Writing obituaries of political parties can be a hazardous business. In July 2014, an international publication invited me to write an article on the political demise of AAP. This was a few weeks after Narendra Modi had stormed to victory in the general elections and AAP looked like a start-up, which had run out of steam. I was writing a book at the time, so declined the offer. Just as well because a little over six months later, AAP scored a stunning win in the Delhi elections. The doomsday pundits had been proven wrong.
Now, in the monsoon of 2016, the epitaph of AAP is being written. The last few months have given the impression that the AAP experiment is unraveling and the party is struggling to take the great leap forward. A minister has been caught in a sex CD, making him the third minister in the Delhi government who has been forced to resign. Twenty one AAP MLAs are facing possible disqualification under the office of profit rules. The party’s Punjab convener has been sacked after being accused of asking for money in a sting that smacks of inner party feuds. The Delhi high court has ruled that Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung is the supreme authority in the city-state, reducing the state administration to a marginal role. And cricketer-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu has backed out from supporting AAP in Punjab, choosing instead to form a fourth front.
Even Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s pre-eminent face, now finds his style of functioning under scrutiny. When Sidhu chose to go public with his decision, he lashed out at Kejriwal, accusing him of being an ‘insecure’ dictator. Sidhu’s rants maybe those of a political maverick who has been denied a larger slice of the power cake, but they echo the accusations made by the likes of party co-founders Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav when they were shown the door. The charge of a high command culture and a coterie around Kejriwal appear similar to those which the party has made against its rivals. To that extent, while claiming to be a party with a difference, AAP has been unable to rise above the prevailing political culture that is marked by faction fighting and the “supremo” cult.
The supporters of AAP claim that their leadership has been targeted by a hostile ruling establishment and even a section of the media, which is aligned to the political-corporate duopoly. Some of the claims are justified: The government in Delhi has found itself in the crosshairs of the Centre too often for it to be dismissed as a coincidence. And yet, AAP must also realise that the politics of accusation, which it unleashed against the ruling class in 2011 as part of the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement, has now created a political atmosphere where there is a growing public revulsion against netas. If you point one finger at others, they will do the same to you. The media, which initially propelled AAP’s rise, is also a double-edged sword: The disproportionate publicity the party received initially is now matched by exaggerated criticism.
Clearly, the party’s idealism that often appeared to treat politics like a moral science lesson is now behind it: Many of its members suffer from the same weaknesses as the other parties. The party may well claim that it has acted against the errant MLAs and ministers, but a post-facto action begs the question of the manner in which tickets were distributed. With AAP falling off its high moral perch, a certain middle class disillusionment has set in: Kejriwal is no longer the icon of the class that embraced him during the Anna movement.
The romantic allure of a ‘people’s party’ is over and the spirit of voluntarism has been replaced by realpolitik where winning elections matters more than creating an organisational and ideological cohesiveness, one reason perhaps why AAP has been unable to attract a wider pool of talent.
And yet, there is a class which goes beyond India A+ and India A (for argument’s sake, India A+ is those earning more than a lakh a month while India A are those earning more than ₹40,000 per month) for whom Kejriwal and AAP still symbolise hope for a more equitable share in resources. It is in India B, C and beyond (many of whom live on the margins) where the idea of AAP still resonates powerfully. This vast socio-economic group has received no tangible benefits despite the Modi government’s promise of ‘acche din’: Their frustrations make them an attractive catchment area for AAP, especially in states with large urban populations.
The fact that Kejriwal has been courageous enough to raise issues that no other political leader dares to touch has somewhat preserved his original image as an anti-establishment crusader. As long as Kejriwal remains the ‘outsider’, he still has a chance of expanding his base. But AAP 2.0 cannot win elections only by being in a state of permanent conflict with the ‘big, bad’ Goliaths: The party will have to offer wholesome governance alternative that goes beyond anti-corruption slogans.
How about starting with tackling dengue and chikungunya in Delhi on a war footing rather than get into a no-win battle with the L-G?
Post-script: Kejriwal has taken to Twitter to attack journalists who have been critical of his government as middle-men and Modi spokespersons. He maybe angry with media biases but when anger turns into paranoia, then it is a potential route to self-destruction.