Churning in AAP: Lessons for future

The real problem for AAP is an existential threat that cannot be corrected by addressing the causes of its defeat.

After hogging the media limelight in the months leading to the general election, the Aam Aadmi Party has been hitting the headlines lately for all the wrong reasons. Their election debacle in the Lok Sabha elections has been analysed and debated at length by experts of all hues: Kejriwal and AAP lost the plot, became too ambitious,spread his resources too thin, should have held on at Delhi and so on. 

There is no denying that after such a traumatic defeat it would be natural for fledgling outfit like AAP to face dissent and desertion by marquee names. Even the mighty Congress party is yet to come to terms with an equally dramatic rout. However, the real problem for AAP is much more serious – indeed an existential threat – that cannot be corrected just by addressing the causes of its defeat.

After the Delhi elections when Kejriwal was riding a wave of popular support, Rahul Gandhi famously remarked that he would learn from the success of AAP in the Delhi Assembly elections. The tragedy however was that he could have learnt much more from the failure of the Congress in four of the five states that went for elections. In any case, it is doubtful that he or his strategists learned the right lessons from AAP’s success because the next round was equally disastrous for them. However, what another man learnt from AAP’s success carried him to the biggest victory of his party in its entire history. 

What did Narendra Modi learn, and why is that an existential threat for the AAP? Very early in the run up to the elections Modi decided that his campaign would be different. He would focus on development and good governance and eschew the age-old caste and community equations that had dominated previous elections. While this had worked in Gujarat, it was not very clear whether it would work in other parts of the country, especially in the heavily caste-riddled politics of crucial states such as UP and Bihar. 

Proven wrong

In fact, the main argument of the opposition was that the Gujarat model would not work for the whole of India. Furthermore, in 2004 BJP based its campaign on development (‘India Shining’) and lost badly. While there were some examples where the platform of good governance and development had been successful converted into votes – notably in Bihar and Odisha, for a person facing virulent opposition from outside and even from within, it was a huge ‘all or nothing’ risk. If he did not deliver a definitive victory he would be relegated to Gujarat.

All this changed after the historic Delhi election. Kejriwal proved that the public was so fed up with corruption and bad government that it was willing to try its luck with a complete novice. It was yearning for a party that could deliver them from the torture that their daily lives had become. This was the tipping point Modi was looking for – the decisive confirmation that his strategy was right. What followed is history; Politicians generally have a tendency of forgetting their promises once they get elected, but Modi has held out promise so far. This has boosted Modi’s already substantial popularity even more, and there is great expectation that he will deliver on his election promises. If he does that it will be good news indeed for the country. For Kejriwal’s AAP however, it would mean reworking their strategy.

The Delhi victory of AAP was mainly due to the fact that all the existing parties, including the Congress and the BJP, were perceived as part of the old political establishment, corrupt and self-serving. AAP was like a breath of fresh air. The Delhi voter had experienced both Congress and BJP governments in the past and found little to commend either of them.

 Kejriwal’s uninhibited projection of himself and his party as a corruption free establishment hit the right chord with the voter, so that, for the first time in the history of Indian elections a loosely-knit, cadre-less party that was just a few months old actually came to power in a state Assembly. Not surprisingly its membership exploded and a number of prominent people, who had hitherto shunned Indian politics because of its negative image, started joining. What followed was a stunning loss, the reasons for which, as mentioned before, have been analysed and debated at great length in the media.

However, Kejriwal’s greatest loss is elsewhere. He has lost his unique brand equity, built on an impeccable image of incorruptibility in an environment replete with corruption. This was enough to win over the voter without a massive grassroots organization or huge funds. Now he has a competitor who has both the massive organisation and huge funds. That is the existential threat.

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