The year 2022 ended on a promising note for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which was formally launched on November 26, 2012. The decade-old party registered a mega win in Punjab, wrested the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) from the BJP, and made inroads into Gujarat, the home State of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
Emboldened, the party is now bracing for the upcoming State Assembly election in Delhi with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha election. On December 18, 2022, the AAP held its first National Council Meeting after attaining the status of a national party to discuss a pan India expansion plan. At the meeting held in New Delhi, AAP supremo and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi over national security and China’s belligerence while calling for a new swadeshi movement and complete boycott of Chinese goods. To counter the BJP’s “freebie” accusation against it, the party raised the issues of price rise and unemployment.
The past 10 years or so have seen the Congress shrinking and the BJP growing at the national level. In between, the AAP emerged from a 2011 civil society movement, India Against Corruption, led by social activist Anna Hazare. Currently, many political outfits, such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (United), the Telugu Desam Party, and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, are largely confined to their home States. At the same time, parties such as the All India Trinamool Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, and even the Bahujan Samaj Party run the risk of getting derecognised as national parties. But the AAP is in power in Delhi and Punjab and has been recognised as a State party in Goa and Gujarat. It does not have any Lok Sabha MP but boasts of 10 members in the Rajya Sabha.
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“No other party has seen such a spectacular rise in a matter of 10 years,” said Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann in a TV interview recently. In Punjab, the AAP won 92 of the 117 Assembly seats in the 2022 election. “Of 92 MLAs, as many as 82 are first-timers,” Mann added, underscoring how political stalwarts such as the former State Congress chief, Navjot Singh Sidhu; former Chief Ministers Capt Amarinder Singh and Charanjit Singh Channi; Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, his son Sukhbir Singh Badal, as well as the party’s youth wing chief, Bikram Singh Majithia, lost to AAP candidates.
The AAP’s political journey has seen some dramatic twists and turns, and it has proven astute political observers wrong on several occasions. Riding the anti-corruption wave, the AAP decimated the Congress in the 2013 Delhi Assembly election. Even after becoming the Delhi Chief Minister, Kejriwal remained an “anarchist” and his party never minced words while attacking the “corrupt and powerful”. Of course, senior party leaders had to issue scores of unconditional public apologies in the following years.
Kejriwal said that his ragtag political start-up was a “Shiv ji ki baraat” (wedding procession of god Siva), where everyone irrespective of political beliefs was welcomed. The party projected itself as a political revolution, offering an alternative to mainstream political parties which had become “family fiefdoms or communal organisations”.
Over the years, the AAP, which survived on crowdsourced funds initially, has seen a massive transformation in its character and functioning. Kejriwal’s repeated assertions that his party follows the ideology of patriotism, honesty and humanity notwithstanding, the AAP is viewed as a party pursuing an ideology-free model of politics. In recent years, the party has largely restricted itself to municipal politics, focussing on issues such as electricity, water, school education and basic healthcare, and projecting it as the “Delhi model”. The pattern of promises during the Assembly elections in Goa, Punjab, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh was similar. Interestingly, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, the party had the maximum number of candidates with criminal backgrounds in elections in 2022 .
Battle for MCD
The party’s victory in the MCD election created ripples beyond the national capital. An elated Kejriwal described the win as the AAP’s “fourth victory in Delhi”. The BJP might not have won the Delhi Assembly election since 1998, but it did win all seven Lok Sabha seats from Delhi in 2019 and controlled the civic body for 15 years. For the campaign this time, the party roped in several Chief Ministers, Union Ministers, parliamentarians, and party workers from outside the State in an all-out effort for a fourth consecutive term. The strategy paid off only partially, with the party managing to increase its vote share to about 39 per cent from 37 in 2017 (when the MCD was divided into East, South and North corporations. In May 2022 the three were merged into one). The AAP picked up 134 of the 250 wards, while the BJP won 104.
While many, including BJP supporters, attribute the BJP’s loss to the fact that its Lok Sabha MPs remained inaccessible to the common man, the fact is that the AAP mounted a strong and relentless campaign that targeted the BJP for failing to address civic issues. It successfully cemented the public perception that the MCD under the BJP had become a den of corruption.
Its campaign, “ Kude Pe Jansamvad” (public discussion over garbage), across all the 13,682 booths, struck a chord with voters—Delhi’s mounds of uncleared garbage were continuously highlighted. The AAP took a leaf out of the BJP playbook and announced that only the AAP’s double engine presence in Delhi could redress these grievances. The public that was sick of the squabbling between the MCD and the Delhi government seemed to agree. “During my poll campaign, I just focussed on the cleanliness issue and convinced residents that only the AAP can make the area clean,” said Priyanka Gautam, who won Ward Number 194 in Gharoli. The densely populated and unauthorised Mulla Colony and Rajbir Colony are part of this ward. The residents live under the shadow of the Ghazipur landfill site, a garbage mountain said to be as tall as the Qutb Minar.
The AAP had 10 catchy schemes in its arsenal, among them were the beautification of Delhi, a solution to parking problems, better equipped MCD schools, better hospitals, and clean zones for street vendors. The other shrewd move that yielded dividends was fielding women in 55 per cent of the seats. Besides, Bobby Kinnar (38), who won the civic election from Sultanpuri-A ward for the AAP, has become Delhi’s first transgender councillor.
A majority of the over 50 per cent voter turnout, according to observers, was not from the affluent areas. This is directly connected to the Delhi government’s welfare schemes such as free electricity, water, and bus travel for women and better healthcare at mohalla clinics, thus justifying the AAP’s continued reliance on schemes that target its core voter base. A Lokniti CSDS MCD poll survey revealed that Delhi residents rated the AAP government positively, adding that those from low-income localities believe that power and water supply, water quality, and the condition of roads and drainage have improved under the AAP.
Equally important, the MCD election results showed that a considerable number of the AAP’s Muslim voters have shifted loyalty to the Congress. Muslim-dominated wards such as Abul Fazal Enclave near Shaheen Bagh, which was at the heart of the Anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests, Mustafabad, Brijpuri, Shastri Park and Zakir Nagar voted Congress candidates to the civic body. Notably, these areas come under Assembly constituencies represented by AAP MLAs Amanatullah Khan, Haji Yunus, and Abdul Rehman.
This is clearly a fallout of the AAP’s silence during the anti-CAA protests, the Delhi riots, and during the release of the accused in the Bilkis Bano case. Besides, the party’s Dalit leader Rajendra Pal Gautam, who is the Minister for Water, Tourist, Culture, Arts & Languages and Gurudwara Elections, was allegedly forced to resign after attending a ceremony where 10,000 Hindus reportedly converted to Buddhism. The BJP kicked up a fuss just before the Gujarat election, and the AAP was clearly too scared of electoral loss. However, realising that it had offended the community, the AAP was quick to control the damage, appointing Gautam as a star campaigner during the MCD election.
AAP in Punjab
In Punjab, the situation played out differently. Amid a deepening agrarian crisis, the political power had been oscillating between the SAD, SAD-BJP alliance, and the Congress. The AAP made its debut in the Lok Sabha after winning four seats in Punjab in the 2014 parliamentary election. Ahead of the election, the AAP did not have an organisational structure. “It would set up makeshift camps in towns and villages as part of its membership drive and that evoked tremendous response,” Prof. Ronki Ram, who teaches political science at Panjab University, told Frontline. According to him, well before the party entered Punjab, many people from the State had already joined the India Against Corruption movement in Delhi. “People were disenchanted with the misgovernment of traditional parties like the SAD and the Congress. They were fed up with mafias running parallel administrations. The AAP offered hope,” said Prof. Ram. “The ground was ready and the AAP didn’t have to do much to capture it.”
Many believe that the party would have won the 2017 State Assembly election as well. But it did not announce a chief ministerial candidate, triggering apprehensions that Arvind Kejriwal, a non-local, would become Chief Minister. In the run-up to 2022, it picked a Jat Sikh and Lok Sabha MP, Bhagwant Mann, as chief ministerial candidate and so mollified fears surrounding Punjabi identity. There was scepticism over issues such as Article 370, support for political prisoners like Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, and Kejriwal’s apology to SAD leader Bikram Singh Majithia for accusing him of being hand-in-glove with the drug mafia, but the AAP remained unfazed. It fielded political turncoats in almost 30 per cent of the constituencies. In order to shed its pro-Khalistani image, the party, in a departure from its strategy in 2017, did not involve the Punjabi and Sikh diaspora in the campaign. It ended up garnering votes from all castes and communities, according to the Lokniti CSDS post-election survey.
Analysing the AAP’s victory in Punjab, Prof. Ashutosh Kumar, head of the Political Science department in Panjab University, told Frontline: “Sukhbir Badal had lost goodwill due to bad image, his father and party chief Parkash Singh Badal had become too old. They were accused of running the party and government like a family business besides patronising all kinds of mafias.” Kumar added that the Sikh community was looking for an alternative, as it did not want to vote for the incumbent Congress. “It was not just that the Congress government performed poorly, but the way Amarinder Singh was dislodged also did not go down well with the Jat Sikh community. Punjab wasn’t ready to accept Dalit Sikh Charanjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister. His image wasn’t untainted either,” he said.
Kumar credited the AAP’s victory to candidate selection. “The party mostly gave opportunities to people who had a clean image and came from diverse professional and social backgrounds. They have been associated with the party for the past three-four years. There is this popular perception that Arvind Kejriwal can be anything, but he hasn’t come to politics to mint money. The same thing is said about Bhagwant Mann.”
Several AAP legislators in the Punjab Assembly are from humble backgrounds. For instance, Charanjit Singh Channi was defeated by the AAP’s Labh Singh Ugoke, who used to run a mobile repair shop. Narinder Kaur Bharaj, who declared assets worth Rs. 24,000 in his nomination papers for the AAP, defeated Congress Cabinet Minister Vijay Inder Singla and BJP candidate and businessman Arvind Khanna, who had declared assets worth Rs. 9.62 crore and Rs. 22.77 crore respectively. Another AAP candidate, Jeevan Jyot Kaur, who defeated the Congress’ Navjot Singh Sidhu and the SAD’s Bikram Singh Majithia from Amritsar East, used to promote menstrual hygiene among rural women before she joined the AAP as a volunteer.
AAP in Gujarat
Five seats in the 182-seat Gujarat Assembly is by no means big, but it is certainly a significant victory for the AAP. Its vote share of 12.9 per cent helped it qualify as a national party. The win was important for one more very important reason: The BJP’s Fortress Gujarat had been breached for the first time by a third player, a newcomer, who is here to stay.
“We have been successful in expanding our reach, particularly in the remote tribal areas. The Congress literally gifted their seats away as they had no presence in this election,” said Sagar Rabari, an AAP candidate who lost the election from Becharaji, Mehsana district.
Pre-election predictions suggested that the AAP would make an impression in Saurashtra and the tribal belt. It won four seats in Saurashtra and had a very comfortable victory in Dediyapada, which is in the tribal-dominated Narmada region. The AAP’s candidate in Dediyapada, Chaitar Vasava, is from the Vasava tribal community. Vasava was part of the alliance between the Bharat Tribal Party (BTP) and the AAP but the two parties split in September 2022.
The BJP won 23 out of the 27 reserved constituencies. The Congress had won 15 in 2017. In 2022, it won three. Activists from the region believe that if the AAP adopts the strategy of sliding into the void left by the Congress, it may well have a future.
Tribal rights activist Anand Mazgaonkar said that there was a well-designed strategy behind the AAP’s impact on the tribal belt: it first introduced itself as an urban party and made its mark in the Surat municipal election. Surat also has Adivasi areas, which became a part of the AAP’s jurisdiction. Earlier in 2022, the Union Finance Minister’s Budget speech had made a reference to the need to act fast on the river linking project. Adivasis, particularly in the southern Narmada region, went into ferment, Mazgoankar pointed out.
Local Adivasi leaders began a massive mobilisation drive that attracted thousands. “The AAP latched on to this by identifying individuals such as Chhotu Vasava [Chhotubhai Amarasinhbhai Vasava] from the BTP. The tie-up with the BTP facilitated the AAP’s entry into the region by lending it credibility. Then it made announcements on forest rights and the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996,” Mazgoankar said.
The According to Lok Dhaba, a website that analyses election figures, the AAP had a 17.8 per cent vote share in Saurashtra and 17.5 per cent in south Gujarat (tribal) as against 7.4 per cent in north Gujarat.
It replaced the BJP in Botad and Gariadhar and the Congress in Jamjodhpur and Visavadar. Rabari said that local politics and community dynamics were factors that made people vote for the AAP. The party had candidates from the dominant community in all the constituencies it won. “We thought we could fight on issues but in Gujarat, caste is too deep-rooted. In most constituencies, votes were divided on the basis of caste, not party. Our strategy had to be a combination of caste and issues at a micro level,” Rabari said.
Amesh Vasava, a voter from Dediyapada , said, “The AAP said they would give free electricity, provide education and jobs. We gave our vote to Chaitar Vasava because we know him and he said the AAP will work for tribal people.”
“They were never going to win, but they got a lot of traction. They caused a lot of damage to the Congress. Straight numbers will tell you they did eat into the Congress’ vote share,” said Mazgaonkar. The combined Congress and AAP vote share in 2022 is 40.2 per cent. In 2017, the Congress had a 41.44 per cent vote share.
The results showed that the accusation that the AAP was the BJP’s “B team” had no basis, according to Aum Kotwal, a senior member of the AAP’s Gujarat leadership. He said, “The Congress won in 2017 based on the Patidar agitation and caste issues. This time we came in second in almost 40 seats. I believe this indicates we are not an alternative to the Congress but to the ruling dispensation.”
Addressing immediate concerns
According to Manindra Thakur, an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, an “added advantage” for the AAP has been the shifting of the arena of politics from the factory floor or workplace to residential colonies. “The AAP doesn’t do politics of trade unions or interest groups. It is involved in the politics of local issues or of residential areas. The AAP’s transition from a mass movement to a party was difficult after it had promised not to get into politics. The party’s initial strategy was to mobilise people who are honest and outside the political process. Kejriwal’s strength is that he communicates very well. That communication strategy is based on the simple policy that everyone has a chance to become a leader in the AAP provided the control remains in his hands.”
The party has seen several high-profile desertions over the years amid allegations of the lack of inner-party democracy. In Delhi itself, Kejriwal’s most trusted lieutenants and the party’s founding members such as Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav, Shazia Ilmi, Kumar Vishwas, Ashutosh, Alka Lamba and Kapil Mishra, besides several noted social workers, intellectuals, and civil society members, quit the party. In Punjab, two of its four Lok Sabha MPs, Dharamvir Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa, left. Ahead of the 2022 Assembly election, at least 11 MLAs either quit the party or were disqualified.
Despite such internal challenges, the fledgling party has been going from strength to strength. “This idea that people who have a lot of goodwill in society will join electoral politics and people will vote for them doesn’t work,” said Thakur, citing how several famous social workers and well-known public intellectuals have lost elections, from Phanishwar Nath Renu to Medha Patkar to Irom Sharmila. “Politics is basically interest articulation. One has to assure people of what they will ultimately get out of politics. The AAP under the leadership of Kejriwal knows this art. The party promises water, electricity, healthcare and other things that the BJP calls “freebies”, addressing the immediate concerns of people from the lower classes, who get attracted immediately,” he said, adding, “The Delhi model has started working in other places as well.”
Attacked by both Hindutva and anti-Hindutva camps in equal measure, the AAP, unlike the BJP and the Congress, is viewed as a party without an ideology. Its electoral success is attributed to the distrust of traditional parties, anti-incumbency factors and the party’s promised relief for people from low-income groups. “The BJP does not have any method to counter the AAP. It can counter the Congress easily. The BJP’s only strength is Hindutva, which Kejriwal neutralises quite skilfully,” said Thakur, maintaining that “the AAP is quite pragmatic. It has no ideology other than winning elections.”
Comparing the AAP and the BJP’s election strategies, Thakur said: “The BJP’s local leadership is drawn from the party and from the RSS. But the AAP has developed an interesting technique. It goes to a State, looks for average people with a clean image, and then brands them as leaders.” Describing the AAP’s capacity to build organisational structures in new territories on a war-footing, he said, “The moment the party is there, it immediately swings into action like a military that builds a floating bridge to cross the river.” Thakur lauded the AAP for opening up a new space for aspiring political leaders without resources, who stood no chance to get entry into either the BJP or the Congress.
Unlike Delhi, where the Arvind Kejriwal-led government has locked horns with the Central government over the control of administrative services, the AAP coming to power in Punjab is being seen as the best thing to happen to Indian democracy in recent decades. The party has a full-fledged State in which it can build a model of good governance.
“People have started trusting the AAP’s election manifesto. There is a growing perception that the party is sincere about reviving government healthcare and school education systems. It cares for the poor and the marginalised. And in a way the AAP is empowering them. It has not declared itself as a party of a particular caste or community. If the party manages Punjab well, it can win over States like Gujarat,” said Thakur. According to him, the AAP’s prospects in national politics depend on how well it manages Punjab.
Punjab, however, is far more complex than Delhi, a small cosmopolitan city. The border State has a history of the Punjabi Suba movement and insurgency. It emerged as a model State after the historic green revolution of the 1960s.
Today, the State grapples with vexing issues like drug menace and farm distress. The economy is in a shambles, with a debt of Rs. 2.84 lakh crore, which the State government is planning to meet by taking an additional loan from the Reserve Bank of India. The AAP is yet to begin fulfilling most of its election promises. For Prof. Ram, the AAP’s success in Punjab depends on two factors: the party’s image—whether it remains unblemished; and the government’s performance—whether it meets the expectations of the common people.
The AAP’s prospect of growth in the national arena is riddled with dangers. As Thakur said, “Without an ideological compass, Kejriwal—who has a streak of authoritarianism in him—could take the AAP in any direction.”
- The AAP is in power in Delhi and Punjab and has been recognised as a State party in Goa and Gujarat
- AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal said that his ragtag political start-up was a “Shiv ji ki baraat” (wedding procession of god Siva), where everyone irrespective of political beliefs was welcomed
- Over the years, the AAP, which survived on crowdsourced funds initially, has seen a massive transformation in its character and functioning
- The party’s victory in the MCD election created ripples beyond the national capital
- The AAP has been the shifting of the arena of politics from the factory floor or workplace to residential colonies
- Attacked by both Hindutva and anti-Hindutva camps in equal measure, the AAP, unlike the BJP and the Congress, is viewed as a party without an ideology
- Its electoral success is attributed to the distrust of traditional parties, anti-incumbency factors and the party’s promised relief for people from low-income groups