could the AAP without comprising its ideal of clean politics neutralise the advantages of money and muscle power other parties deploy?
Five, and more importantly, the AAP realised through its 49-day rule in 2014 that the surest, and quickest, way of winning the enduring support of people is through a style of governance which has a significant impact. Undoubtedly, during its short stint, the lower classes experienced a palpable relief from petty corruption and the civilised behaviour of the police. Their power and water bills were not as severe a burden as before. The decision to audit power distribution companies conveyed that the most powerful corporate could not enjoy lavish profits at the expense of the common person.
For all these reasons, the AAP government-II in Delhi will do well to concentrate on executing its agenda effectively and visibly. It is almost certain that the underclasses will be its focus, conscious as the party is that their support provided it a 3 per cent increase in its vote share despite the Modi wave inundating large parts of north India during the 2014 general election. It knows the middle class is notoriously fickle in its political loyalty. Apart from sweeping away corruption and halving water and power rates, the AAP is expected to opt for a more robust government participation in the educational and health sectors.
Once these policies are executed, the AAP will then turn its gaze to other States, hoping its governance in Delhi would have inspired their people to repose faith in it. This means the AAP is very unlikely to participate in the elections due in Bihar this year. It simply does not have the time to build the organisational structure it thinks is vital to flourish. No longer for Kejriwal the tag of the also-ran; he is acutely aware that every ignoble defeat becomes a deadly blow to the aspirations of a political fledgling that the AAP still is.
Next stop Punjab?
It is in Punjab the AAP will most likely take its first step to go national. For one, the State Assembly election there is due in two years, providing it the time to build an organisational structure there. Two, it polled nearly 25 per cent of the votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election there—a foundation firm enough to build a structure upon. Three, there is a popular disenchantment against all the three parties—the Akali Dal, the Congress and the BJP.
Four, the politics of denial of privileges is not as sharp in Punjab as it is in, say, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In this sense, the political scientist Harish Puri, in conversation with this writer, said Punjab mimicked Delhi’s political-scape. For instance, the Dalits there are assertive, this consciousness being an outcome of migration abroad where they amassed wealth. They had consolidated behind Kanshiram earlier, but because of his inactivity owing to ill health and then death, their political unity was splintered three ways. They could become the impulse behind the AAP in Punjab, the sign of which was evident in the last Lok Sabha elections.
Five, Punjab is reeling under drug and alcohol abuse. Both the Akali Dal and the Congress are perceived to be indifferent to the drug addiction that has become pandemic. Puri said, “For 30-40 years, both the Congress and the Akali Dal have been suppliers of drugs.” Quite encouragingly, women are raging against the mushrooming of liquor outlets in villages, blaming alcoholism for the devastation of their families. They could, as they did in Haryana years ago, become the nucleus of a socio-political movement.
The AAP is acutely conscious of this reality in Punjab. Apart from the painstaking process of building an organisational structure, it has to decide who in Punjab ought to be its face. Its best option is to look for a non-Jat, ideally a Dalit, woman to lead the party there. This is because the politics of Punjab has been Jat Sikh-centric, regardless of whichever party is in power.
Obviously, in the attempt to fan out in Punjab, as also in other States, the AAP will find its professed values a shackle. It insists on adhering to stringent norms in the selection of candidates despite a little dilution in Delhi this time round. It will not enter into alliances with other political parties because it would compromise its promise of providing alternative politics.
What precisely is the definition of alternative politics? For the AAP at least, it means providing affordable politics—that is, fighting elections on a small budget—to provide clean governance. This could well mean the AAP turning to States sharing one or two of the traits of Delhi—either venture into small States, or those in which class is the principal driver or those witnessing rapid urbanisation, or those where the BJP and the Congress are the only players.
This is why all those rooting for the AAP outside Delhi must recalibrate their hopes, for the party and its leaders have already scaled down their ambitions, realising that even to achieve them they need a time frame larger than what people have in mind.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores .