Aam Aadmi Party

Sticky wicket

Print edition : May 26, 2017

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. "Brand Kejriwal" seems to face an uncertain future. Photo: PTI

Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sishodia with party leader Kumar Vishwas at a press conference in New Delhi on May 3. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

BJP president Amit Shah being welcomed by Delhi unit chief Manoj Tiwari at a function to celebrate the party's victory in the civic elections, on May 2. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Successive electoral defeats have put the Aam Aadmi Party on unsure ground and given the BJP an edge in Delhi.

TWO years ago, he was spoken about as the potential face of the opposition against Narendra Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Today he is trying hard to resist a growing perception that he bit off more than he could chew in a hurry to emerge as a key player in national politics.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s national ambitions have been dealt a body blow by the unexpected defeat of his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in successive elections during the months of March and April. Worryingly for him, the AAP’s latest defeat in the Delhi Municipal elections has not only weakened the party further in its former citadel but also put the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on a stronger footing in the national capital’s politics.

The BJP won despite the anti-incumbency factor: it has been in control of the city’s three municipal corporations for 10 years. Solely riding on the strong support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi among voters, the BJP won 181 of 270 seats, while the AAP finished a distant runner-up with 48 seats followed by the Congress with 30 seats. Notably, the AAP lost half of its vote share in comparison with the 2015 Assembly elections as the BJP managed to convert the municipal elections into a referendum on the AAP administration’s two years in power.

The AAP fared poorly in the Assembly elections in Punjab and Goa and in the Delhi Assembly byelection. The civic election results have further diminished the political momentum that Kejriwal had in his favour after the AAP’s historic victory in the 2015 Assembly elections. Clearly, “Brand Kejriwal”, as the Chief Minister and his party are referred to by some political observers, faces an unstable present and an uncertain future.

Challenge to Kejriwal

The most unexpected and significant factor that contributed to instability within the AAP after the election results in late April was what appeared to be a challenge to Kejriwal’s writ over the relatively young party. His hold on the party has attracted allegations of a personality cult. After the civic elections, founder member Kumar Vishwas criticised the party’s functioning in multiple television interviews, commenting on everything from improper functioning of the party to election strategies and the manner of dealing with the aftermath of unfavourable election results.

The remarks were reminiscent of the harsh criticism of Kejriwal by former party members Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan in early 2015. Both were thrown out of the party. Vishwas’ remarks, however, did not involve sharp personal attacks on the AAP supremo. His criticisms were largely framed as self-reflections and dissatisfaction of a senior founding member with the state of affairs in the party.

For instance, Vishwas clearly did not share Kejriwal’s view that electronic voting machines that had been tampered with were the key reason for the AAP’s defeat. He said “by and large” people did not vote for the AAP. “Confidence needs to be created among voters. Volunteers will have to be brought together,” he said while talking about ways in which the party could rectify its mistakes. His emphasis was on the neglect of volunteers. In a fairly dramatic gesture, he apologised to all party volunteers on television: “Firstly, through your channel, I seek apology with folded hands from volunteers since we have lost six successive elections and performed contrary to your expectations. We took many decisions that you did not like. Decisions get taken in closed rooms and communicated in a certain language and you are unable to defend them in public, Whatsapp groups, Facebook, among family members because of our [public] conduct, comments and work. All party leaders will make the effort to take care of party volunteers.”

Damningly, Vishwas had sharper words for the AAP as an institution and the way it had changed since its initial days. He said: “Sharad Joshi had said that every party becomes Congress after some time and to some extent. Like the Bharatiya Janata Party is 80 per cent Congress today; it has dynasty politics, kitchen cabinet and minority as well as majority appeasement as per convenience. The Aam Aadmi Party also, to some extent, is becoming Congress. My entire effort and emphasis is on bringing it to a level of minimum Congress. Many people are upset with me about this.” This effort is necessary, he added, because “we are anti-corruption crusaders. We have come from that standpoint.”

He did not stop at that, though. In another interview, Vishwas seemed favourable to the idea of divesting Kejriwal of some responsibilities within the party since the latter was “a human being with limitations and gets overloaded with work sometimes”. He, of course, denied there was any need to change the AAP national convener, a post that Kejriwal has held ever since the party’s formation in 2012. Vishwas did not also specify what kind of responsibilities Kejriwal should be divested of.

Kejriwal’s response to the series of interviews was quick. In a message posted on his Twitter handle, he wrote, “In the last two days, I spoke to many volunteers and voters. The reality is obvious. Yes, we made mistakes but we will introspect and course correct. Time to go back to drawing board [ sic]. To not evolve would be silly. We owe that to voters and volunteers. We owe that to ourselves. Need is action and not excuses. It’s time to get back to work. And even if we slip from time to time, the key is to find the reserves to hold and pull ourselves up. The people deserve nothing less. The only thing constant is change.”

That statement, however, failed to quell internal friction. Amanatullah Khan, a member of the party’s political affairs committee (PAC) and also an elected member of the Delhi Legislative Assembly, alleged that Vishwas was working at the behest of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). This provoked Kejriwal, who responded sharply, seeking to put a lid on the controversy: “Kumar [Vishwas] is my younger brother. Some people are showing conflict between us, such people are enemies of the party. They should restrain. No one can separate us,” wrote Kejriwal on Twitter. Amanatullah, who persisted with his claims, was asked to resign from the PAC and, on the insistence of Vishwas, was subsequently suspended from the party. A three-member committee was set up to probe his statements against Vishwas.

As these events kept grabbing media attention, rumours of an emerging rift in the AAP flew fast and thick. It was said that one faction was planning to anoint Vishwas as its leader. There was speculation in political circles about a possible “coup” against Kejriwal, and many AAP MLAs supposedly being in touch with the BJP in order to cross over.

While the rumours were doing the rounds, a series of meetings was going on between Vishwas and senior AAP leaders, including Kejriwal, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and PAC member Sanjay Singh. Vishwas’ public statements had caused a churning in the AAP top leadership. Sisodia admitted as much in one of his statements to reporters: “Arvindji is pained that some people are making public statements. On behalf of the PAC, I wish to tell all volunteers and officer bearers that it is not needed for them to make statements. Arvindji, me and all of us do meet, so whoever has any complaint against anyone should refrain from making statements. This hurts the party and volunteers’ morale gets affected.”

He also met Vishwas and asked him to restrain himself, which the latter agreed to do. The inner party tussle ended with Vishwas receiving additional responsibility, ostensibly to prepare the Rajasthan State unit for the Assembly elections that aredue next year. On the same day, Delhi Assembly Speaker and AAP MLA Ram Niwas Goel issued a statement denying rumours that he was going to join the BJP. A lid had been put on the controversies within the AAP, though it appeared like a temporary one.

The BJP, which improved its performance in the municipal elections largely because of the Modi wave, latched on to the instability within the AAP, though it denied attempting to engineer a split in the party. The AAP needs a movement for a change in leadership, said BJP national spokesperson Nalin Kohli. Clearly not a statement that would quell speculation about a possible BJP hand in the tensions within the AAP.

The Congress, which needs to put its own house in order after the poor showing in the elections, was quiet on the controversy. Organisational problems and the lack of a united leadership affected its electoral performance, and these continue to affect the party.

Uncertain future

The AAP’s future plans now appear uncertain. The party had expected a victory in Punjab and, anticipating the momentum it would create for the party, had begun to prepare its units in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand for contesting elections in these States. But Punjab went to the Congress, and now all these expansion plans are in limbo. Its most popular face, Kejriwal, no longer seems to suffice to ensure electoral victory. No other leader in the party is an assured vote earner, either.

A senior PAC member said: “If we have received 26 per cent of the votes [in the Delhi civic elections), the main reason is Arvind Kejriwal. If you remove his name, then we won’t get even that much. This [cult of personality] is part of today’s politics.” While this is indeed true, the limitation of projecting a single personality has been faced by the AAP unusually early.

Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), said: “I think any party which centres around one personality will face difficulty in the long run. With the AAP, it has happened much more quickly than it happens with many other political parties. If you have national ambitions, if you have ambitions to expand, then you have to have a second rank of leadership which you project. So this has been a failure for AAP in this [Delhi civic] election. Also, it didn’t perform very well in Punjab and Goa. But my own sense is that it is too early to completely rule out the party and say that there is no attraction for Arvind Kejriwal as a leader.”

PAC member Ashutosh felt the party organisation, and not Kejriwal’s personality, was at fault. “Every personality cult needs organisational support to grow. A personality cult alone can’t be a winner all the time. Arvind’s personality is like a brand, but to make that brand a success, you need other structural arrangements.” These, he said, were a strong organisation and effective tactics for contesting elections. He felt Modi was an effective brand because “the RSS, the BJP organisation, media power and resources are with him. When the organisation is weak, a personality’s message will be weak and will not spread on the ground.”

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