The party is over

THE DECLINE OF AAP: The Aam Aadmi Party is a media-made tide, not a true political party with either an ideological base or a solid reason to exist.

In January 2014, my then 11-year-old daughter came home with a school project given by her maths teacher. The students were asked to survey 50 people on their choice of the prime minister for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections and plot bar graphs of their survey results. The choices given were Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal.

Presumably, my daughter’s maths teacher felt these were the obvious contenders then. She was not alone. In early 2014, these were the three choices muttered by most people who lived in urban towns and read and watched English media. Arvind Kejriwal was the toast of this ‘urban-English’ fraternity after he was sworn in as chief minister of Delhi in December 2013.

Intoxicated by the adulation from this fraternity, within three weeks of his chief ministership, Kejriwal felt he was ready to be the prime minister of India. He announced a national bid in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. The sheer audacity of his ambition excited the ‘English class’.

It is 2017 now. Arvind Kejriwal has lost the municipal corporation polls in his own state. His party also lost its deposit in a recent byelection in Delhi. A ruling party losing deposit in a bypoll is a very rare occurrence in India’s electoral history. The slide from being a contender for prime ministership to losing a municipal election in his own state has been rapid.

There are many explanations posited by experts for Kejriwal’s downfall such as voter disenchantment, inner party troubles, lack of governance experience, personality cult and so on. However, his downfall is nothing but mean reversion. Kejriwal’s 2015 Delhi victory is the outlier, not his current downfall.

There were two political parties that were launched between 2011 and 2012. One party had a political legacy, the other was perceived to be born out of a movement. All of us know about the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), started by Kejriwal in November 2012. But many will not know the other — YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) started by Jagan Mohan Reddy.

Both these parties contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The AAP contested 432 constituencies across all the states. The YSRCP contested in a mere 38 constituencies in just one state of united Andhra Pradesh. Some 14 million Indians voted for YSRCP back then while only 11 million voted for the AAP across the entire country.

More Indians voted for a political party that very few elite had heard of than for the party that most of the English class was in love with — a  testament to the fact that being a media darling is quite different from being the voters’ darling.

Barring Punjab and Delhi, the AAP lost its deposit in every constituency in every other state in the 2014 elections. In Goa, of a million voters in the entire state, just 25,000 voted for the AAP in the 2014 election. Yet, most seemed surprised that the AAP lost the recent elections in Goa. Kejriwal has more Twitter followers (11.1 million) than voters (11 mn). To put that in context, even the most followed Indian political leader on Twitter, Narendra Modi, has six times more voters (180 mn) than twitter followers (30 mn).

Media narrative
The AAP is a media-made tide, not a true political party with either an ideological base or a solid reason to exist. When the tide runs out, those swimming naked will be caught out. Anyone who cared to analyse the AAP’s electoral performance would have realised its fallacy as a genuine political party narrative.

Over the past decade, consistently 32-36% of Delhiites have voted for the BJP across municipal, Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. The AAP has seen its support in Delhi swing from 52% to 25% in just three years, when waves of Congress supporters ‘tried’ out the AAP in 2013 and 2015 fuelled by the media narrative around them. In the recent municipal election, this wave seems to have reverted to its core base of the Congress.

If one were to extrapolate last week’s Delhi municipal election results to the Assembly-level constituencies, then the AAP would have won just seven Assembly seats, a massive decline from the 67 seats it won just two years ago.

The volatility of the AAP’s vote share across constituencies in Punjab, Goa and Delhi is among the highest. This is a strong indicator of a ‘hawa’ vote base, where voters go with the ‘hawa’ to vote for a particular party but do not necessarily identify themselves with it.

Of course, one can always postulate that once Kejriwal came to power on a ‘hawa’ vote, he could have capitalised and converted it into a true vote base. But that would have required hunkering down and consolidating the party’s supporters in Delhi than flirting with political power in other states. Year 2014 was the clearest indication that Kejriwal is delusional with his own narrative and can be led astray easily in pursuit of his political ambition. A week-old chief minister of a puny state launching a bid to be the prime minister has to be the most brazen display of naïve political ambition in India’s political history.

All this is not to belittle the achievements of Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP. To be sure, Kejriwal and his team did extremely well to capitalise on the momentum handed to them by the English media and organise themselves into a political party and win seats in Delhi and Punjab. In cricketing analogy, even a full toss needs to be put away to the boundary, which Kejriwal and the AAP did commendably.

But there is a whale of a difference between being just a full toss batsman and a genuine batsman who can perform on different pitches. Kejriwal and the AAP were never a true political leader or a party but merely a figment of media and circumstances that tugged at the hearts of the urban elite. That has run its course. So will Kejriwal’s political career.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow in Political Economy, IDFC Institute, a Mumbai think tank; research help by Ishita Trivedi, also of IDFC Institute)

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