What is at the core of the slugfest between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the BJP? The two parties have been embroiled in a series of confrontational moves, both political and administrative, hitting out at each other with allegations of corruption.
Ask the BJP leadership and its associates in various outfits of the RSS-led Sangh Parivar, and the answer is: the AAP, which became a political entity in 2012 through a movement against corruption spearheaded by Anna Hazare, is now as corrupt as any other political party.
The AAP and its supporters assert that the BJP is jittery after the AAP’s emphatic victory in the Punjab Assembly election, especially with elections scheduled later this year in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The AAP is the first regional party to have formed the government in a second State. It won Delhi thrice, in 2013, 2015 and 2020. This, say AAP leaders, is an impressive performance for a political party which is just 10 years old.
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A number of political analysts see merit in the arguments on both sides. Those who are inclined to give credence to corruption charges against the AAP point out that ruling parties in India have conventionally amassed money through three policy routes—liquor policy, mining policy and land policy. A veteran Delhi-based political observer, who wished not to be named, said: “These are the core areas of organised and systematic corruption by the arms of the government, beyond individual corruption of political leaders. In this background, the glaring twists and turns in the current liquor policy of the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi are certainly worthy of scrutiny. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, who spearheaded the liquor policy, owes an explanation to the State and its people about the alleged multi-crore scam in its implementation.”
The analyst, who is known for his objective assessments, also pointed out that the AAP has been putting up spirited public shows in poll-bound Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. In particular, the forays by Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia and Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Singh Mann have generated considerable public enthusiasm. The broad early signals point to a bipolar election in both States, with traditional rivals BJP and Congress as main contenders. Yet, no matter what the final electoral result, the AAP seems set to put up a good fight.
AAP hits back
In Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, as also in Delhi, the AAP has been attacking the BJP on the corruption issue, targeting even Delhi Lieutenant-Governor Vinai Kumar Saxena. An array of AAP leaders, including Atishi and Duregesh Pathak, came up with a series of allegations against Saxena. One of the more serious charges was that he pressured his employees to exchange demonetised notes worth Rs.1,400 crore in 2016 when he was Chairman of Khadi and Village Industries Commission. This direct attack on the LG was preceded by allegations that the BJP leadership tried to lure AAP legislators with hefty bribes.
- AAP appears more ready for direct confrontation with BJP.
- Earlier, it steered clear of taking on the BJP on ideological issues.
- It is still silent on the dangers of Hindutva and communalism.
- But it is retaliating against corruption charges levelled by the BJP and the Central government agencies with counter allegations.
- The AAP goal now is to make electoral forays in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
Whether or not these accusations withstand the test of scrutiny, they have captured the imagination of politically aware people at different levels. Even those who are not entirely persuaded about their veracity seem to be impressed by the spunk that AAP leaders, especially Kejriwal and Sisodia, have shown in taking on the BJP and the Union government. Other parties, notably the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM) have been vocal about the Narendra Modi government’s alleged misuse of Central investigating agencies in order to put opposition parties in a spot. But no other party is perceived to have taken the battle to the central BJP leadership quite in the way the AAP has done. Even a section of the BJP leadership, in Delhi and other north Indian States such as Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, admits this grudgingly.
Right from 2012, and especially in the first Delhi Assembly election that it fought in 2013, the AAP has been adept at building counter narratives around unconventional themes. The party always found ways to communicate directly with the people, without relying on conventional instruments of mass communication such as the media. Its Delhi Assembly election campaign in 2013 forsook mainstream campaign strategies and reached out to the people directly through mohalla sabhas where AAP leaders interacted with voters.
In the current confrontation regarding corruption, the AAP has not restricted itself to refuting charges but has relied on developing counter narratives. Even before the CBI raids started against Sisodia, who has the Education portfolio, cases had been slapped on Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain. The AAP’s mass outreach campaign spread the word that these moves were retaliatory measures provoked by the Delhi’s government’s extraordinary performance in health and education. Jain and Sisodia were being targeted because of their leadership of these two departments. The outreach campaign highlighted that these two departments had been accorded recognition at international levels, including from institutions such as the World Health Organisation.
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The current face-off with the BJP marks a new phase in the AAP’s decade-long political history. True, the AAP upstaged the BJP in three successive Assembly elections in Delhi. It has also had running battles with the Union government on issues relating to devolution of administrative authority and control. Yet, the AAP was for long extremely cautious in confronting the BJP directly, especially on political and ideological issues with Hindutva undertones, particularly after Modi came to power at the Centre in 2014. As Modi returned to power in 2019 with an even bigger majority in the Lok Sabha, the AAP leadership seemed to slink further into a subjugated mode for a while.
Notwithstanding the successive AAP wins in Delhi, Kejriwal and his party colleagues meekly toed the BJP line on such crucial issues as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and abrogation of Article 370. After the Union government adopted the three controversial farm laws in September 2020, the AAP was initially supportive of them and changed tack only after massive protests came up from farmers. The farmers’ movement was backed by a handful of political organisations such as the Kisan Sabha, which is guided by the Left parties, and the Swaraj Abhiyan led by Yogendra Yadav. Yogendra Yadav was one of the founders of the AAP. Kejriwal expelled him and his associates from the party in April 2015 after it returned to power in Delhi.
This time around, the AAP is markedly confrontational, even raising issues such as the promotion of crony capitalism by the Modi regime through the patronage extended to big-ticket corporates like the Adanis. Nevertheless, the AAP still maintains a pronounced silence on issues of Hindutva and communalism. The AAP leadership continues to hold that the party is ideologically neutral, which has been its stance from the beginning. Its position has always been that the AAP does not wish to follow the path of so-called ideology-driven parties which are constantly constrained to compromise on ideological issues. On balance, the idea seems to be to capture political power, starting with the States and moving to the Centre, and in the process initiate welfare-oriented governance measures that bring economic relief to large sections.
Target: Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh
One objective of the AAP’s multifaceted battles in 2022 is to capture power in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The party’s overall electoral trajectory has been full of ups and downs. Starting with a creditable performance in the 2013 Assembly election in Delhi, leading to a short-lived tenure in power with the support of the Congress, the AAP was expected to make inroads across different parts of the country and come up with a good performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. But it lost in all the Lok Sabha seats in Delhi. In the 2015 Assembly election in Delhi, it won as many as 67 of the 70 seats in the Assembly. The party’s next big stop was considered to be the Punjab Assembly election of 2017, with a majority of political observers predicting an AAP sweep. But it suffered a shock defeat at the hands of the Congress. The 2019 Lok Sabha election was also a washout. But the AAP came back strongly in the Delhi Assembly election of 2020, acquiring power for a third consecutive term. Two years later, it made up for its 2017 poor showing in Punjab with a convincing victory.
Will the AAP continue its winning streak? Or will its trajectory once again be marked by a downswing? This is the big question now as it remains embroiled in an exchange of accusations and counter accusations with the BJP.