In the aftermath of the sweeping electoral triumph of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, liberals throughout the country hailed the result. Prominent commentators across the board, whether journalists or celebrities from other spheres such as Bollywood, interpreted it as a rejection of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hate-filled campaign in the capital. Reacting to exit polls on 8 February, all of which showed a decisive victory for the AAP, Shekhar Gupta, the former editor of the Indian Express, tweeted that the verdict “will be a stunning repudiation of the politics of polarization in Delhi.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The liberal reaction is part of a familiar pattern. Ever since the AAP appeared on the Indian political landscape, liberals have not just misunderstood the nature of its appeal, but also largely chosen to overlook the party’s many troubling aspects—ones present in its very genealogy, but now ever more evident as it faces ideological challenges from the right.
Examine the nature of its populism. This can be broadly divided into two parts. The first is its emphasis on schools, hospitals and improving civic services, as part of a larger drive to improve routine accountability in government. The second entails widely popular measures such as slashing power and water tariffs and eliminating bus fares for women, all of which serve to bind the city’s working and lower-middle classes to the AAP.
In these approaches, the AAP most closely resembles the left-wing economic populism seen across the world in the last decade, from the two-term presidency of Lula da Silva in Brazil to the electoral insurgency being led by Bernie Sanders in the United States. But economic populism as a party’s sole plank has rarely led to much success in India. The AAP’s upending of that traditional assumption accounts for its novelty in the arena of Indian politics.
The AAP model also shares elements with the paternalist populism seen most conspicuously in Tamil Nadu, where economic populism exists in conjunction with an ideological assertion of Dravidian identity. The same mix of economic populism and identity could be said to exist, in lesser degrees, in West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee and Odisha under Naveen Patnaik. But the AAP foregrounds its economic message. Seen purely in this light, the party’s political style and thrust is probably closer to that of Sanders than MK Stalin.