“Now it will be Narendra Modi versus Arvind Kejriwal in 2024,” the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Sanjay Singh declared as he celebrated the party’s impressive performance in Gujarat in early December. This has been a good year for the AAP—bookended by the whirlwind triumph of Punjab and establishing a foothold in Gujarat—culminating in its official recognition as a new national party. After Gujarat, the party has exuded a growing confidence to modify its low-key State-by-State strategy (adopted following the disaster of the 2019 Lok Sabha election) and present a more forthright national narrative as the main political challenger to the BJP.
A peculiar feature of this emerging national narrative, gauged from the AAP’s discourse both during and after the Gujarat election, is the emphasis on the ability of the AAP to electorally challenge the BJP without spelling out the nature of the underlying political challenge it poses to the BJP.
Vague ideological position
In contrast to the Congress, which has clearly constructed its national narrative on the three planks publicised in the course of the Bharat Jodo Yatra (political centralisation, economic disparity, social/communal conflict), the AAP deliberately keeps the contours of its political challenge to the BJP ambiguous and open to interpretation.
The oft-repeated theory behind the vague ideological positioning of AAP is that it allows the party to forge an umbrella coalition across ideological divides; melding, for example, both pro-BJP and anti-BJP voters under a governance platform. Yet, in practice, the AAP has repeatedly failed (outside of Delhi) to court disaffected BJP voters.
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Even as the State BJP governments laboured under substantial anti-incumbency pressures in Uttarakhand, Goa, and Gujarat (particularly on the issue of corruption), the “crusaders against corruption” hardly made a dent in the BJP’s support base. Himachal Pradesh, an upper-caste-dominated State with hard nationalistic moorings (which Modi swept with a 69 per cent vote in the post-Balakot upsurge) might have provided a testing ground for the political usefulness of AAP’s ideological positioning.
Yet, the AAP never generated significant traction and later ceded the opposition ground to the Congress, which eventually ended up winning the State. Further, the 13 per cent vote that the party garnered in Gujarat was overwhelmingly comprised of previous Congress voters: Adivasis, Dalits, Kolis, and Muslims.
Delhi, too, provides only a limited endorsement of the theory of AAP’s attractiveness among BJP-leaning voters. In a paper analysing the 2020 Delhi elections, Ankita Barthwal and I had demonstrated three related points: one, the median voter of Delhi (across caste groupings) held rightward leanings on the three key issues raised by the BJP during the campaign (CAA, Article 370, and the Ram Mandir); two, the AAP support base was much more ideologically dispersed than the Congress; and three, the AAP’s “soft Hindutva” (taking neutral or even conciliatory stances on questions of Hindu nationalism) might have possibly helped the AAP hold on to right-leaning voters amidst a polarising campaign, by allowing the party to foreground its populist welfare schemes as the most politically salient factor of the electoral contest.
Yet, as stated earlier, even Delhi does not provide any decisive evidence of the AAP’s superior ability at making inroads into the BJP’s turf, as compared to the Congress. The BJP’s support base has stayed remarkably stable over the last two decades, hovering between 35-40 per cent of the electorate. The BJP’s vote share in the recent election to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (39.09 per cent) was almost identical to what it had gathered during the last Assembly election (38.51 per cent). Moreover, the saffron party’s vote share was much the same before the rise of the AAP. In the three elections the BJP unsuccessfully fought against the Sheila Dixit-led Congress, the BJP garnered 34, 35, and 36 per cent of the votes.
It is true that the centre of gravity of the BJP’s support base might have undergone a few subterranean shifts—for instance, in the last two elections, some losses among the Punjabi migrants from West Delhi have been made up by the influx of Purvanchali voters of East Delhi. Yet, the larger story of Delhi’s political landscape is the implosion of the Congress (and to some extent the BSP), and the takeover of that space by the AAP. The same right-leaning voters, after all, had also previously backed Sheila Dixit, under a governance platform catering to middle-class concerns of infrastructure development and urban gentrification.
Moreover, the consecutive blanks that AAP drew in both 2014 and 2019 general elections in Delhi (slipping below the Congress in the latter), when pro-Hindutva voters flocked to the BJP and anti-BJP voters (such as minorities) returned to the Congress fold, indicates that the AAP’s coalition is glued more by a contingently constructed transactional utility rather than an imaginatively moulded ideological consensus.
In practice, AAP’s “soft Hindutva” increasingly serves two political functions, independent of any ideological overtures towards BJP voters. First, shrill proclamations of Hindu religious devotion allow the AAP a relatively low-cost route to easy media coverage. In many ways, the rise of the AAP is a 24x7 TV news phenomenon (note the central role of TV anchors in the making of the Anna movement to the rolling coverage afforded to Kejriwal’s anti-establishment theatrics).
The AAP of today has since shed much of its anti-establishment fervour in favour of a populist governance platform, marketing a few marquee welfare schemes to construct a welfarist, pro-development brand in the mould of a regional party such as the BJD, the AIADMK, or the JDU, the only difference being the supposed scalability of its model.
In Gujarat, for example, the party shied away from clearly articulating an opposition to crony capitalism in the manner it had done in an earlier phase in Delhi, burning electricity bills to protest the alleged collusion of Congress with corporates such as Reliance in inflating electricity prices. The AAP now presents corruption more as government dishonesty/inefficiency rather than a systemic feature of the political economy, which probably also helps the party garner a more favourable coverage in the media.
Since the AAP still needs media oxygen to drive its political campaign (partly an outcome of the perennial negligence afforded to the task of building a rudimentary organisation), the party has zeroed in on Hindutva symbolism to generate the theatrical visuals and talking points earlier provided by its disruptive protest politics.
Second, and paradoxically, AAP’s soft Hindutva platform appears to have as much to do with burnishing the party’s “winnability quotient” among anti-BJP voters as it is meant as an exercise to win over pro-BJP voters. The stridently religious slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” in Gujarat are also partly a message to anti-BJP voters disillusioned with the Congress’ ability to dislodge the BJP that the AAP possesses a winning formula that can break through political divides and overturn BJP hegemony.
Of course, the fact that the AAP won much of its support from traditionally Congress-voting Dalits and tribals, who had heretofore remained cold to Hindutva appeals, owed largely to its well-marketed Delhi model of welfare delivery. But it also stemmed from the hope that the AAP, unlike the Congress, had the ability to forge a winning coalition, and Hindutva symbolism had also been employed as a marker of credibility in that regard.
The central question hovering over opposition politics over the next two years will be whether the Congress is able to hold on to its space as the primary national challenger in the face of an ascendant AAP that is now primarily pursuing a strategy of encroaching on the space of a declining Congress.
Can AAP replace the Congress?
Much will depend on the State elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. On the face of it, the dynamics of these States are loaded towards a rerun of the bipolar Congress-BJP contest like Himachal Pradesh rather than a triangular fight like Gujarat. Unlike in Gujarat, the Congress in these States is a very credible claimant for power, and possesses the State-level faces to mobilise its core support base.
The political narrative and populist energy harnessed by the Bharat Jodo Yatra further reinforces the Congress’ claim as the principal opponent of the BJP in the next general election, as opposed to the AAP which has largely shunned national issues and joint opposition platforms over the last three years. Yet, if there is one party which recent history cautions us from underestimating, it is the AAP.
“An overdose of Hindutva carries the risk of diluting not just AAP’s core brand appeal but also tarnishing the brand of Arvind Kejriwal.”
In an article on the AAP that I had written last year, when it was still a single-State party, I had argued that it is within the realm of possibility that the AAP can replace the Congress as the second pole of Indian politics by the end of this decade. As a parallel, I had presented the case of Israel, where a rightward shift in public opinion had precipitated the destruction of the Labour Party, the left-wing party that built modern Israel, and the appropriation of that space by a string of centrist and centre-right parties, more in tune with the nationalist zeitgeist.
But that parallel also holds a cautionary tale for the AAP. The centrist parties which have entrenched themselves in Israel (such as Yesh Atid) have fulfilled two criteria: one, they have resolutely focussed on the economy and standard-of-living issues, treating contentious ideological issues as peripheral to their agenda; and two, they have spawned charismatic leaders who have held on to a reservoir of trust among the electorate. The centrist parties which have imploded (such as Kadima and the Center Party) are the ones who obsessed on fashioning a new ideological middle ground on questions of security and religion.
An overdose of Hindutva, geared towards cleverly fomenting just the right proportion of Hindutva nationalism and welfare, carries the risk of diluting not just AAP’s core brand appeal but also tarnishing the brand of Arvind Kejriwal, who already battles perceptions of being an unprincipled political opportunist.
Defensive Hindu religious symbolism (as a covering shield from “anti-Hindu” attacks from the BJP), for better or worse, has been accepted as a fact of political life by most opposition parties in the country. But it must be remembered that Hindutva (or Hindu majoritarianism) has only one time-tested, authentic face in the country, and that 100-year-old school is not open for new admissions.
Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi.
- This has been a good year for the Aam Aadmi Party after its triumph in Punjab and impressive debut in Gujarat.
- The party is now all set to modify its low-key State-by-State strategy and present a more forthright national narrative.
- Whether the AAP will be able to replace the Congress remains to be seen. Much will depend on the State elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. The success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra further reinforces the Congress’ claim as principal opponent of the BJP.
- However, an overdose of Hindutva carries the risk of diluting not just AAP’s core brand appeal but also tarnishing the brand of Arvind Kejriwal, who already battles perceptions of being an unprincipled political opportunist.