Its image dented, and spread too thin, Aam Aadmi Party struggles in Delhi

Can AAP repeat its Delhi Assembly success?


The Aam Aadmi Party may be contesting the Lok Sabha elections from more than 400 seats across the country but none is more important than the seven in the national capital.

It was here that AAP made political history by forming Delhi’s first government by a debutant party under the leadership of Arvind Kejriwal. Many called it an aberration, but for AAP, a repeat in 2014 of the assembly polls performance — they won 28 of 70 seats — will determine the party’s credibility in the years to come.

“We have not had as much time to prepare as we did for the Delhi assembly elections. However, our candidates were declared before others and most senior leaders have campaigned here several times. For us, three of Delhi’s seven seats will consolidate our position as a force to reckon with,” a senior leader said.

Sources in AAP said their own internal assessments showed they were “competing” in all seven LS seats. “We believe we are ahead in New Delhi (Ashish Khetan), West Delhi (Jarnail Singh) North West Delhi (Rakhi Birla) and East Delhi (Rajmohan Gandhi),” a senior leader said.

In the last three months, AAP has not remained unaffected by infighting, rebellion and attrition. Moreover, their controversial 49-day term in government, at the end of which Kejriwal dramatically resigned over the Jan Lokpal Bill, has left the party combating its own anti-incumbency.

Faced with a national campaign where the party has little chance of forming its own government at the centre, AAP has had to engage with politics revolving around caste, community and religion. And has found itself confronted with the problem of what to promise the electorate.

“In the Assembly elections where we were confident that we would form the government, we had more tangible promises to make. In our Assembly manifesto, we promised free water, a reduction in power tariffs, the Jan Lokpal and Swaraj Bills, and showed that we were serious in attempting to fulfill them all despite only being in power for 49 days,” a senior AAP leader said.

“But on this occasion, while our manifesto promises things on the national stage, our speeches revolve around presenting ourselves as a viable secular option to the BJP, and taking up that space. Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to take on Narendra Modi is symbolic in that respect,” the leader said.

And unlike the Assembly elections, where AAP appealed to a “disenchanted” middle-class, the party has modified its strategy. “Then, we were a novelty and appealed to anybody who listened, but this time around the middle classes favour the BJP so we have focused on Muslims, Dalits and Sikhs in Delhi,” the senior leader said.

Muslims form a fair share of the vote in East Delhi and Chandni Chowk, while Sikhs can influence the outcome in West Delhi and Dalits hold sway in North West Delhi. And with the Congress on the defensive as it faces strong anti-incumbency, AAP has been quick to fill the “secular” vacuum the Congress has left.

Rendered almost politically irrelevant after the Delhi Assembly polls – the Congress managed just 8 of 70 seats – the party hopes to recover a semblance of pride in 2014. However, with anti-incumbency considered a major factor, the Congress has pinned its hopes on the strength of individual candidates and thus renominated all seven MPs. So much so that none of the Congress candidates have invoked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or any others from his council of ministers.

And for the BJP, campaigning has never been easier.

“All we are doing is promoting good governance through Narendra Modi. The people here are tired of the Congress and irritated with AAP’s holier than thou attitude, particularly after their antics while in government. All our candidates have been asked to take Modi’s message to the people and we are confident of winning at least six seats in Delhi,” a senior BJP leader said.

Chandni Chowk will witness perhaps one of Delhi’s keenest contests. AAP has made a strong pitch to the Muslim voter here, aware that incumbent MP Kapil Sibal faces flak for paying more attention to the government than his own constituency.

They face a difficult opponent in the BJP’s Harsh Vardhan who is acceptable to Muslims given his moderate image. Therefore, it could be the Dalits with around 12 per cent of the vote who may decide the winner.

If the Muslims and Dalits are the key to Chandni Chowk, Sikhs and Purvanchalis hold sway in West Delhi, which pits Congress incumbent Mahabal Mishra against the BJP’s Pravesh Saheb Singh and AAP’s Jarnail Singh. While Mishra and Singh have sought to woo Jats and Purvanchalis alike, despite their efforts, AAP – which announced an SIT into the 1984 anti-Sikh riots – may have captured the imagination of the community.

Burdened with anti-incumbency, the Congress has pinned its hopes on individual efforts. Take North East Delhi, where former Delhi Congress chief J P Aggarwal battles for political relevance. Up against the BJP’s Manoj Tiwari – a Bhojpuri actor and singer – and AAP’s Anand Kumar, a JNU professor, the Congress hopes to cash in on Aggarwal’s connect with his voters over the last five years.

While Sibal, Krishna Tirath and Ajay Maken have had little to do in their constituencies, sources in the Congress claim Aggarwal has maintained a rapport with his electorate.

But it is in South Delhi’s mixed urban and rural electorate that the Congress lags. Incumbent Ramesh Kumar – also Sajjan Kumar’s brother – has thus far run a campaign modeled on the UPA’s achievements against the BJP’s Ramesh Bidhuri, who seeks to take advantage of the Gurjar community and AAP’s Col. Devendra Sehrawat.

In New Delhi though, the mix is of another kind, abound with Delhi’s elite, whether political, corporate or bureaucratic, as well as traders, and ironically, a fair percentage of the urban poor.

Here, Ashish Khetan will look to build on massive gains made by AAP’s New Delhi MLA Arvind Kejriwal, in a Lok Sabha constituency where AAP had seven of 10 Assembly segments. In his way are two political heavyweights in the Congress’ incumbent Ajay Maken, who still appeals to a core segment of his constituency, and the BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi, considered a rank outsider even by the local unit of her own party.

Like the BJP’s other candidates, Lekhi is basing her campaign on the perceived popularity of Modi.

Far from some of the toniest parts of town in New Delhi, the North West seat, Delhi’s only reserved constituency, will see a clash of Dalit leaders from the three principal parties. Two of the three candidates here are women, both however with contrasting profiles.

If Union minister Krishna Tirath, a political veteran, faces anger for her absence in the constituency, Rakhi Birla, is seen as AAP’s Dalit face. The BJP has relied on another outsider in Udit Raj, a vocal opponent of the anti-reservation movement, to gain traction among Dalit voters.

It is perhaps in East Delhi where the Congress hopes to recover some measure of pride where former chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s son Sandeep battles the BJP’s third newcomer, Maheish Girri, and AAP’s Rajmohan Gandhi, who invokes family of his own in his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi.

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