How the Aam Aadmi Party is preparing to fight the long fight

AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal along with party leaders Manish Sisodia, Ashutosh and others after meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee on formation of Delhi Government on 6 September 2014. Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
09 September, 2014

When the new Bharatiya Janata Party government at the centre had completed 49 days in office, the Aam Aadmi Party released a poster that read: “People of Delhi—whose 49 days did you like? Aam Aadmi Party’s government or the BJP’s government?” Yesterday, the party released a video allegedly showing BJP leader Sher Singh Dagar offering AAP MLA Dinesh Mohania Rs 4 crore to help the BJP form the government in Delhi.

In May, the AAP had lost deposits in nearly all the 432 seats it contested, and won just four seats in Punjab. Afterwards, every bit of bickering within the party, big or small, was reported as evidence of implosion, and obituaries began to appear regularly in the media. But with the “49 days” campaign, and the sting operation, the party showed that it hadn’t lost any of its self-belief and fighting spirit, which has seen it face off against the behemoths of the Indian political arena from the moment of its inception.

At a meeting of MP candidates in the first week of July, Arvind Kejriwal spoke bluntly. “Your party doesn’t exist, you are a one-man party in your locality,” he said. Urging them to create a pool of 2000 volunteers in each assembly constituency, he told them that the only way to move forward was by hard, patient work “Now there is a lot of goodwill for Modi,” he said. “After a while, people will criticise him. You don’t have to do anything now. Quietly keep building your organisation.” “Andolan” (movements) and “sanghatan” (organisation) were vital to the party’s future, he said.

The two times I visited the party office—a pale yellow two-storied building on Hanuman Road in central Delhi—in as many months, morale seemed high. The matchbox rooms were occupied by party workers, mostly young, immersed in work and in animated discussions—a poster on one wall implored people not to sit idle. There was easy and cheerful camaraderie between workers and leaders, and a sense of election-time urgency in the air. The injuries of the summer’s general election results seemed like a distant memory.

After the Lok Sabha elections, the party held a series of meetings between volunteers and senior leaders, and then launched Mission Vistaar, helmed by  Prithvi Reddy in Karnataka, with the aim to build the organisation from the grassroots level and consolidate the support it had already earned. A committee headed by Prashant Bhushan was also appointed to prepare the party’s policy statement, which had been held up while it focused on its national election manifesto. A grievance redressal mechanism was also put in place.

“The first learning was that we were over-dependent on the Delhi wave,” Yogendra Yadav, the senior leader who lost the election from Gurgaon, told me in July. “When the wave receded, we didn’t have very much to fall back upon. Related to that, unlike in Delhi, we didn’t have movements and agitations in Haryana to build on. That meant our message remained verbal, it didn’t reach people. Third is, we didn’t have an organisation to speak of. Unless you have booth-level organisation, you can’t begin to do serious politics.”

Gaurav Tiwari, who handled the Lok Sabha campaign for Gurgaon explained to me the contrast between the party’s experience with the Delhi assembly elections and the general elections. For the former, he said, “we started our door-to-door campaign with four people and in five months, we had 500 volunteers. We made sure that every house was covered four times.” But ahead of the general elections, he explained, “I went to Gurgaon on 15 February and the election was on 10 April. Just 55 days to communicate your message where we didn’t have the support of a movement. In Delhi it was a movement for change, but in Gurgaon it was an out and out political election.”

Party workers believe the results in Punjab were positive because the BJP shares power with the Shiromani Akali Dal in the state, dispersing the benefits of its national wave. “Because of the mess created by the ruling coalition, youth and NRIs have supported the AAP in a big way,” Kalwant Singh, an AAP volunteer in Punjab told me. “NRIs called and told their families to vote for AAP. The youth went from village to village spending their own money for campaigning.”

Satyendra Jain, the party’s former health minister in Delhi, conceded that they had been stretched for resources. “People even asked me if we were contesting in Delhi at all because we couldn’t campaign properly,” he said. “And in other places, an MP candidate couldn’t even spend Rs 2 lakh. We were weak in rural areas. Only urban voters knew about the party.”

The effects of these setbacks are apparent in some moves the party has made. In August, Kejriwal declared that the party wouldn’t be contesting Haryana and Maharashtra assembly elections, sorely disappointing volunteers from those states. Instead, he said, they would focus on winning Delhi. Some volunteers from Haryana protested outside the party office. In other parts of the country, volunteers deserted after the Lok Sabha results. Yadav chose to see the bright side of this. “At the point of our peak, it was very difficult to distinguish between those who had come to just get tickets and those who were our long term allies,” he said. “But today it is not hard to see who are our long term allies. All kinds of people had managed to push their way into the party.” Both he and Anand Kumar, a founder member of the party and national executive member, told me that four people suspected to be RSS infiltrators had been expelled.

Kumar pointed out that the party was seeing some tension between its original members, who had been with the party since it was the India Against Corruption movement, a second group that joined during the Delhi assembly elections and a third that joined during the Lok Sabha elections. “The gap is not too big but the attitudinal difference is huge,” he said. “The first set of people think the rest are in search of power and opportunity. It might be partly true, but to consider the likes of Medha Patkar, Rajmohan Gandhi, Udayakumar and Lingraj Pradhan as power seekers will be a huge mistake.” Overcoming this problem, he added, would require “training in elementary processes of party building, democratisation and above all in political history of modern India and challenges of the party system.”

The party has also realised how critical it is to have booth-level organisers, though to some people, this grates against its idealistic image. “Many people have a problem with the word ‘booth’ here, that we are referring to elections, but it is important” Kejriwal said at the MP meeting. Putting people in charge of each booth in each village would ensure that the party had “four to five people per village,” Kejriwal said, which is “not a bad thing at all.” The most significant benefit of such a structure would be the party’s ability to control its image, he pointed out. “If we have organisation in place,” he said, “the media can’t do anything.” (Indeed, most leaders I spoke to told me that they felt the party had failed in dealing with the media. Now, according to Anand Kumar, they were looking to engage more, be more tolerant, look beyond the electronic media and focus more on print and regional media.)

This more firmly rooted organisational structure, envisaged as the solution to many problems, has been put in place in Delhi. Seventy assembly segments have been divided into 14 districts, each under the charge of one party worker. Each district-in-charge will oversee five assembly segments. The district heads, divided into two teams, in turn will be supervised by Dilip K Pandey and Durgesh Pathak, who will report to Ashutosh, the new convenor of the Delhi unit.

The party has been organising public meetings, as well as Google hangouts with various party leaders every Saturday. Its 27 MLAs in Delhi have also been carrying out work in consultation with the public, using the annual fund of Rs 4 crore at their disposal. “Most of them are about maintenance,” said Satyendra Kumar Jain, the MLA of Shakur Basti constituency. “I have given 705 tasks and 350 have been completed so far. There are 123 booths, and we are hoping the funds are evenly distributed.” In their view, despite the party’s poor performance in the Lok Sabha elections, it is still on strong footing with the public. “It is a matter of consolidation—the core voter base has increased from 29 to 35 percent from assembly polls to Lok Sabha,” Nagender Sharma, who was adviser to Kejriwal when he was the chief minister, told me.

According to senior party leader and spokesperson Ashutosh, the party’s analysis of its position has revealed that “it is clear the poor and minorities are with us. It is up to the party’s ability how much we can poach from other sections.” Despite the BJP’s moves to take hold of power in Delhi, he said, “the BJP doesn’t have a good CM candidate and we are placed comfortably in Delhi.”

Yadav insisted the AAP’s agenda is not just limited to winning elections in Delhi. “You do not quite have an opposition in the country,” he said. “Congress at national level neither has the numbers, nor the vision or the guts to be opposition. We do not have the numbers either. But if we have the vision and guts, we can occupy that space.” The AAP’s strategy for the next five years, he explained, is “to occupy that space and become principal opposition in the country. Not inside the house, but oppositional politics is not confined to what happens inside the house. It’s on the street.”