Two years after sweeping the Assembly elections in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) finished third in the bypoll for Rajouri Garden, a seat the party had won in 2015. The votes polled by the AAP candidate were almost the same as that of his party candidate’s victory margin in the last election. Ironically, the BJP nominee could win the seat despite polling fewer votes than he did in the previous election: the polling percentage had fallen from 72 per cent in 2015 to 47 per cent this time. With 66 seats in the Assembly, the loss of one may not matter much — but matter it does. For, ahead of municipal polls in the capital, voters in Rajouri Garden have sent a clear message: their starry-eyed admiration for AAP is fading.
How AAP reads this mandate could very well define its remaining term in office. First, the party ought to ask itself how it managed to lose so many voters — and goodwill, considering that voters seem to have preferred to stay away rather than vote for the AAP’s opponents — in such a short time. Of course, AAP can, and it’s adept at this, find scapegoats. It can pin the defeat on local factors — it got the incumbent MLA to resign and contest Punjab elections and this left a vacuum. It may accuse the Delhi Lieutenant Governor’s office of stalling the government’s work. It may even blame EVMs — it has not done so in this case, though. The party can avoid self-reflection and remain immersed in the daily, noisy battle it has been waging with the Centre. By doing so, however, it may end up digging itself into a hole and turn deaf to voices that speak to it. The 2015 verdict was a vote for change, a vote to govern. In 2013, the AAP had promised a new paradigm of politics and sought the mandate. The voters weren’t persuaded enough to give the party a clear majority, though it emerged the single largest party in the Assembly. The brief tenure in office turned to be more street theatre than any attempt to run a government. To its credit, the party learned from its mistakes and reinvented itself with a governance agenda that appealed to the people. The AAP’s remarkable victory in 2015 was an endorsement of the policies it promised to implement.
The AAP in government, however, has been behaving like a party under siege. It has singlemindedly pursued a path of confrontation with the Centre and its representatives. The frequent run-ins with the LG and the party’s inability to build a working relationship with the Centre has had a negative impact on governance. The government’s concerted effort to improve public health facilities and school education are laudable but these have been overshadowed by the party’s constant chatter of victimisation by the Centre. The bypoll result indicates that the voters want the AAP to behave more like a party at work than one that’s constantly blaming everyone else. And to realise that they can’t take people’s support for granted.