On the day the exit polls for the Delhi municipal elections were predicting a BJP landslide, AAP spokespersons were in a defiant mood, blaming the EVMs for a looming defeat. But how can you blame an exit poll for potential tampering of an EVM since the pollster is sampling voters, not the machine, I asked? The AAP representative paused and then blurted out: “Sab mile hue hai’. Conspiracy theories abound in India but by blaming EVMs for their debacle, AAP runs the risk of deepening its credibility crisis.
Truth is, rather than throw up unproven EVM conspiracy theories, the AAP leadership needs a reality check: Why is the middle class in particular feeling let down by a party it supported so overwhelmingly just two years ago? If even the extravagant promise of waiving house tax didn’t cut ice with the voter in middle-income colonies, then it clearly suggests a widening trust deficit. It was the middle class, after all, that had embraced AAP in its original avatar as an offshoot of the Lokpal movement, as an idealistic force driven by moral power.
When Arvind Kejriwal was given a second chance by the Delhi electorate in 2015 it was premised on the hope that he would genuinely provide an alternative political culture to the ‘corrupted’ mainstream national parties and their powerful backers. ‘Hope’ is an idea that stitches together dreams: For the salaried middle class, ‘hope’ makes life worth living. When hope is killed, it translates, first into disappointment, and then anger.
Instead of providing wholesome governance, AAP saw its USP in confronting the Narendra Modi government and Modi in particular, a kind of David versus Goliath battle, which AAP as the quintessential ‘outsider’ revelled in. While the Centre has been openly and often unjustly hostile to AAP’s emergence, when a combative attitude becomes an end in itself, it only breeds negativism. You can be anti-establishment as an oppositional, activist force challenging the status quo; you can’t survive on accusatory politics once in government.
While efforts like the mohalla clinics and school education reforms were welcome steps in the right direction, the good work being done was overshadowed by the noise created over Kejriwal’s repeated run-ins with the L-G, the Centre, and former colleagues Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. The optics were clearly wrong: Far from building a bottom-up political structure based on a spirit of voluntarism, Kejriwal was perceived as being his own high command: A small coterie seemed to replace the thousands of volunteers who had helped create the AAP phenomenon in the first place.
The raw courage Kejriwal had shown in taking on traditional elites was now seen as self-righteous conceit and the same media which had once glorified him was now looking to pull him down.
Perhaps the scale of AAP’s victory in 2015 along with the failure of the Opposition to throw up a strong alternative to Modi, convinced Kejriwal that he could fill the national leadership vacuum. In the process, he made the strategic mistake of many an ambitious start-up: Attempting to expand without consolidating first. The move into Punjab and Goa only sent out the message that AAP was taking its Delhi voters for granted.
By contrast, the BJP seemed to sense the voter mood astutely.
Corruption has been endemic to civic bodies with many councillors becoming crorepatis overnight: For 10 years, the BJP was seen to have presided over an ineffectual and corrupt local body. But by denying tickets to all its sitting councillors and revolving the campaign around Brand Modi, the BJP changed the narrative. The promise of a ‘new BJP’ was seductive to urban voters still mesmerised by the Modi charisma. The same middle class that cheered Kejriwal when he exposed the Congress appeared reluctant to endorse him when he challenged Modi, a leader who has cleverly appropriated the pro-poor, anti-corruption plank post-demonetisation.
Ironically, it is the BJP’s obsessive Modi-centric approach that provides parties like AAP another opportunity for course correction.
The opportunity lies in raising citizen’s issues even where the electoral benefit may not be immediately apparent but where a sense of people connect is restored. The next time, for example, there is a dengue or chikungunya outbreak, AAP must offer an imaginative alternative solution rather than cruelly blame ‘divine intervention’ and the BJP for the mosquito menace. Why not spearhead a volunteer-driven mass awareness campaign on the state of public health and sanitation in the capital?
To rediscover itself, AAP must go back to its original identity built during the anti-corruption Anna agitation: A public spirited movement that becomes the voice of those who feel desperately powerless in the India of today.