Aam Aadmi Party: Five years of inglorious politics
Aam Aadmi Party will celebrate its five years of existence with an excellent self-report card, but the reality is that AAP seems to be directionless and in a state of political limbo
The idea of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was rooted in India Against Corruption (IAC), a mass movement staged in Delhi to press for passage of Lokpal (Ombudsman) bill in Parliament. It was born on 26 November 2012 with Arvind Kejriwal, Yogendra Yadav, Anand Jha, Prashant Bhushan and Shanti Bhushan playing the political midwives.
The party positioned itself as the rightful inheritor of alternative politics, which was not only anti-establishment, but also wedded to the philosophy of sharing state power with the common man. It started its political innings by adopting a high moral ground and created a niche for itself in Indian politics in a short span. India has seen practitioners of alternative politics in the past, for instance the Janata Party which came to national power in 1977 but which failed mainly because of a myopic vision and a utopian idea of democracy.
The AAP was different, a political alternative that appeared realistic mainly due to three novelties: one, its initial leadership was drawn from diverse walks of life and completely apolitical with only a kindergarten learning of Gandhian philosophy and ‘Swarajya’, courtesy the IAC movement; two, the party did not latch itself to any philosophical underpinnings and did not require political marketing for creating an ideological mass cadre —it solely focussed on removing corruption from public life; and three, the entry points of the party opened to the common man and its leadership was broad-based, sans a bureaucratic hierarchy, strictly adhering to collective decision-making based on consensus.
The AAP entered electoral competition in the Delhi assembly elections of 2013 and without batting an eyelid, emerged as the single largest party, slightly short of a majority on its own. It formed government with issue-based support of the Congress from outside. The party fulfilled its twin promises of providing subsidized electricity and free water to citizens of Delhi immediately after being sworn in.
Yet, the AAP’s first brush with power was not only marked by politically immature actions and omissions, but also sowed the seeds of intra-party factionalism. In the 2014 general elections, it contested more than 400 parliamentary seats to create awareness of the AAP and its non-conformist political programme. It failed to win any seats barring in Punjab, where it surprised psephologists by winning four out of the 13 Lok Sabha seats and emerged as a potential political alternative in the state.
The AAP turned its focus to Delhi with mass voter contact initiatives for winning the 2015 state election. The election was pitched as a prestige battle between Arvind Kejriwal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi with both the AAP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) using all their resources to win the elections. AAP had the last laugh and won by a landslide, bagging 67 out of the 70 assembly seats and reducing both the BJP and Congress to rubble.
AAP’s celebrations were short-lived. The party seemed to be on the brink of an imminent split as divisions surfaced within, but survived miraculously. Even so, it marked the beginning of the AAP’s downhill journey as it embarked on a brazen course of confrontational politics.
Kejriwal launched a multi-pronged attack on the lieutenant governor of Delhi over power sharing, blamed the central government for a governance gridlock, levelled frivolous allegations against BJP and Congress leaders, wrestled with the state bureaucracy and created bad blood between the Delhi government and the municipal corporations dominated by the saffron party. This led to a serious government functioning crisis in Delhi as development projects were delayed and delivery of essential public services came to a near halt.
The party’s claims of upholding principled and clean politics were exposed as hollow when its leaders were caught in scandals including possession of fake degrees, domestic violence, inciting an assault on foreigners and sexual harassment. The AAP government went into a fire-fighting mode. In 2016, it twice implemented an odd-even road rationing scheme in Delhi to curb alarming levels of environment pollution, which it claimed to be a success, temporarily stemming a decline in its popularity ratings.
The respite was all too brief. The party’s credibility once again took a beating when more legislators were arrested in criminal cases, judicial interventions went against it and 21 AAP members of the assembly whom Kejriwal had appointed parliamentary secretaries were caught up in an office-of-profit controversy. The Delhi high court chided the AAP government for not taking steps to improve the city’s mass transit system; the city battled a garbage pile-up crisis as sanitation workers went on strike, and a spurt in mosquito-borne diseases; and a committee headed by former comptroller and auditor general V.K. Shunglu came up with findings of corruption and nepotism against AAP politicians.
Discredited on the governance and development paradigm in Delhi, AAP tried to spread its political wings in other states. The elections in Punjab and Goa in 2017 provided it an opportunity to retrieve its falling political stock, but it messed up and lost the election in Punjab. In Goa, it fared very badly, with most of its candidates losing their election deposits. The municipal election in Delhi that followed was perhaps the last chance for AAP to redeem itself. But it once again bit electoral dust as the BJP defeated it hands down; the AAP had lost 22% votes since the assembly elections of 2015. The AAP’s defence was that tampering of electronic voting machines had caused its defeat.
The series of electoral setbacks seems to have caused the AAP to dilute its brand of confrontational politics. It has done commendable work in improving the functioning of Delhi schools and primary health care centres. But the recent pollution scare in Delhi and the National Green Tribunal striking down the AAP government’s move to implement the odd-even scheme has again brought charges of dereliction of duties its way. AAP, going by its tone and tenor, is expected to celebrate five years of existence with an excellent self-report card. The reality is that the party seems to be directionless and in a state of political limbo.
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.