Common Ground

Can the Aam Aadmi Party become a national force?

AAP supporters in Delhi listen to a speech by Arvind Kejriwal. The party’s anticorruption platform has attracted the middle class and mobilised the urban poor. surender solanki
01 March, 2014

WHEN THE DELHI ASSEMBLY, amidst the expected uproar, voted 42 to 27 to block the introduction of the Jan Lokpal Bill on 14 February, it signalled the end of the Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s volatile seven weeks as chief minister. In a characteristic act of showmanship, Kejriwal tried to project the failure as the result of a united effort by the Congress and the BJP to scuttle the AAP’s cherished anti-corruption legislation, and not of his government’s attempt to sidestep constitutional procedure by bringing the bill to the floor without the approval of the central government. In a speech to the assembly, he declared, “From the scenes that I have witnessed today, it is clear that we have to be in parliament.” Two hours later, Kejriwal announced his resignation.

The episode came as little surprise. From the AAP’s inception, the party’s ambitions have been national, and the Delhi sojourn was only a halt on its way towards parliament. But even as the party aims for the kind of reach the Congress and the BJP enjoy, there is little agreement among observers about the impact the AAP will have in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Publicly, both the BJP and the Congress prefer to dismiss the possibility that the AAP could play a major role, but in private, senior leaders in both parties conceded that the AAP’s ability to impact the result in high-profile contests is a cause for concern. This anxiety was reinforced two days after Kejriwal’s resignation, when the AAP released its first list of parliamentary candidates. The AAP has deliberately chosen to pit prominent faces from the party against senior Congress and BJP leaders to ensure it gets across its message in the most effective way possible. In Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, the former television news anchor Ashutosh is challenging the Congress minister Kapil Sibal, and will no doubt make the most of issues such as the 2G scam. In Nagpur, activist Anjali Damania is taking on the senior BJP leader Nitin Gadkari (whom Kejriwal has claimed is among India’s most corrupt politicians), ensuring the BJP will not escape scrutiny on the issue of graft either.

This strategy, which worked well in the Delhi assembly elections, could give the party a national boost. News coverage is increasingly driven by personalities, and the AAP’s focus on battling well-known incumbents will boost its profile in constituencies where its candidates or their opponents may not be so prominent. The party’s success in Delhi has also given hope to organisations with a large support base, such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which have considered an electoral role in the past but have refrained from actually contesting elections. Both Medha Patkar, the NBA’s founder, and Alok Aggarwal, the current NBA chief, will contest on an AAP ticket.

But even so, the most optimistic assessments of the party’s chances rely on a possibility put forward by the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney in the Indian Express: “Moving forward, the AAP’s quick spread to India’s urban parliamentary constituencies (94 in all) and semi-urban constituencies (122) simply cannot be ruled out … If the AAP gets 30–40 seats in 2014, mostly from urban India, it will be the third largest party in Parliament.”

Almost every recent opinion poll has suggested that the country’s urban vote is solidly behind Modi. But many commentators, looking at the optimistic scenario outlined by Varshney, are now touting the AAP as an obstacle to the BJP’s march to power. Confidence in the AAP’s urban potential has much to do with the party’s success in last December’s Delhi assembly elections, when it won more than 29 percent of the vote. But extrapolating from the politics of one Indian region or metropolis to another is fraught with difficulty. The most urbanised large states in India today are Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but the AAP’s presence in Maharashtra is currently limited, and at this point it has almost no existence in Tamil Nadu or Kerala.

A metro like Mumbai might seem like an ideal platform for the AAP, but, unlike Delhi, the city has strong regional players such as the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the MNS. These parties draw a great deal of their support from the Maharashtrian population, which makes up over 40 percent of Mumbai. In the last assembly elections, the MNS and the Shiv Sena together won over 40 percent of the vote. In addition, the vast majority of the city’s Gujarati population of about 20 percent is expected to be firmly behind Modi. Individual contests—such as those pitting the AAP’s Meera Sanyal against the Congress’s Milind Deora, in Mumbai South, and the AAP’s Medha Patkar against the NCP’s Sanjay Dina Patil, in Mumbai North East—will attract a lot of media attention, but the AAP seems unlikely to have the sort of presence it enjoys in Delhi.

That said, a closer examination of the AAP’s electoral performance in Delhi, and of recent opinion polls, sheds some light on the party’s national potential. In the Delhi assembly elections, the AAP did particularly well in areas of high urban concentration, especially those with a significant proportion of slums, according to an analysis by Srinivas Ramani in Economic and Political Weekly. (The AAP’s vote share was lower in the relatively rural areas of west and north-west Delhi.) Like the India Against Corruption campaign out of which it was born, the AAP reflects the structure of many people’s movements in this country, such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or even Naxalism. Its leadership is primarily drawn from the middle class, while most of its base comprises those ignored or actively discriminated against by the state. The AAP, though, brings something new to this structure. Its anti-corruption platform has attracted much more middle-class support than most people’s movements, and its political mobilisation of the urban poor—who, as the Naxals have found, are resistant to many brands of activism—is a potent new force.

The AAP’s success in Delhi came largely at the expense of the Congress and the BSP, whose vote shares declined 15.3 percent and 8.8 percent respectively since the last assembly election, in 2008. (In contrast, the BJP’s vote share went down by less than 2 percent.) The shift of the BSP vote to the AAP is a strong indication that issues such as electricity tariffs, inflation and slum regularisation have overcome caste loyalties among Delhi’s urban poor. But the decline in the Congress’s and BSP’s vote shares is not specific to Delhi. Anger with the Congress is spread throughout the country, and Mayawati has crippled her own organisation through her “reluctance to promote other leaders within the party … because of a fear of creating alternate power centres,” as Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma recently argued in the Indian Express.

It is against this background that recent opinion polls (such as a C-Voter–India Today poll in late January), even when processed with due scepticism, make sense. They suggest that the states and territories (other than Delhi) where the AAP would poll more than 10 percent of the votes in a Lok Sabha election are Chandigarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir (mostly in Jammu)—in that order. While Chandigarh is no surprise—its demographic of a salaried middle class with a service-providing urban underclass is a replica of the areas of Delhi where the AAP has done well—the other regions on this list do not fit the conventional story that the AAP is solely, or even predominantly, an urban party.

Instead, the regions where the party seems to be faring well tend to follow Delhi’s political pattern: a two-way fight between the Congress and the BJP in urban pockets; a once substantial, even if now diminished, BSP presence; and a BJP leadership that is unable to help its party court the voters that the Congress and the BSP are shedding. In Punjab, for example, the AAP is becoming popular despite the existence of a strong regional party like the Akali Dal, because the latter does not have an urban base.

A partial fulfilment of these conditions does not suffice. Both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have had a significant BSP presence at one point or another, but the strength of the BJP in these states means that, for the moment, there is little space for the AAP. In Himachal and Uttarakhand, where voters have moved away from the BJP in recent state polls, the AAP is gaining a foothold. The same is true in Punjab and Haryana, where the BJP has always operated in the shadow of strong regional parties dominated by rural Sikhs and Hindu Jats respectively.

The conditions that seem to favour the AAP are not replicated in much of the rest of the country. As a result, the party might benefit most from concentrating fully on these small states, and cities like Chandigarh, where no regional party is well entrenched and the BJP does not have a strong leadership. Official recognition as a national party, which requires that the AAP win more than 8 percent of the popular vote in four states, seems likely.

But the AAP has more ambitious plans. It is set to contest almost all the seats in Uttar Pradesh, even though BSP support in the state seems unwavering and the BJP has re-emerged as a strong force there in the wake of Modi’s anointment as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The AAP will also contest a substantial number of seats in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. This decision is in part based on the response the party received to a call for applicants to contest on its behalf—a potentially misleading way of deciding on its possible success in states where its leadership is not grounded the same way it is in Delhi. Although the AAP’s prospective candidates come largely from the middle class, the majority of its votes still need to come from the urban poor.

Kejriwal’s brief term in government seems to have exacerbated some conflicts inherently present in the AAP’s diverse support base. While the evidence is anecdotal, some in the middle class who had voted for the party and seen it as embodying a new kind of politics seem to have quickly grown disenchanted with what they see as Kejriwal’s populism. Such tensions may get worse. Those who speak admiringly of the fact that the AAP eschewed “vote-bank” politics and did not trade on caste or religious sentiment in Delhi forget that the party had not yet ventured into territory where such politics often become necessary. Now that the AAP has turned its focus to national elections, this is changing. In Haryana, the party has had to maintain an ambiguous stance on khap panchayats. In Punjab, it has already tied up with the United Sikh Movement, a radical religious organisation led by Bhai Mohkam Singh, a one-time associate of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

The change in how middle-class professionals perceive the AAP has been reflected in recent coverage, with channels such as Times Now taking adversarial positions, and commentators like Pratap Bhanu Mehta arguing that the party’s “mode of functioning raised huge questions about the judgment of many of its members.” All of this makes the AAP’s growth from Delhi to other metros more difficult; middle-class professionals, networked and mobile across cities, will now be transmitting mixed signals about the party. Yet, we would do well to remember that most analysts, including this one, significantly underestimated the party’s performance in Delhi. The fact is that the AAP has shown far more aptitude for the electoral battle than it has for governance, and it’s possible the party will spring another surprise.