Behind the Aam Aadmi Party’s spectacular win in Delhi was an organisation that had chalked out everything to the last detail — from the manifesto to the jingles, from the morning conference calls to the nukkad sabhas.
Arvind Kejriwal stood in the centre. The white Aam Aadmi topi sat proudly on his head, and in the ebbing winter, a blue muffler was wrapped tightly across his neck. As he held up the AAP manifesto that had his own face smiling into the distance, a row of trusty lieutenants next to him smiled for the cameras. The countdown had begun in their attempt to write history. Much work had gone into this moment.
The jolt came in May 2014. From the euphoria of an adoring public dancing in the streets at the announcement of an astounding 28-seat haul in the Delhi Assembly within their first year of existence, the party faced a deafening silence of zero parliamentary seats six months later. After that, the consensus was that the organisation had to be strengthened.
“At the organisation level, we realised that one person could not look at a Lok Sabha constituency. A restructuring was required. The party needed to build a new bridge to reach out to voters who had moved away. We needed accountability. So we moved to a clear system of division of responsibility and individuals were put in charge of districts. The onus of winning these districts was with the individual,” says Durgesh Pathak, part of the Delhi Election Campaign Group (DECG).
The party appointed 14 district in-charges, each in charge of five Assembly constituencies. “One of the criteria for district in-charges was that they had to have been with the party for over a year and a half. Many were former campaign managers and two of these 14, Praveen Deshmukh and Nitin Tyagi, went on to become candidates and eventually MLAs,” says Pathak.
Every alternate day, at 8.30 am, these 14 district in-charges would interact through a conference call. “They are the real heroes of the campaign. Their responsibilities were building the organisation and volunteer base in their areas, giving inputs for the candidate-selection process, and implementing the party’s campaign,” says a senior leader.
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Two members of the party’s central leadership, Pathak and Dilip Pandey, themselves in charge of seven districts each, presided over these meetings. Once a week, however, all 16 of them would meet party National Convenor Arvind Kejriwal in a “review meeting” to exchange notes on the events of the week, and to discuss strategies for the days to come.
Under the district in-charges were over a lakh volunteers who contributed to the campaign.
Fahim Khan, head of volunteer management for the AAP, says, “There were broadly three categories of volunteers. Till the beginning of December, there were 30,000 volunteers from the city, a number which went up to 70,000 by February. Then there were 35,000-40,000 volunteers who were part of the online or calling campaign, where phone calls were placed to residents across the city for donations and so on. The standing instruction to the volunteers was to behave courteously, like they were the staff of a five-star hotel.”
There were also 8,000 volunteers who came from outside Delhi. While most of them were redirected to specific constituencies if they came to Delhi before January 30, new arrivals after that date were asked to join the “Buzz” campaign. “This campaign was designed to draw as much attention as we could in the last days of the campaign. We had biker’s rallies, nukkad nataks, flashmobs and a music group called Play For Change. We identified 115 hotspots across the city, which included marketplaces, Metro stations and border areas,” says Khan.
Leaders said the regional backgrounds of volunteers were taken into consideration when constituencies were allotted to them. “For instance, volunteers from Punjab would be sent to areas such as Tilak Nagar and Rajouri Garden, while those from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar would go to Poorvanchali seats,” says a senior leader.
The corner meetings
Beginning December 15, when it became clear that Delhi was headed for a February election, each day saw at least 15 jan sabhas across the city. Addressing them were party leaders such as Sanjay Singh, Ashutosh, Ashish Khetan, and later leaders from outside Delhi such as Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann and Gul Panag.
But without a shadow of doubt, the jan sabhas that really mattered were the ones that Kejriwal led. A senior party strategist says, “Arvind Kejriwal attended jan sabhas in each of the 70 constituencies, and in some places, more than one. There were many negotiations that had to take place within the party, with candidates pleading with the central leadership to organise an ‘Arvind’ jan sabha for them. The party took these requests very seriously. They were all meticulously planned and hard taskmasters like Ashish Talwar were in charge.”
While the district manager and the candidate of the constituency were meant to organise the modalities of the jan sabha, like deciding the location and organising advertisements for them, a team would arrive to review arrangements four days prior to the jan sabha.
“They would look at everything. The broad categories that were assessed were visibility in the area, the location itself and the crowd estimate. The threat was that if these were not up to the mark, Kejriwal would be sent somewhere else and the candidate would lose out,” says a senior leader.
But if jan sabhas, district in-charges and volunteers were the means, the message itself — the manifesto which was released on January 31 — had took exhaustive planning. Khetan, central to the party’s Delhi Dialogues process, says, “The question of how we should reach out to the people of Delhi first came up in September. The idea was to use our volunteer base to conduct meetings so the ideas could emanate from the people of Delhi themselves. This ensured an engagement as well.”
Meetings were held between senior leaders of the party, where Kejriwal himself was nearly always present, where it was decided to approach the manifesto through issues and not constituencies. “The idea came up in meetings of the DECG and teams were formed on specific issues like women’s security, issues of the youth, rural development, urban infrastructure and so on. These groups went across Delhi for four months discussing them with residents. Eventually, a programme was organised based on each issue and these became the backbone of our manifesto and 70-point action plan for Delhi,” says a senior leader.
For a party with a limited resource base that hoped to win a majority in Delhi based on its promises of water, power, and corruption, the right communication strategy was key. Raghav Chadha, part of the AAP communication strategy wing, says the “system was largely fluid” with volunteers from across the world contributing with ideas.
“One of the most important parts was to get our message out to the people, and this was done through ad jingles, banners, posters and other forms of advertisements. We used to vet many ideas, and sometimes, I would come up with an idea for a jingle and on other occasions, it would be Dilip Pandey or Nandan Mishra. Dilip, Arvind and I formed the communication team that would decide what would eventually go out,” says Chadha.
Many ideas came largely out of informal conversations. On three different occasions on February 10, an excited Kumar Vishwas pointed to a clearly embarrassed Sanjay Singh and told the joyous crowd celebrating their seat tally at their office in East Patel Nagar, “Aapka pyaara naara, ‘5 saal Kejriwal’ kisne diya? Sanjay Bhai ne.”
A party insider says, “It came during an informal conversation at a meeting in Ghaziabad, in a packed room. Sanjayji almost jokingly came up with the term, but the slogan caught on.”
Leaders in the party said that with limited finances, any expense would be thought out long and hard. For instance, instead of playing them all day, an ad jingle would play on a radio channel for five hours during peak time, say 7 am to 12 pm. Hoardings would only be put up at places which had a minimum footfall of 5,000 people a day. “A group of volunteers would do this analysis. Sometimes, candidates themselves told us where there would be maximum eyeballs,” a party leader says.
Chadha, along with the others who have become regulars on national television, would also be part of the 9 am conference call everyday to discuss media strategy. The first discussion was on the day’s newspaper reports. “Senior people like Nagendar Sharma and Yogendra Yadav would decide what the party’s line should be on a variety of subjects. This was a continuous process through the day, with spokespersons in touch through BBM groups,” says a senior leader.
One such group called ‘TV News’, monitored electronic coverage. Another two newspapers and other written publications. Specific subjects were taken into account as well. If women’s issues were to be discussed in a television debate, the party would likely field its woman leaders such as Atishi Marlena or Meera Sanyal, while if it was a legal problem, Rahul Mehra or Chadha were likely spokespersons.
With charges and counter-charges flying thick and fast in the last lap of the elections, a room at the party’s 173, North Avenue, office was dedicated to monitoring daily news. One of the walls has four televisions mounted on it, each beaming a different channel.
“One of the volunteers would be in charge of monitoring television news and would update the BBM group. Instantly, senior media strategists would decide the party line, and if required, consult leaders — Kejriwal himself, Ashutosh and Sanjay Singh,” says a senior leader.
The virtual team
A member of the party’s IT team, usually represented by its head Ankit Lal, sat through the morning conference calls. “Our campaign was such that at every step it had to be integrated with the social media team. Ankit Lal, who is an integral part of our campaign, would be involved in the conference call and from there, issues that needed to be pushed would be picked up,” says Chadha.
Under Lal, there were 16 full-time members of the social media team, 50 core team members and over a 1,000 volunteers. “We used platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Quora. In the months of September and October, we concentrated on answering questions such as why Kejriwal resigned. Then we graduated to presenting our vision for Delhi under the Delhi Dialogues,” says Lal.
Looking to constantly innovate, the team also turned “negative campaigns” into value-additions for the party. “On October 29, the term Mufflerman was used in a derogatory sense on Twitter. A volunteer, Aarti, used it in a positive sense and from there on, we built a social media campaign called Mufflerman Returns. We moved from the social media space to hoardings and posters. The idea was to use techniques that conventional parties were new to and didn’t know how to counter,” says an IT strategist of the party.
Tied in with the social media team were the party’s donation drives. Old party hands such as Pankaj Gupta and Arvind Jha steered the donations wing. “There were many ideas that were used, like fundraising occasions with high net-worth individuals and so on. The focus was on being as transparent as possible, which, in the public domain, sets us apart from other parties. The IDs of every transaction were uploaded online, and we also gave out online certificates with messages such as ‘Thank You’. People often tweeted these and generated interest in our party. We fell short of our Rs 30-crore target and ended up collecting around Rs 18 crore. All this was largely in the last two months,” says a senior leader.
Despite this elaborate organisational set-up, the party often faced matters that would require a quick assessment and reaction. For this, the party leadership formed a “crack team” of leaders that included Kejriwal, Ashutosh, Sanjay Singh, Sisodia and Khetan.
“For instance, I saw on a news channel that Imam Bukhari had issued a statement giving us his support. Instantly, I sent a message to the four others and we gathered at our office at 149, North Avenue. We sat together and discussed the issue and realised that we had to reject the offer immediately because this was a dangerous ploy. The media was waiting outside and we instantly gave a soundbyte. An hour later, a formal press conference was held to drill the point home. There have also been other instances where we have sent out a message that only members of the crack team will speak on an issue,” says Ashutosh, head of the Delhi unit.
Ten days after they released their list of promises to Delhi, Ashutosh, Khetan and Sanjay Singh stood next to Kejriwal once more. Hope had turned to joy. Every second person in Delhi had voted for them, and they had an unprecedented 67 out of 70 seats, bettered only by Sikkim in 1991. Again, the cameras flashed. This time, they had captured history.