The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has developed a penchant for hogging the headlines more for the wrong raison d'être than the right political vibes. The party is presently under the media glare over party boss and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s attempt to let taxpayers foot his lawyer’s bill in a defamation case and the Shunglu Committee report indicting his government of nepotism and irregularities in appointments. The political storm over the party’s narrative before upcoming local polls in Delhi and its dismal electoral outings in Punjab and Goa raises big questions for the party and its future in Indian politics.
The AAP was conceived during the India Against Corruption movement which called for the passage of a Lokpal (Ombudsman) Bill in the parliament, with a section of its leadership playing midwife in the AAP’s political birth. The party positioned itself as a hub of principled leaders and transparent politics, opened the doors to people from all walks of life and promised to stay away from the so-called VIP culture.
The people of Delhi reposed faith in the party by handing it an unprecedented mandate in the 2015 state elections (67 out of the 70 assembly seats). The victory was seen a defining moment in Indian politics as it seemed to user in an alternative to the existing political establishment populated with dynastic, wealthy and people with ‘winnability quotients’.
The party began on a popular note by subsidising electricity, offering free water supply and promising to usher in inclusionary politics with 'Swarajya' (self-rule) as its ultimate goal. The euphoria was short-lived. The AAP could not handle the responsibility that came with power and it replicated the Janata Party government’s model of power politics from 1997. Top leaders turned against each other and intra-party squabbles resulted in Kejriwal grabbing absolute power and removing some founding members and ideologues from the party.
The AAP survived a split, but its journey downhill continued after it got embroiled in a power struggle with the lieutenant governor of Delhi, shadow-boxed with the central BJP government and engaged in frequent tussles with the bureaucracy. The party’s problems increased further as its ministers and leaders were embroiled in cases ranging from fake degrees and domestic violence to inciting violence against foreigners and sexual harassment.
The party’s success in implementing the odd-even car rationing formula to curb pollution in the capital briefly put the brakes on its declining popularity. But this was momentary. The party was again jolted after more lawmakers were arrested in criminal cases, judicial pronouncements went against it and with more than 20 legislators facing legal heat for allegedly holding office of profit.
It becomes essential to deconstruct the reasons that brought AAP down from a high moral pedestal in such a short span of time. Firstly, the AAP’s subaltern image and tag line of inner-party democracy and collective leadership were its USP and it struck an emotional chord with the common man. But the political veil was lifted after it came to power, revealing that Kejriwal was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a section of its MLAs were from dubious backgrounds and had committed moral impropriety.
Secondly, the propagation of a personality cult and concentration of power in the hands of Kejriwal removed the party’s political halo.
Thirdly, the AAP style of politics thrives on paranoia and confrontation with the BJP. The hit-and-run politics combined with a persecution complex initially created a pro-AAP sentiment, but people soon realised that the party was addicted to drama. Finally Kejriwal’s narcissism led to a huge spending of taxpayer money on publicity and propaganda.
The AAP brand of political discourse is bereft of political civility, is disruptive and faces a deficit in public trust. The failure of the party in winning the recent Punjab and Goa state elections is a major setback as electoral victories and expansion are crucial for a fledgling party to minimise political attrition. The upcoming municipal polls have become a do-or-die election for the AAP. If it fails to win, the party’s decline will truly have begun in the city where it first came into prominence.
(Praveen Rai is a Political Analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. His areas of interest include politics, electoral competitions and opinion polling in India)