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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

AAP shows the limits of a single-issue party

The electoral road is tougher for single-issue parties, especially if they fail to build an identity base

Less than halfway into the tenure of Arvind Kejriwal’s state government in Delhi, it seems to have lost popular support. In the recent MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) election, Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was comprehensively trounced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The distinct nature of AAP may well have contributed to its recent debacles—including in Punjab, where it expected to grab power but ended up a distant second. It should not be forgotten that AAP started as a single-issue party, and that too, without any committed identity base.

When Kejriwal decided to turn the popular Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement into a political party, he was constantly quizzed about the party’s views on myriad other governance issues. He once said evocatively: “Ideologies don’t fill stomachs." He added that he was happy to borrow solutions to people’s problems from both the right and the left. A populist to the core, he started to build a broader political governance programme around subsidies on water and electricity, which were lapped up by the electorate in Delhi—also the home base for his anti-corruption movement. The inability to go beyond doles—the party continues to rely on subsidies as a central poll plank, offering to abolish residential house tax if voted to power in the MCD—was exacerbated by the lack of a stable identity support.

There are many single-issue political parties across the world, old and new. Founded in 1869, the Prohibition Party, which aims to ban alcohol in the US, had a candidate in last year’s American presidential race. The Animal Justice Party in Australia boasts of a member in the New South Wales legislative council. And a new party Bündnis Grundeinkommen (Basic Income League) has been established in Germany with the single-issue agenda of introducing an unconditional basic income in the country.

The three examples above notwithstanding, single-issue parties need not always be electorally insignificant. The various green parties in Europe formed to protect the environment have had different levels of success. Their impact has been greater in Germany and Belgium, and much less so in Ireland and France. Most of them have stabilized with voting percentages in the single digits—breaching the 15% vote mark is rare. Like AAP, they too lack committed support from an exclusive social group. In contrast, the anti-immigration European parties carefully cultivate male, less educated, blue-collar workers. Even AAP has tried to build a base among specific constituencies like autorickshaw drivers. As can be seen, the electoral road is tougher for single-issue parties, especially if they fail to build an identity base.

In another recent example in India, Irom Sharmila, famous for her 16-year-long hunger strike in protest against the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) in Manipur, won just 90 votes from Thoubal in the state assembly election held earlier this year. In a perceptive analysis, Priya Ravichandran, a researcher with the Takshashila Institution, noted: “(Sharmila) lost because AFSPA is just one aspect amongst many in which democracy is being stifled in the state. Her party, and her unorthodox campaigning tactics, by many accounts did not seem to address some of the graver issues on the ground."

However, the bigger problem for AAP than starting as a single-issue party is that its sole issue—anti-corruption—has been snatched away by the BJP. With the demonetization of high-value currency notes in November last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has displaced Kejriwal from the pedestal of India’s biggest anti-corruption crusader. How effective either Modi or Kejriwal have been in their fight against corruption is another matter; perception matters most in politics.

But do political parties based on ideology find it easier in the cut-and-thrust of electoral politics? For starters, they do have a template answer to most regular governance issues. But that would give them an advantage only if elections were necessarily settled on matters of governance. In these pages, Jaithirth Rao had claimed that “political parties in electoral democracies…seem to first start off from an ‘identity’ base which is religious, racial, ethnic or sectarian.... The ideological positions of parties—including their economic doctrines—are then derived almost as an icing on the cake in order to meet the needs of the identity base of the party."

While he makes a formidable case and cites several examples from across the world, the evidence is thin either in support of or against his argument, and certainly so on an all-encompassing global scale. But on a limited scale, there may be some evidence. Paul Goren, a political scientist, for instance, studied the 1992-94-96 American National Election Study panel surveys to find that identification with the social base of a political party is more enduring in the voter’s mind than the core political values of the parties. In addition, party identification constrains the voter’s beliefs on political values and not the other way round.

For AAP to make a comeback, it will need to (a) reclaim the anti-corruption plank that it has ceded to the BJP, (b) go beyond the throwaway subsidies model of governance, and (c) consolidate, if not build, an identity base for the party, however anachronistic that may sound to some.

Can Aam Aadmi Party make a comeback? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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