AAP: FROM BOOM TO BUST?

After a phenomenal performance in the Delhi Assembly elections, the tenure of the AAP government has been marked by a series of gaffes, political wrong-turns and, most importantly, a lack of even a tenuous grip on the functioning of the state. How long before they squander away their gains?

Sanjay Kapoor New Delhi

As political honeymoons go, this was probably the most short-lived. Barely a month into being in power, Aam Aadmi Party, and its feisty chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, has started facing backlash from the same quarters that were earlier effusively singing his praise. In some ways, this sudden dip in popularity rivals that of UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s, but even he managed to avoid a trashing by the media or the opposition parties for at least the first three months. So, is AAP’s discomfiture for real or is there still some life left in a party that promised so much?

Before the boorish and ugly conduct by AAP minister Somnath Bharti brought the Delhi CM to sit on a dharna and defy the central government days before Republic Day celebrations, AAP had been getting tremendous support from different parts of the country, even in the subcontinent. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, too, the edit pages were full of opinion on whether they should also hope for an AAP-style revolution. Both countries have been suffering from abject corruption and an absence of accountability from top leadership.

AAP rode to a stunning victory on the plank of fighting corruption and ending the primacy politicians enjoyed in a parliamentary democracy. Although their disdain for elected representatives in the Parliament smacked of unconcealed fascism, there was a mass of support for this point of view. It’s a similar mindset that has been buoying Narendra Modi’s prospects of being in the PM’s chair, propped further by those who staunchly resent the weak-kneed approach of PM Manmohan Singh. The policy paralysis occasioned by a laborious consensus-building effort on contentious issues of environment, land and mining policy did not help matters either. Both Modi and Kejriwal represented two different paradigms of decision-making, but they have not really departed from the core of the neo-liberal economic order, which had been the hallmark of what is frivolously called “Manmohanomics” by the jargon-fetishist pink press.

While support for Modi remained undiminished amongst those clamouring for more muscle and aggression in their leaders, there was great curiosity in the minds of many about what Kejriwal was up to. The very section in Delhi that claimed to be disgusted with corruption in high places — in fact the biggest beneficiary of the economic boom of the past ten years — has been most vocal in their criticism of the Congress government. Incidentally, it’s the same bunch that used to indulge in the everyday corruption, but in AAP they saw an opportunity to devalue the traditional politician and join politics themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, but many of those who backed Kejriwal’s venture were serving and retired bureaucrats who saw greater respect for their ambitions from a fellow bureaucrat-led political party. Any talk of Kejriwal and AAP rouses that familiar gleam in their eyes. Many superannuated bureaucrats are seriously nursing ambitions of becoming full-time politicians, as a recently-retired Secretary to the Government of India recently asked, “What do you think it even takes to join AAP?” Then there are also those who are angry with the arrogance of the ruling elite and want them to be seriously downsized.

Equally interesting is the fact that soon after this incident, the media that built AAP began to desert it

In effect, what Kejriwal did was make politics—a once-derided catch all term for everything wrong in this country—look respectable as a middle-class pursuit. Even NGOs that were wary of politics and who consciously stayed out of it, began to plug into the AAP after seeing Kejriwal’s remarkable rise. They were emboldened by the decision of Medha Patkar’s decision to work with AAP. Similarly, others, who had been involved in various grassroots movements, started rallying around the party. In places like Lucknow, AAP struck an immediate chord, even though there is no political space for new entrants, as it has been carved up between Congress, BJP and the two caste-based parties, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In Lucknow’s coffee houses, people donning Gandhi caps began to converge when it was made known to them that’s where the aam admi hung out. In other parts of the state, too, many aspiring to join politics, sensing a wave in favour of AAP, began to show up in impressive numbers. After Delhi, Haryana seemed to have managed to attract the most AAP enthusiasts. A bewildered Congress MP found more than 20,000 workers responding to a call by the AAP party for volunteers. Congress is under no delusion that there’s a dark cloud looming over the bastion of its CM, Bhupinder Singh Hooda. In Bengaluru, AAP leader Yogendra Yadav may not have attracted a large an audience as Modi, but the numbers were still considerable, and far less pretentious.

If AAP’s success in Delhi was due to the middle classes, minorities and poor sections of society deserting Congress, and if they can repeat this success in other big cities, Congress could be looking at a low-double-digit performance in the Lok Sabha elections. Some are even comparing the onslaught on Congress from BJP and AAP to the one subjected by emperor Babur against Ibrahim Lodhi. Called ‘Tulugma’, the strategy attempts to chase the enemy in such a manner that it faces a bigger danger than there actually is. When Congress shapes up to face the BJP, it is compelled to brace up to the challenge of AAP.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2014