The Aam Aadmi Party’s victory certainly makes a dent in the image of the BJP in 2020. There are celebrations by opponents of the national party but there are also critiques on offer by those who would like AAP to be more committed to the goal of transforming politics as opposed to just succeeding at it. Commentary has also followed Arvind Kejriwal invoking Bharat Mata on victory day and reciting the Hanuman Chalisa in a TV interview. To paraphrase a TV studio debate, Kejriwal is now Modi-lite and AAP offers us “non-toxic” Hindutva. According to this version, although Kejriwal and AAP defeated the BJP, the BJP won anyhow and Narendra Modi of course always wins, in this instance by transforming Kejriwal!
First, the sheer lack of knowledge about the history of AAP is on display here. At a time when Modi was still in Gujarat, Kejriwal was leading a mass movement in Delhi whose main iconography was a large image of Bharat Mata. He was then accused of being an RSS agent (a question this writer asked him at the time). AAP was born out of the social churn that began in many parts of India with what is now known as the Anna Movement in 2011. Essentially an anti-corruption movement it would decimate the Congress, then in power at the Centre. It was the brainchild of Kejriwal who brought together figures such as Gandhian Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev plus Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (both now staunch backers of the BJP) to kick-start the movement.
The language, idiom and grammar of the Anna movement were replete with symbols such as Bharat Mata, Shivaji, and bhajans were always being belted out at Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan. At the same time it was also an ideological mishmash where slogans of Inquilab Zindabad were shouted alongside Vande Mataram. In the 2020 campaign, Kejriwal invoking Hanuman and Bharat Mata in his victory speech can also be seen as part of this continuum. As an AAP insider quips: Hanuman also burnt Lanka while rescuing Sita!
According to AAP analysis, committed BJP voters stayed with the national party, while AAP got some more of the collapsing Congress vote. What they also got is the floating vote of Delhi that supports BJP and Modi for national elections and Kejriwal in the state. The positioning in the midst of a pitched campaign was arguably about signaling to that floating voter. But in doing so, Kejriwal was also positioning himself as the “Good Hindu” who worships in his temple and invokes his god even as he sets out to serve people and keep society united. This is in opposition to the “Bad Hindu” who uses religion to terrify people and divide society. What Kejriwal did do, however, is make a display of personal faith in the public sphere and there can be valid critiques of that.
However, the quick presumption that in doing so, Kejriwal has betrayed the city’s 12 per cent Muslim community who voted for AAP with their hands and feet is specious. First, Muslims want to survive in a changing republic and want all the benefits of welfare schemes and subsidies that AAP has delivered in their areas. Step off the metro station at Shaheen Bagh and one will see a mohalla clinic, while the conversation in the tea-shop across the road is about the improvement in the local government school. Kejriwal displaying an overt religiosity could be a problem for many liberal commentators, but may not be a real issue with the average Muslim who can also be a traditionalist. Besides, Muslims are well aware that AAP has opposed the CAA in Parliament and even the party’s distancing from Shaheen Bagh protests was not a significant factor as it is a citizen’s protest. Kejriwal did not campaign in Muslim areas; the reason being offered is that he was avoiding localities where protests were taking place, in order to avoid giving a chance to BJP’s loyal media to engage him in a Hindu vs Muslim debate.
Cosmetic secularism is not what minorities are interested in; besieged as they are, they are not waiting for Kejriwal to wear a skull cap and pose with the clergy. But they are looking for stronger articulation from the re-elected Delhi government against CAA/NRC/NPR. That is something that could also sit well with the many first-generation migrants that still make up the largest chunk of AAP volunteers and its most loyal voters.
In both 2015 and 2020, AAP won across the economic divide but its support was huge among the poorer sections of Delhi—the Purvanchali migrants and Dalits, in some cases both interchangeable. The social pyramid that supports AAP is actually the opposite of the BJP’s that has stronger support among the middle classes and rich, while more disadvantaged sections of society are not enamoured of the national party. Indeed, Kejriwal has always been clear that AAP is essentially a party that caters to the needs of the urban poor even as it depicts the BJP as a party catering to the rich and corporate interests. Yet Kejriwal is also seen as a middle-class change agent, a graduate of IIT and the civil services, who became an award-winning activist for public causes before transiting fulltime to politics.
The question being asked now is: Can Kejriwal go national? One must note that this question is not asked of regional leaders in the South or the East who win consecutive terms in states that are larger than Delhi. But it is asked of this chief minister of this tiny state with limited powers because he is a leader from the Hindi belt with a high media profile who is not identified with any caste or region. Besides, Kejriwal has won two David vs Goliath battles and that makes him a hero across India.
At the same time, AAP has also changed in the five years since it first stormed into power in Delhi. From being a party of activists, AAP has also become a pragmatic political force that now works with traditional politicians, some with criminal cases, who were given tickets to contest in Delhi. Kejriwal also brought in Prashant Kishor, the smart and efficient election manager and political analyst, who had 450 people working in his team to constantly poll the mood in Delhi and respond accordingly. But the core people around Kejriwal still remain deputy CM Manish Sisodia, known for his pioneering work in education, and individuals drawn from the volunteer model of politics.
AAP would be very cautious in making moves outside Delhi as it has burnt its fingers in the past. Indeed, Kejriwal transformed from being brash and impetuous after an experience in Punjab in 2017. Then the party first seemed all set to win the assembly elections, when it suddenly lost the momentum towards the end and the Congress won (Kishor was then working with current chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh). AAP could have learnt that a negative campaign threatening to put all the Akali leaders into jail (they were ruling the state) may not work. They may have learnt that positive messaging is needed at times, besides finding a local face to project as leader.
The overdependence on Kejriwal is indeed similar to the BJP’s dependence on Modi, although the scales of operation are entirely different. If AAP were to grow nationally, it would need to develop a credible local leadership and not rely on Kejriwal to be the face everywhere, as the BJP now does with Modi. But what AAP can certainly do is to amplify the messaging around its governance models in the national capital of the world’s largest democracy: a Delhi model versus the Gujarat model? The latter has failed to increase human development indices at the national level.
From its founding in November 2012, AAP has been unusual in its ideological positioning, combining notions of patriotism and public service with measures and solutions that are radical. It can therefore be all things to all people. It is a party that consists essentially of doers, such as the core team around Kejriwal that has implemented successful measures that critics call “freebies” and AAP says entitlements.
Describing Kejriwal as Modi-lite is both unfair and inaccurate. Modi took control of an existing party; he did not invent a new party and then break into politics. Kejriwal created the Anna movement and then founded AAP. He broke into politics and smashed the BJP juggernaut twice. He certainly has a national profile, but is yet to have the organisation to match it.
(Views are personal.)
By Saba Naqvi senior journalist and author