Many may be waiting to write off the Aam Aadmi Party experiment, but surely it’s too early to pen the obituary of a movement that had so caught the popular imagination. A few seasons awash with scams, and public-spirited individuals all over India responded to the idea of a new politics—clean, transparent, oriented to the general weal. There was a wave of enthusiasm among NRIs, even a flicker of interest in Kashmir, where ‘mainland’ politics scarcely gets a word in. Well-qualified youths quit their jobs to enlist. For a bit, you could be forgiven for thinking the world was changing.
Barely two years after Arvind Kejriwal became the Delhi CM with a mammoth majority behind him, perceptions have undergone a change. If not an obituary, it’s time for a proper performance audit. The quintessential urban white-collared hero with a common touch, Kejriwal rose to power on his pledge to cleanse public life of corruption, and to make governance responsive to actual needs via the participation of local or mohalla sabhas. Free water to the poor, uninterrupted and cheap power, and better health and education facilities—such are the promises that won him 56 per cent votes in 2015.
“It was a party born without a commonality or preparation. It was a collection of leaders. The first rift came among them.”
The first clear evidence that something has soured came in the just concluded MCD elections where AAP bagged just 26 per cent of the votes cast. What explains its rise and decline? The whole ensemble of factors—internal as well as macro-political—makes for an interesting study. Political analysts feel the young party, like others in the past, may have to change to stay relevant as the issues it sought to represent remain important to the common man.
But at this juncture, AAP seems to have lost the connect. A certain credibility gap seems to haunt its actions and words now. For instance, even as the CBI is set to probe corruption charges against Kejriwal, AAP leaders responded with diversionary theatre: an expose of the vulnerability of EVMs to tampering. It’s an issue of wide interest, but a live demo in the Delhi assembly with a dummy EVM failed to get the desired public support. Possibly as it came on the heels of sacked AAP minister Kapil Mishra’s allegation that he had seen Kejriwal accepting Rs 2 crore from his cabinet colleague Satyendra Jain.
To be sure, the party has faced sustained hostility from the traditional parties it deigned to replace. For the BJP, this party represented a real threat as it seemed to hold out a genuine alternative—so it lavished the full force of its artillery against it. For the Congress, it was AAP that finished it off, and it would dole out no favours. Even the media is making amends for its initial over-enthusiasm. Problem is, AAP has not responded with grace to the pressure—tempers seem frayed and testy, dissension is common, and the leadership in turn has retreated more into its fortress.
Dr Sanjay Kumar, director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, cites the fissures in AAP after the poll debacles in Punjab, Goa and in the Delhi local polls; and the behind-the-scenes appeasement of Kumar Vishwas. And with AAP being identified more with Kejriwal, the corruption charge has stung even the believer. “Politics is all about perception. The allegations have been made by a former cabinet colleague, signalling something is wrong, something is happening. There is a huge loss of face,” says Kumar.
Long before he entered politics, Kejriwal, a former Indian Revenue Service officer, had been known for his work in the slum colonies of Delhi through his NGO Parivartan. He had also built a reputation with his RTI activism. With that background, when he joined forces with Anna Hazare, youngsters fired by idealism came forward to lend support both with funds and manpower. With his clear charter of action, Kejriwal’s decision to seek electoral mandate in Delhi found huge support despite Hazare’s scepticism. And yet, despite the flock staying true, something snapped.
C.P. Bhambri, professor emeritus at JNU’s Centre for Political Studies, says while Kejriwal had promised an alternative politics and came with an implicit assurance of never deviating from the path of accountability, what transpired in reality was very different. “It was a party born without any commonality or preparation. Puffed up by the media attention garnered by the Anna movement, they drew wrong conclusions. They thought they had a cause, an ideology and a cadre but all the three were missing,” states Bhambri.
“AAP started acting just like the Chinese Communist Party. That’s why voices of dissent are coming out.”
“They jumped into the electoral fray in 2013 without any preparation. Parties are not born like this. A lot of organisational structure is required,” he adds. “They made a lot of pronouncements but it did not have sustainability as it was only a collection of leaders who emerged on the scene. There was no coherence. The first rift came among the top leaders—Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan versus Kejriwal.”
The Delhi CM emerged victorious in that factional fight to become the sole face of AAP—but the more he seemed to control, the more reduced he actually was. Analysts are of the view that after the 2015 poll, when AAP bagged 67 out of 70 assembly seats in Delhi, Kejriwal drew wrong conclusions without anticipating the full weight of the Modi-led BJP, backed by a strong cadre. So it went on a quixotic, giant-killing exercise that exposed it to counter-hostility while it was yet to solidify at the base.
One reason why AAP could not head off the opposing phalanx: it was getting away from its original approach of seeking popular, democratic consent. Sunil K. Choudhary, director of Delhi University’s Developing Countries Research Centre (DCRC), explains it thus: “It lacks inner democracy where issues could be discussed, deliberated and decided. This leads to authoritarianism; in this case, the decisions rest with just one individual,” says Choudhary. “A party’s sustenance is based on internal democracy. Important people like Yogendra Yadav, who had structured the organisation, found themselves eased out of key positions and removed arbitrarily. AAP started acting just like the Chinese Communist Party, where just one individual decides the fate and destiny of the party…. This could be the reason why voices of dissent are coming out.”
Among the four categories of political parties—based on ideology (pan-India in locus and focus like Congress, BJP, the Left parties), issues (corruption, environment), individuals (like Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party) and sectoral interest (caste, regional, linguistic or community), AAP can be classified in the category of issue-based political parties.
Though it spoke exclusively to the need for clean governance initially, AAP has over the last couple of years started feeling the drag of having to expand its ambit—of negotiating complex social and political forces. After the media honeymoon ended, also of playing a non-author-backed role, swimming against the tide. Kejriwal, as a public figure, seemed to lose the natural sense of conviction he exuded in his earlier days, his infectious aam admi joie de vivre.
Akin to AAP’s origin, V.P Singh had quit the Congress in 1987 to form the Jan Morcha on the plank of corruption. However, in 1988, it joined hands with the Janata Party, Lok Dal and Congress (S) to form the Janata Dal; its lasting legacy was a social policy—Mandal. “That was not a party of new people…parties joined hands against Rajiv Gandhi,” points out Kumar. An echo of how the original Janata coalesced post-Emergency. Diverse political impulses were pre-woven into that fabric.
JNU professor Sudha Pai says unlike the Janata experiments, where a common cause united parties, AAP emerged out of a civil society movement to push for a Lokpal Bill, to fight corruption and seek accountability in government. “Its main aim appears to have been to gain power, which they did through varied promises. But once they gained power, they never got out of the oppositional, civil society mode. They went into the wrong kinds of issues instead of settling down,” says Pai. “They have lacked the efficiency and capability to carry things through. Even the odd/even scheme to tackle pollution failed. They have been in a constant mode of contradiction, confrontation and conflict, whether with the L-G or the central government.”
Dr V. Krishna Ananth, associate professor at the Sikkim University, says in its initial resounding success AAP recalls Asom Gana Parishad and the Telugu Desam Party. Where the AAP experiment did not live up to expectations was the absence of democratic norms where one would have expected it.
“In a democratic polity, if only cadre and such things were important, so many parties may have occupied that space. The Communist Party of the ’50s and ’60s—there were squeaky-clean politicians who couldn’t do anything. It had a wonderful cadre-based organisation yet could not reach anywhere. For that matter, the Socialist Party of the ’50s and ’60s, with great leaders like Lohia who served India so well…the party could not reach anywhere. AAP too, for me, was an experiment—a bus shelter which had all kinds of people coming in, both to take a bus and some to seek shelter when it rained,” says Ananth. Was it prudent to allow in everyone under its umbrella? Or should it have remained true to its identity and vetted entrants? That question is relevant, given its selection of candidates.
Another question, a tactical one. Did it spread itself too thin electorally instead of consolidating? Based on studies of voting patterns, Kumar says around 60 per cent of voters are influenced by the party, around 25 per cent go by the party leader, the remaining vote on the basis of other considerations—candidate, caste and local issues. There seems to be unanimity among analysts that the essence may survive, though maybe not in its present form. Or there will come other groups promising good, clean governance.