Is the Aam Aadmi Party dying?

Start-ups sound glamorous, never mind the toil and the backstory behind the celebratory lead about its success. Prescient founders of novel enterprises remember the backstory more than the lead, because they know when the hard knocks come calling, the backstory is needed to reflect and repair.

The Aam Aadmi Party as a political start-up was glamorous too. It was once the social media favourite, the new revolution, the beacon of urban politics, and the anchor of the young and the restless fed up with corruption. With Lok Sabha elections 2019, the cracks in AAP’s ambition to go national are visible with the utter decimation of the party in its stronghold Delhi.

Arvind Kejriwal, the activist leader of the political start-up, seems to have forgotten the backstory behind the party—the remarkable story of passion and underclass aspiration that went into the making of the AAP. Making its debut in 2014, the AAP broke open a fresh and new political cleavage in India’s national party system and set the stage for a movement by the urban lower and middle classes claiming access to basic amenities by upsetting a corrupt political class. Today, somewhere along the way, the AAP has lost its appeal. But it hasn’t happened overnight. THe AAP’s ambition to grow nationally, the once entrepreneurial experiment in Indian politics, has been in peril for quite some time now.

The AAP’s very basis of formation was the movement against corruption led by octogenarian Gandhian activist Anna Hazare. While Hazare, a grassroots activist, had no political ambition, Arvind Kejriwal joined the movement with clear political goals and took the movement to a political level with the formation of the AAP in November 2012. One high profile scam after another, from “Coal-gate” to the Commonwealth Games scandal, the UPA government was struggling to save face and the urban class was fatigued. This was a political opportunity and Kejriwal used it well. The meteoric rise of the AAP created excitement in the country, particularly among the youth. The party focussed on the mobilisation of Delhi’s urban dwellers for the establishment of a new anti-corruption ombudsman known as a Lokpal.

Riding on popular support, the AAP won 28 seats in the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections and formed government with support from the Congress. It bettered its performance in 2015, with a whopping majority: 67 out of 70 Delhi Assembly seats were won by AAP. Its supporters and believers expected the government narrative to stay firmly focused on corruption and it did—but just too inflexibly.

Under the Modi regime since 2014, the national discourse on good governance had moved to economic growth, priming the demographic dividend for progress and meeting the aspirations of young Indians. In Kejriwal’s case, corruption was the evil his government was up against with the symbolic broom. In Modi rajya, a corruption-free government led by a “hard-working” and “honest” prime minister became the popular discourse. Any other narrative, outside of or opposed to Modi’s mould of clean bureaucracy, failed. So did the “Chowkidar chor hai” slogan of the Congress party, as Lok Sabha election results indicated last week. Sensing the sentiment, even the AAP kept its silence on corruption and failed to find resonance with its voters.

If AAP’s entrepreneurial activism drew attention to the issues of corruption and good governance and earned it votes, Kejriwal as chief minister also claimed his space as the rabble rouser of urban politics. Starting from the time he collaborated with Hazare to get corruption on the national agenda, the negotiations and polarised debates proved to be tumultuous. Soon, his agitational style was called anti-democratic. After the clamour of hunger strikes, protests, and failed negotiations, Kejriwal—who once had said that “all the politicians are thieves; throw them to the vultures“—joined politics. Even as chief minister of Delhi, Kejriwal continued as an activist sitting on dharna, at one instance the venue being the Delhi Lieutenant Governor’s office. From openly called himself an “anarchist” to calling his resignation as Delhi CM a mistake, Kejriwal’s politics and public speeches kept shifting, betraying the gravity and prudence that a chief minister’s office demands. After resignation, many saw him as a bigger threat to democracy and his style of politics a major inconvenience to the common man he stood for.

Add to all of these, the agony of public humiliation: Kejriwal has been attacked very publicly more than once, the latest being on his road show in Delhi earlier this month. His criticism wasn’t just limited to the media though; growing dissent within his party led to infighting and ugly fallouts in the shape of the expulsion of party MPs. Two of them were from Punjab, the only state the AAP could make inroads in outside of Delhi. Very soon, this chaos within the party led to the loss of a compelling face of Kejriwal and his colleagues.

The recent debates on the AAP’s anarchist tendencies and a sudden eruption of negative reports on the party in the mainstream English media are indicative of media’s alarm against activism going out of hand. Kejriwal’s performance as a party leader in 2014 was uneven but the outcome of two Lok Sabha elections—2014 and 2019—have exposed the geographical limits of Kejriwal’s national appeal. In Delhi, it has been shut out entirely, with its candidates faring third in the votes tally. Kejriwal, driven by national ambition, moved too fast, endangering local power for a place on the national tally of politics. Now, the AAP is staring at zero.

The AAP started off as an abrupt and powerful change from the political status quo with the slogan of anti-corruption at its core. But as the party faced political defeat, in parliamentary elections and in the passage of the anti-corruption Lokpal bill, its political representation began to change. In fact, the Jan Lokpal bill debate, vote and aftermath can be called a watershed event in the self-presentation of the party. The party, going by the political rhetoric of its leaders and its social media posts, gradually moved from being a party against corruption to being an opposition to its political adversaries. Prior to the debate on the Jan Lokpal bill, the party rhetoric was positive and uniform with sparse references to the other political parties. Afterwards, it turned negative and aggressive, and heaped labels on its political opponents, calling them anarchists. The focus shifted from the virtues of AAP to the concrete evils of its political opponents. This went on to build the image of AAP as a political party that only knew how to protest and knew nothing concrete about governance. From faceless corruption being its enemy, now the Congress and BJP were synonymous with corruption for the AAP.

Last but not the least, it would be plain ignorant not to discuss the AAP’s use of celebrities in its political campaigns. In the run-up to India’s general election in 2014, the party used actors such as Ranvir Shorey, Vidya Malvade and Ayub Khan, among others, for party campaigns in Mumbai. In elections this year, actors such as Swara Bhaskar, Gul Panag and Prakash Raj campaigned for the party. The AAP’s defence for using the Bollywood glamour for expanding his party’s appeal may be that these actors are not part of India’s box office elite, but nothing can discount the fact that this break from their filmdom to commit to the rigour of political campaigns made the exercise a spectacle.

While the jury is already out on the efficacy of this exercise in fetching votes for the party, it’s clear that it undermined the AAP’s message and image for the common man. By no stretch of imagination can the actors used in the campaigns be called the common men and women of Mumbai or Delhi, nor can we say that their commonness derives from their socioeconomic condition. Their proclaimed commonness emerged through campaign tactics such as standing in the streets or sloganeering. While this may work for other parties, it has worked against the AAP purely because it stands in contrast with its original identity of “a party for the common man”.

The AAP’s victory in the Delhi elections had provided it with a platform to expand in other parts of the country. However, to build a national presence, one needs to deliver not just on governance in Delhi but also articulate a clear ideology and raise regional leaders. As things stand now, the AAP has failed to do that. It could at best be called a party with an urban appeal with limited ability to challenge the larger national and regional parties in the near future. There is always a thin line between the making and the unmaking of a revolution and as AAP stands today, the unmaking has begun.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.

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