Problem of AAP: Why Kejriwal is more of a mouse-that-roared

What, oh what, is this animal called AAP? Before its stunning debut in the Delhi elections, the Aam Aadmi party was a bit of a curiosity, a welcome break from the jaded Congress-BJP politics as usual. But AAP decimated the Congress and it caused the BJP vote share to drop by 2 percentage points. As Arvind Kejriwal gets ready to take power in Delhi with a humbled Congress behind it, pundits across the country are trying desperately to categorize and label his party. It feels a bit like a political version of that famous John Godfrey Saxe poem about six blind men of Indostan trying to describe an elephant. One felt its side and thought it was like a wall. The second felt its tusk and thought it was like a spear. The third felt its trunk and decided an elephant was like a snake. And so on. aamadmiparty_AFP AFP Ashutosh Varshney writes in the Indian Express that there are only three comparable instances in post-Independence history. Janata Party in 1977. TDP in Andhra Pradesh and AGP in Assam in the 1980s. He is looking at AAP as an “electoral insurgency.” Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar in his Swaminomics column for the Times of India latches on to AAP as an “anti-corruption movement.” So he compares the rise of AAP to Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s and V P Singh in the 1980s. The first toppled Indira Gandhi. The second unseated her son. S L Rao focuses on how AAP grew in strength – its volunteer base, its use of social media, its strategy of collecting small donations from the many. In his op-ed in The Telegraph he compares it to the first Obama campaign. And so these men of Indostan Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong! The problem is AAP does not fit comfortably into any of its political forbears because as Rao writes unlike most parties in India, it “is not based on inherited power, wealth, community, caste or language, but on the principle of integrity.” Kejriwal has more of a mouse-that-roared persona instead of a celluloid God-on-earth like N T Rama Rao. Varshney points out that unlike AGP, AAP was not born out of a student movement. It has nothing to do with regional pride which has been the usual genesis of smaller parties in India from DMK to Trinamool to the Samajwadi Party. Though the Lokpal movement triggered the formation of AAP, the political party, it was nothing as cataclysmic as the imposition of Emergency. This “politics as unusual” at the Indian Express headlines Varshney’s piece is what makes AAP predictions tricky. On one hand with elections barely months away AAP does not have the time to build the kind of infrastructure it needs to really go all-out national though with 94 urban parliamentary constituencies and 122 semi-urban constituencies it can pack a pretty good punch. VP Singh took two years to organize against Rajiv Gandhi. And Aiyar points out both JP and VP movements “attracted prominent Opposition parties that could pool their resources, gaining national scale.” By stridently going it alone, AAP retains an appealing David vs Goliath image but it means “it lacks the width of the earlier two movements.” But the short run up to the national elections also means AAP will not really have a substantial record in Delhi its opponents could really pick apart by the time India goes to the polls. Rao writes that AAP with its promises about electricity and water lives in an “economic cloud cuckoo land” and “the starting euphoria will go as inefficiencies and shortages continue”. AAP, in some ways, benefits if it can go to the polls before it becomes just another political party and loses its sheen. If AAP gets even 30-40 seats in 2014, that would mean the BJP can kiss its dream of over 200 seats goodbye. That’s what is giving BJP and Narendra Modi nightmares. The Congress, already on the back-foot, is less affected because it just means that some of the votes it would lose to the BJP would go to AAP instead. That electoral math is currently mere speculation. Delhi was AAP’s old stomping grounds. It’s where the party was born. Whether it translates equally well in Mumbai or Bangalore or Kolkata remains to be seen. But AAP’s advantage over other political parties is that its grievances have a pan-Indian appeal as opposed to a regional one. It is trying, writes Varshney, to practise “what may be called the politics of citizenship.” That means “democratic deepening, deliberative democracy, governance, accountability, citizen politics versus clientelistic politics.” Or on the flip side, it’s tapping into an anger and frustration with the system. As Kejriwal puts it: Those whose salary comes from our money don’t listen to us. We cannot do anything against government doctors, teachers, fair-price shopkeepers, or policemen. After Delhi, at least the powers that be have to pay attention to AAP. As a friend quips, this is a new version of Hum AAPke Hain Koun as the old order tries to figure out what the rise of AAP means for them. Rahul Gandhi has already said his party is willing to learn from AAP. The party was once dismissed as the B-team of the Congress. Now the Congress looks like it’s the B-team. Rao writes “national parties will need to downplay dynastic relationships in the selection of candidates.” They will have to pay at least more lip service to the selection of “honest” candidates. BJP and Modi will have to remember that AAP is appealing to many of the same groups – young, urban, middleclass – that Modi has as his base writes Aiyar. “Modi offers a vision of change, but within the existing political framework. The AAP offers radical change outside the existing framework.” Its success in Delhi raises the tantalizing possibility that a vote for AAP is not a wasted protest vote after all. As Varshney writes it is “the promise of a citizen-friendly and corruption-free state, that has begun to excite the imagination of urban India. The AAP threatens to undermine politics as it is practised.” As Kejriwal and Co look at the opportunities in the rest of India, they are clearly hoping that unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Delhi does not have to stay in Delhi. You can read Ashutosh Varshney on AAP as “politics as unusual” here. You can read Swaminathan Aiyar on AAP as compared to JP and VP here. S.L. Rao’s column about the shock of AAP being felt by older parties can be read in the full here.

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