Just over an year ago, a new political outfit calling itself Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) appeared in Delhi basically out of nowhere. It consisted of a handful of well-known intellectuals, advocates and activists. They announced that they wished to engage with electoral politics in an attempt to change the very political culture in India. Broadly speaking, such proclamations typically accompany the arrival of every new outfit: no one enters electoral politics by claiming to grab power to loot the country and fool the people. Yet, in AAP’s case, the routine proclamation carried much credibility due to the reputation and the initial gestures of the persons involved.
This is not the occasion to write a short history of AAP (I sincerely a hope a complete history, following an obituary, will not be required in a hurry). It is enough to note that AAP endeared itself to large sections of the people of Delhi in a very short time as its volunteers spread to the nooks and corners of Delhi, especially visiting the habitats of the poor and the marginalised. Again, there is nothing particularly novel and noble about the basic strategy. Every new political outfit begins its journey from the realms of the poor since closely-guarded elite spaces remain occupied by the existing outfits. BJP is what it is today because of the commendable hard work put up by the cadres of RSS in slums and villages for decades. Hitler’s Nazi movement emerged from the ghettos of the working class, not from corporate headquarters.
Still, the subalterns of Delhi were understandably impressed because, subjected to the oligarchies of Congress and BJP for decades (and the virtual disappearance of Bahujan Samaj Party), they had no memory of participating directly in a social movement related to their destiny; no one had come to them in recent years with stretched arms of solidarity. As people always do, they returned the favour lavishly in the assembly elections of December 2013 by electing 28 candidates from AAP with a vote share of 29%. Since there was massive anti-incumbency after 15 years of Congress rule, that party was reduced to just 8 seats; BJP secured 32 seats in an assembly of 70 seats with a vote-share of 34%. Although AAP’s emergence was spectacular given the short time and the palpable lack of resources, the fact remained that it fell short of simple majority by 8 seats, exactly the number won by Congress.
As BJP failed to form the government, the question arose as to whether AAP should form the government with some form of support from Congress. Since its basic fight was directed against the corrupt Congress rule, at first the AAP took the principled stand of not forming a minority government with outside Congress support. Soon, however, a strong popular demand arose (fanned in part by the sulking BJP) in support of forming the government. In an unprecedented democratic gesture, AAP took the issue directly and literally to the people by holding many hundreds of mohalla sabhas across Delhi to seek the people’s opinion. When the people gave overwhelming support to the idea, AAP reversed its earlier decision and formed the government with outside support from Congress. Its supreme leader Arvind Kejriwal became the Chief Minister of Delhi.
This verdict of the people in the context of the seat-distribution in the current assembly still holds.
However, after 49 days of turbulent but largely successful governance, AAP decided to quit office on, in my view, the flimsy issue of their failure to pass a seriously problematic Jan Lokepal Bill. I set aside the details of this issue. My basic point is that, in taking this momentous decision, AAP never took the issue back to the people. It is not even clear if the decision was democratically cleared by the thousands of grassroots volunteers who had worked hard for months to ensure AAP’s electoral victory. This decision was reached essentially by a small coterie, euphemistically called the Political Affairs Committee (PAC).
The same coterie decided to open its doors and ‘go’ national for the ensuing general elections. It selected 427 candidates across the country, including Arvind Kejriwal himself for Varanasi where the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was also a candidate. It nominated a trusted hand of Kejriwal, a poet called Kumar Vishwas, as the candidate for the Amethi seat in UP where Rahul Gandhi was the candidate for Congress. Among its 427 candidates, it roped in a handful of distinguished activists such as Medha Patkar to broaden its ‘platform’.
It is very difficult to dispel the impression that the decision to quit the government in Delhi and go national with 427 candidates was based on two expectations: (a) the verdict for the Parliament was going to be highly fractured with no single party or alliance securing absolute majority, and (b) AAP may secure nearly 100 seats following the general euphoria after the stunning victory in Delhi and almost saturation coverage by the corporate media. If these two expectations held, there was a high chance that Arvind Kejriwal could have been catapulted into prime ministership within an year of his entrance into electoral politics! Thus, by demitting office, Kejriwal and his colleagues became unfettered to jump into the electoral fray once again.
As a matter of fact, AAP did receive nearly 11% of all media coverage—third only after BJP and Congress—in its electoral campaign. Much of the corporate media also projected Arvind Kejriwal as the second best choice, after Narendra Modi, for the prime ministership of India. Unfortunately, I have no space here for examining these, to my mind, ‘disturbing’ facts about the role of the media in building up the image of AAP, especially its supreme commander Arvind Kejriwal.
The rest is history. AAP won, curiously, 4 seats from Punjab, period. It lost all 7 seats in Delhi; it won only in 10 out of 70 assembly segments of these seats. Kejriwal lost by 3.5 lakh votes in Varanasi, Kumar Vishwas lost his deposit by miles. Everyone else—over 400 out of 427—lost deposits, including important activists, corporate CEOs, film actors, journalists, and the like. Despite massive media coverage, wide national and international attention, high-profile candidates, expert propaganda management with the latest IT tools, and not insignificant amount of donations, AAP managed just 2% of popular votes. Over half of this share accumulated from 20 seats in Delhi and Punjab; the rest of the 407 seats secured just about 50 lakh votes in all, most of them as low as 3000-5000 in a constituency. It was a widespread disaster.
Why was AAP so comprehensively rejected in the rest of the country? A full analysis will have to wait but the defeat of Medha Patkar in North-East Mumbai is a significant pointer (personally, I was much saddened and then angered by this defeat). Patkar is perhaps AAP’s most respected face. She is internationally acclaimed as a wonderful fighter for people’s causes for nearly four decades. She had actually worked for long in the slums of North-East Mumbai in solidarity with people. Her campaign was sharp and vigorous and was well-covered by the media. Yet, she lost her deposit. Unless contrary evidence is offered, it seems that people did not take AAP seriously and Patkar, though respected, was treated as a singular phenomenon. There are basic structural problems with AAP’s very (elitist) idea of how electoral democracy works.
All this happened while the Delhi assembly was kept in suspense by the Lieutenant Governor, and the people of Delhi just watched. It is important to emphasise that in this vast country, despite all the media attention, AAP had won just 28 seats in a minor state with a vote share of just 29% before it decided to embark on a national scale. And this very modest initial success was entirely due to the warm support given by the people of Delhi who were completely ignored in the heady proceedings that followed. As they focused on high-profile seats in Varanasi, Amethi, Amritsar, Chandigarh, etc. (each of which they lost heavily), AAP leaders hardly campaigned in Delhi and took the people of Delhi for granted.
Most commentators think of it as a practical problem—lack of preparatory time, resources, etc. I think it is a serious moral-political issue amounting to a betrayal of the trust of the people. However, by now it is questionable whether sound moral principles guide the actions of AAP anymore. So, let’s turn to the practical side as it currently obtains for AAP. Right now, AAP is faced with the following problems.
First, with the Bharatiya Janata Party obtaining an absolute majority of its own in the Parliament, the issue of corruption is basically out of AAP’s hands. BJP has been successful in using this issue as a principal electoral plank such that from now on people are going to listen to BJP on this issue. By the time the demon of corruption catches up with the BJP government, AAP will be long gone.
Second, it will be difficult for the lieutenant governor in Delhi to delay the issue of assembly elections any further with the BJP with its 32 MLAs breathing down his neck. And the moment he recommends it, the BJP-controlled centre will implement it. If the elections are held within the next two or three months, BJP will win 60-10, as the Lok Sabha polls brought out. AAP will be electorally wiped out from its very base. This will happen for two reasons: (i) it is well known that a massive victory in the parliamentary seats of a state is typically followed by a big victory in the assembly elections in that state for obvious reasons; (ii) although AAP’s vote-share in Delhi has improved marginally to 33%, it is now far behind BJP’s 45% due to the near-decimation of Congress. In all probability, AAP will not be able to retain even this much vote-share if Delhi voters are subjected to a third election in just six months.
Third, since AAP’s own MLAs are no fools, they know the above. That’s why some of them are openly eager to avoid elections; they want the leadership to form a government once again. We know very well the social base of most of these MLAs; they cannot continue to be comfortable with their suspended state for long. If AAP delays the formation of government any longer on dubious ideological grounds (no trucks with corrupt Congress etc.), 10 MLAs or more will break away and join BJP on the very plausible ground that it is unfair to burden citizens of Delhi with another election (and BJP has promised to be firm on corruption anyway). Who knows what’s going to happen to the four MPs from Punjab that AAP has in the Parliament? How long will they be able to resist incessant enticements alone if AAP collapses in Delhi?
Hence, it is in AAP’s immediate political interest to avoid the elections so that it can begin to reassess its political priorities and make an attempt to emerge out of the current pit where they have sunk due to their political arrogance. That is precisely why BJP does not want to give AAP the time to settle down; it knows well that one more election and AAP is finished. And the only way AAP can stall BJP’s strategy is to form a government in Delhi again with some form of support, preferably a full-fledged alliance, from Congress. As argued, this is not only the only practical route of survival for AAP, it is also the morally valid one in consonance with the will of the people of Delhi.
The ‘ideological’ argument that such an alliance will sully AAP’s anti-Congress image is squarely invalid due to its own recent history. If it is politically incorrect for AAP now to ally with a near-decimated Congress which has lost its fangs, how was it politically correct to ally with Congress de facto in December — notwithstanding words and postures denying any alliance—when it still held power both at the centre and the state? More importantly, it was this alliance that was ratified by the people, and, insofar as Delhi is concerned, the moral-political scenario remains the same.
Well, from another direction, things are no longer the same. As I am writing this I can hear diabolic diatribes emanating from an alleged mass murderer in the hallowed central hall of Parliament, right in front of the large portrait of the Mahatma. By forming an alliance with Congress to govern the state of Delhi, AAP will be able to stall the civilisational danger to Indian democracy at least in one prominent space for five years, right next door to where the devil has found its place. Vicissitudes of contemporary history has given AAP this singular opportunity to try to protect at least the people of Delhi with state power. This is AAP’s last chance.
Nirmalangshu Mukherji teaches in Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi