The AAP is still a work in progress - Hindustan Times
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The AAP is still a work in progress

Jan 27, 2022 10:42 PM IST

It is no more a moral project, but a hardnosed political party. And instead of targeting the BJP, the party is infringing upon the Congress’s customary footprint

If there were an award for the most successful political start-up of the last decade, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would be the apparent frontrunner. No other political party has made such a dramatic impact in such a short period as the Arvind Kejriwal-led outfit, which undoubtedly benefitted partly from the disproportionate media exposure in the Capital. Now, the nagging question is whether the AAP can scale up and become a pan-India “unicorn”, which is why the 2022 assembly elections could be a critical moment in the AAP’s journey.

A shrewd Kejriwal has strategically placed himself outside the pale of any ideological straitjacket, neither a Left-liberal cheerleader nor a Right-wing nationalist (Sanjeev Kumar/HT Photo) PREMIUM
A shrewd Kejriwal has strategically placed himself outside the pale of any ideological straitjacket, neither a Left-liberal cheerleader nor a Right-wing nationalist (Sanjeev Kumar/HT Photo)

If there were an award for the most successful political start-up of the last decade, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would be the apparent frontrunner. No other political party has made such a dramatic impact in such a short period as the Arvind Kejriwal-led outfit, which undoubtedly benefitted partly from the disproportionate media exposure in the Capital. Now, the nagging question is whether the AAP can scale up and become a pan-India “unicorn”, which is why the 2022 assembly elections could be a critical moment in the AAP’s journey.

Of the five states going to the polls over the next few weeks, the AAP is a player in three: A serious contender for power in Punjab, a possible kingmaker in Goa, and a potential spoiler in Uttarakhand. Interestingly, the AAP has adopted distinct strategies in each state. In Punjab, it is appealing to a growing anti-elite, rural backlash to the Congress-Akali Dal duopoly. In Goa, the AAP is projecting itself as an idealistic, middle-class party that will stand up to the state’s sleazy cash-and-carry defection politics. And in Uttarakhand, the party is offering a basic Delhi-like “education-health” model of effective local governance.

The common strand that binds the AAP’s politics is a desire to be seen as a force representing “alternative” politics. And yet, this is a “new” AAP. The party is different in many ways from the fresh-faced avatar that struck such a chord in 2013 as an anti-corruption non-governmental organisation-style party with a difference. Today, the AAP is less of a dreamy-eyed volunteer-driven army and more a traditional political party with Kejriwal as its unquestioned supremo. The Delhi government’s contentious excise policy, which has seen a proliferation of private liquor vends and three “dry” days, reveals a business-like pragmatism that places resource mobilisation above moral fervour. A mixed record on governance exposes a gap between pre-poll populism and post-poll implementation: Innovative steps on health and education, but a struggle to improve the quality of crumbling urban infrastructure.

Where once it was seen as a “secular” force, today its critics point to the AAP’s failure to act effectively on the 2020 Delhi riots, its indifference to the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters at Shaheen Bagh, and the party’s support for the repeal of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir as evidence of it abandoning its “minority” concerns. This criticism has even piqued the Congress to label the AAP as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) “B” team, a “Hindutva-lite” party that has compromised with the rising tide of Hindu nationalism.

Paradoxically, it is the transition of the AAP from being seen as a value-based moral project into a hardnosed political party that makes its presence more relevant. Politics in India is not a sanctimonious morality play, but only mirrors the complexities and hypocrisies of society. When every party stands accused of ideological compromise to varying degrees, why should the AAP be expected to wear the garb of undiluted virtue? Is “secularism”, for example, the sole proprietorship of the Congress, which has often run with the secular hare and hunted with communal hounds? An “anti-Hindu” image is seen as a significant roadblock, which might explain the AAP’s delicate balancing act in the face of sharply polarising issues.

In a sense, a shrewd Kejriwal has strategically placed himself outside the pale of any ideological straitjacket, neither a Left-liberal cheerleader nor a Right-wing nationalist. Gone is the impulsive neta who resigned after 44 days in power in Delhi in 2014 because he couldn’t pass the anti-corruption jan lokpal bill. Or the man in a hurry who chose to challenge Narendra Modi in Varanasi in 2014 within months of making his political debut. Or the “anarchic” streetfighter who didn’t hesitate to go on dharna or pick up battles with the high and mighty. Instead of a middle-class activist icon, we now have a more consummate politician, someone who has recognised that there is often no greater virtue than patience in politics.

Where once Modi and the BJP were his enemy number one, Kejriwal has now realised that a poorly led and organisationally weakened Congress is far more vulnerable than a dominant BJP. This is why the AAP has deliberately attempted to infringe upon the Congress’s customary footprint: Be it gaining in minority-dominated areas in civic polls in Gujarat last year or focusing on states where the Congress remains a major party with a sizeable vote share. An all-out attack on the BJP leaves Kejriwal as yet another fractious Opposition leader in a crowded anti-Modi space; a more calculated targeting of the Congress voter opens up the possibility of emerging as a future national challenger to the BJP by weakening the primary Opposition brand.

This might explain why both the Congress and the BJP remain wary of Kejriwal’s national ambitions: Unlike a Mamata Banerjee, who is ultimately from the wider Congress parivar, Kejriwal has positioned himself as the quintessential outsider. A victory in Punjab for the AAP could mark a momentum shift. Here is a reality check, though: In the 2019 general elections, the AAP won just one seat and 0.4% of the national vote share. Kejriwal likes the David versus Goliath analogy, but the AAP is still a work in progress.

Post-script: The war to capture the non-BJP Opposition space is not without its complications. Not only does the anti-BJP vote get fragmented, it also creates more confusion within the Opposition ranks. What if any of the three states — Goa, Punjab or Uttarakhand — throws up a hung assembly as some polls predict? Can the AAP afford to remain equidistant in that scenario, or will the AAP and the Congress be willing to strike a post-poll “deal”, as they once did in Delhi 2013?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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