The rise of Aam Aadmi Party in Indian politics in all of a decade can only be described as an unprecedented moment in recent history. A party that was founded by non-politicians and professional activists provided hope to its central constituency i.e. the middle class ‘common man’ in its initial years. As the years went by, however, AAP turned into a conventional political party. This has been one of the keys to AAP’s continued relevance.
Political commentators were quick to announce Arvind Kejriwal’s political death after he resigned from the post of Chief Minister in 2014. Things became worse when AAP decided to participate in General Elections. This turned out to be a massive disaster and Kejriwal’s faith seemed to be sealed.
AAP had an advantage that the Congress did not. It learned from its mistakes and never made the same error twice. Despite the fact that it suffered the worst ever electoral debacle in 2014, Congress neither changed its leader nor its strategy. As a consequence, there was virtually no improvement in 2019 elections. In contrast, AAP admitted its flawed strategy and focused instead on Delhi. Through door-to-door campaigns and promises of good healthcare and education, AAP managed to sweep Delhi in 2015.
That Kejriwal wants to expand AAP into a full-fledged national party is not in doubt anymore. Like the astute politician that he has become, he’s cautiously treading the waters by expanding incrementally, one state at a time. Gone are the days when we used to hear about the overhaul of the system from Kejriwal. It is becoming increasingly hard to believe in the face of his soft and ambiguous criticism of BJP that this is the same Kejriwal who referred to PM Modi as ‘psychopath’.
The Overton window has clearly shifted to the right and whatever ideology Kejriwal may have faked in his initial years is gone now. The founding members of AAP were idealists and ideologues across political spectrum, albeit with strong and vocal contrarian opinions. Prashant Bhushan, for instance, was a strong critic of state violence against Naxal insurgents and advocated for plebiscite in Kashmir. AAP had no problem fielding candidates like activist Medha Patkar, who spearheaded the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The ‘different’ politics of change that AAP promised was characterized by its supposed commitment to transparency, anti-corruption, secularism and civic nationalism.
As Hindutva started capturing the imagination of the masses, it became increasingly difficult to toe the ideological line that AAP was founded upon. The same Kejriwal who referred to Kanhaiya Kumar’s ‘brilliance and charisma’ had no problem distancing himself from the former student-leader in later years when there was talk of sedition charges being filed. The same Kejriwal who questioned the need for a Ram Temple built on the ‘debris of a mosque’ is now promising free visits to the Ayodhya Ram Temple. Going a step further than even the BJP, Kejriwal advocated for the inclusion of Ganesha and Lakshmi portraits in Indian currency. This has led critics to characterize AAP as a party of ‘U-Turns’. It is certainly the case that this chameleon-politics of AAP smacks of political opportunism at its worst and most explicit.
This puts Kejriwal in a dilemma. No political party can expect to be elevated to the national level without a strong alternative narrative. Kejriwal’s success in states like Punjab is the result of the disappointment and failure of the Congress that the people are understandably frustrated by. Combined with Kejriwal’s personal charisma, this acts as a temporary model of success. In the long run, however, a party without a clear ideological strand or narrative is bound to suffer.
As an alternative to the BJP, what exactly does AAP offer? Why would voters go for a watered down version of Hindutva with a cheap imitation of the charisma of PM when they have BJP? And why would Muslims and the loyal Congress vote-base generally support a party which has made no attempt to reach out to them? AAP has a long way to go to pose any serious threat to the BJP as a credible alternative. However, it must have a clear narrative and distinct ideology to achieve any semblance of success at the national level.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
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