Two years after its massive electoral victory, the Aam Aadmi Party is facing a critical test this week when Delhi votes for municipal elections. Given its huge majority in the assembly, even if it manages to win with a slender margin, that would appear tame and, certainly, failure to win a majority would pose new problems for the party beleaguered by the recent setback in a Delhi by-poll and a lacklustre showing in Punjab and Goa. But beyond the routine electoral ups and downs, why do we need to take the AAP’s fortunes in the coming municipal elections seriously?
The party emerged from the anti-corruption agitation of 2011. However, corruption cannot become an issue for sustained mobilisation or for running a party. So, as an “anti-corruption” party, the AAP had a flawed formation. Yet, the AAP deserves to be looked at seriously because the party did not address any particular social section, nor did it rely on regional sentiment. In this sense, it was an important experiment — it was a party without the trappings of being a caste or regionalist party. It also aimed at being an all-India party, rather than confining itself to one state. So, the AAP could rupture both the neat dichotomy of parties into all-India and state-based parties and the monotony of bipolarity regulated by the “all-India” players.
The only other party that came to close to achieving this was the BSP. Its social constituency of Dalits and its ambition to build bridges with “bahujans” qualified the party to become at least a “multi-state” party when it began to spread to Delhi, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and so on. But the decision to focus on Uttar Pradesh and the inability to broadbase the party’s following even to the larger Dalit community have reduced it to only a state-level player in UP. Today, the party system in India has arrived at a turning point: The so-called all-India left parties have ceased to be truly pan-Indian. At most, they are relevant in only a few states. And the Congress, which boasts of being an all-India party with a long history, is on the verge of losing its all-India character.
Entering the party political arena and crossing the threshold of relevance has never been easy in India’s democratic politics. The success stories are often confined to “caste parties” or regionalist parties. That is why we often have scores of parties desperately wanting to “make it” in politics, but they remain like the unnoticed “extras” in a star-studded Bollywood set-up. The real show is carried on by the handful of parties who have already crossed the threshold.
Even after the 1990s, when the Lok Sabha began to have more than 30 parties represented in the House and coalition governments had more than 10 parties sharing power, not many parties had the capacity to rupture the nature of political competition at the all-India level in the real sense. Their role and fame depended on the contingencies of hung legislatures, rather than real popular support and the ability to mobilise the masses. Besides, no party since the advent of the BSP has even nursed the ambition seriously to expand beyond one state or beyond one social section.
Given that the Congress and the BJP together often poll not more than 50 to 55 per cent votes, a large segment of voters would be available for mobilisation. Further assuming that there is no such thing as a parochial voter who wants only to vote for a regionalist or a caste party, this segment should be the natural constituency for any new entrant. One could say that, theoretically, this was the assumption behind the formation of the AAP, particularly in the context of the Congress vacating space and the expectation that a new political entrant could likely take over that space. Its Delhi victories — both the truncated victory of 2013 and the decisive one in 2015 — signified that this could become a real possibility. How did the AAP live up to this possibility?
The AAP slipped up on two key fronts. Almost as if it were a legatee of the Socialist or Janata Dal politics, the party got involved in bitter internal bickering and a personality cult. The purge effected by Arvind Kejriwal pushed away many small popular agitation groups willing to participate in the new experiment of party politics. The novelty of the AAP was not so much in its naïve anti-corruption rhetoric, it lay in the attraction it held for mass movements which were now willing to engage with party politics. It lost on that front.
Once that true novelty was lost, the party’s ability to focus on mobilisation got adversely affected. Since then, the AAP has attempted to project itself as a possible node around which a new anti-BJP politics can shape. Ever since it won Delhi two years ago, the AAP has attempted to position itself as a giant killer and as the chief Modi-baiter party — mostly through press statements and social media posts. Kejriwal also sought to establish linkages with the JD(U) in Bihar and the TMC in West Bengal.
More importantly, in the last two years, the AAP has not attempted even in a single state to engage in sustained mobilisations on any issue. Even in Punjab, where the party created quite a hype, it sought to rely mainly on creating impressions and depended on high rhetoric, losing the opportunity to shape new grounds for struggles. Instead of engaging in any sustained mobilisation anywhere in the country on any issue of common interest, and instead of serious party-building almost anywhere, the party’s leadership sought to entrench itself in the usual intrigues of apex coalitions.
Meteoric rise is not unknown in politics, but politics is more about sustained groundwork. Whether in Punjab or Goa or some time earlier in Gujarat, the AAP sought to parachute itself through the temptingly easy route of tantalising drama. It ignored sustained and silent mobilisation. Following its tame showing in Punjab — though it polled 23 per cent votes there — and its failure to dent Goa’s politics, with its six per cent vote, the AAP is sitting on two key contradictions. One is the contradiction between its Delhi-centric politics and its multi-state ambitions.
The other is the contradiction between its original emergence through popular mobilisation and subsequent inability to engage in meaningful mobilisations over substantial issues. This leads to a politics of contradiction and rhetoric. A loss or win in Delhi would not save the party from the contradictions it has created for itself. Whether it spreads or remains a Delhi party, its hollowness would remain a stumbling block in its evolution.