AAP: One Among the Crowd

For many the Aam Aadmi Party is no longer the party with a difference. Its critics say it has squandered all the political goodwill it had gained after the 2015 elections

Abeer Kapoor Delhi

On April 13, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) slipped to the third position in the by-elections for a seat in the Delhi Vidhan Sabha. Harjeet Singh, the party’s candidate, managed to secure only 10,243 votes, less than one-sixth of the total votes cast, and lost his deposit. Two years ago, AAP had defied the odds and won the seat with an overwhelming 46.5 percent of the vote share. This result is just one amongst the many woes that the Aam Aadmi Party faces today, as continued electoral defeats and an inability to woo a larger voter base causes apprehensions about its future.

This loss comes close on the heels of the defeat in Punjab and the debacle in Goa, a state where the party could not secure even one seat. Before March 11, there was some hope that AAP would win Punjab and Goa, and riding on these victories would emerge a strong contender for the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2018, and carry the momentum into 2019 against the BJP in the general election. Now that sense of optimism seems to be lost. The party was built on hope: it was willed into being as a response to the aspirations of the youth and a new emerging class disillusioned by the prevailing political situation. Two years on, that momentum is lost and much of its political goodwill has been squandered, as the letter by the Election Commission asked the party: it is time to introspect.    

Arvind Kejriwal thinks otherwise. On April 8 at a press conference, replying to the allegations made in the Shunglu Committee report, the chief minister of Delhi said that the party is being made the victim of attempts to destroy it and if that is unsuccessful, at least to tarnish its image. According to sources in the party, the blame for the turnaround in the fortunes of the party falls squarely on the shoulders of its leadership. There are murmurings of growing dissent within the party, with the demand for internal democracy steadily growing. There is an impression that the current leadership has laid to waste a golden opportunity and with it laid to waste the hopes of lakhs.

“The losses in Punjab and Goa have demonstrated conclusively that the Aam Aadmi Party has missed the bus. There is no capacity to tap into the rural poor with the same creativity that happened in Delhi with the urban poor,” said Professor Anand Kumar, an ex-National Executive Member of AAP, and now one of the founders of Swaraj Abhiyan. “There was nothing that really differentiated AAP from the rest, there was no alternative politics. One of the main reasons the party was decimated in Goa was the poor candidate selection, they took the unwanted members of the already established political system.”

According to sources in the party, the blame for the turnaround in the fortunes of the party falls squarely on the shoulders of its leadership. There are murmurings of growing dissent within the party, with the demand for internal democracy steadily growing. There is an impression that the current leadership has laid to waste a golden opportunity and with it laid to waste the hopes of lakhs

In the eyes of many, the Aam Aadmi Party’s defeats have brought out its poverty of ideas. For Prof Kumar, the crisis that the party is facing right now is because after the win in Delhi, it has not been able to continuously reinvent itself, or focus on how to expand, “The BJP has no longer any ideological barriers, and their entire purpose and the pragmatism of Narendra Modi is geared towards pushing forward this ideology, which is visible in the cadre and their wins.” Winning is crucial, according to Kumar, it helps galvanise the entire party organisation towards the leadership. If you lose, you squander that opportunity. When you don’t win, those around you get disillusioned. “Success brings momentum towards the leadership and then the volunteer base has to be activated, trained and motivated, and finally the organisation programme has to be conceived. In the case of AAP, none of this happened, in Punjab and Goa there was no direction and now with the loss, the little base that was built will also delink itself.”  Prof Kumar also points to the failure of the party to expand its core identity, “There is no critical dialogue in the party, the idea of one person, one post has been abandoned as well.” Many issues and contradictions are now emerging within the party. The mismatch between how it was imagined and the way its praxis has unfolded has caused conflict.

Losses make people question the party’s tactics. “In the Aam Aadmi Party there are few committed ideological volunteers, the rest are there for opportunities. When the winning stops these people stop contributing. Those people in Punjab, for example, who were promised positions in public office on coming to power will now slowly shift to other power centres because they don’t care,” said Col JS Gill, spokesperson for Apna Punjab Party, a splinter group of the Aam Aadmi Party. According to him, in Punjab, a split in the party is imminent, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the ‘high command’ functioning that has seeped in, and power groups have emerged with Delhi loyalists trying to grab power at the cost of local leadership. “There is a feeling that many of the MLAs will rally around the local leadership of Sucha Singh Chhotepur, Dharamvir Gandhi and other leaders of Punjab, who helped build the party from the ground up.”

According to Col Gill, the party is behaving in an inefficient manner, it is not following its own principles and laws, holding people accountable. “Bhagwat Mann did not campaign for the Rajouri seat, Jarnail Singh is somewhere else, why aren’t there any disciplinary actions taken against these leaders?” he asks. These lapses in party organisation are sending people the message that that it is no longer a party ‘with a difference’.

The biggest critique of those who have seen the party’s trajectory from the beginning till now is that there is a gradual shift in the priorities of the party, away from its core beliefs.

“Bhagwat Mann did not campaign for the Rajouri seat, Jarnail Singh is somewhere else, why aren’t there any disciplinary actions taken against these leaders?” he asks. These lapses in party organisation are sending people the message that that it is no longer a party ‘with a difference’.

One contributing factor for the crisis in the party is the overwhelming control that Kejriwal exercises. According to sources, the party now runs through ministers and their coteries, there is no ground-level connect, no finger on the pulse. If there is no other leadership then the party’s downward spiral will continue. “The problem is that Arvind Kejriwal robbed India of a dream. The party was built up by people for the ideas of social justice to bring change and an alternative form of politics, but what happened? He cheated the people of India,” said Gandhi, an ex-AAP member, and a Member of Parliament from Patiala. “I was there when the party was formed, we wanted something different, and the people now see that AAP is just one of the many parties in the fray.” Gandhi blames Kejriwal for the downward spiral that the anti-corruption party is in now, “Kejriwal is a fascist, and has a dictatorial attitude. He destroys people. The Punjabi voter voted very wisely this time. It took the Congress a hundred years to prove that the Nehru-Gandhi family was the party. It took 28 years for the BJP to make Modi the party, but it took AAP three years to prove that Arvind Kejriwal is the party. When we joined the movement, we thought we were doing something different, we were fighting against corruption but also fighting for peace. Now it is completely different.”

Prof Kumar is also certain that the character of the party has changed, it is no longer what it was. In the process of expansion it has abandoned the inclusive principles it was built on, “Name one minority leader, a backward leader, a mahila leader? There is none. The party is no longer committed or concerned with the ideals of social justice. Kejriwal has no pragmatism, he has no location and is seen as a power peddler of a fractured party that is inefficient, he does not push forward a secular or plural narrative.”

“I was there when the party was formed, we wanted something different, and the people now see that AAP is just one of the many parties in the fray.” Gandhi blames Kejriwal for the downward spiral that the anti-corruption party is in now, “Kejriwal is a fascist, and has a dictatorial attitude. He destroys people. The Punjabi voter voted very wisely this time. It took the Congress a hundred years to prove that the Nehru-Gandhi family was the party. It took 28 years for the BJP to make Modi the party, but it took AAP three years to prove that Arvind Kejriwal is the party. "

Punjab afforded AAP national ambition, it was their first peek outside Delhi. Punjab behaves very differently from other states, according to Gandhi. “When 407 members of AAP lost their deposits, Punjab elected 4 MPs, and the rest of the seats were closely fought. Then they let us down, they did not let a local leadership rise and laid to waste our efforts.” This process of excluding local leadership, according to him, will be seen again and again.

Despite their defeat, Valmiki Naik, secretary of the Goa Aam Aadmi Party, begs to differ with the doubts over the future of AAP. He believes that if it wasn’t for AAP and what it stood for, people like him wouldn’t have entered active politics. “The state was not ready to accept the Aam Aadmi Party. If you see where we started from, you will see that we have done far better. You might say ‘decimated’ but we’d look at it differently. People are now talking to us, wishing they had voted for AAP.” According to him the party has not shifted an inch from its original mandate. However, Godwin Fernandes, the Aam Aadmi Party candidate from Calangute, while agreeing with Naik, is aware of the growing unrest in the volunteer base, “It’s not like people don’t want to join us, they are flocking to us even now, but there is a disappointment that set into our volunteer base. We were seen as outsiders, and it was the people’s choice.” The future, though, according to both these leaders is not bleak but full of possibilities. Both chorus that Goa was not ready as yet, “They picked the known devil, but there is still hope and Arvind Kejriwal is a strong leader.”

Another member of the party in Goa told Hardnews that there was an effort to rebuild the party as a Goan party, while associated with AAP, but with an independent identity.

The definitive reality is that the graph of the Aam Aadmi Party is falling and fast. Whether this is a temporary phase, a ploy by the BJP-Congress combine, or the beginning of an internal collapse only time will tell. The reason for the fall does require ‘introspection’, as the Election Commission advised the party. But it’s almost comical that the electoral fortunes, future and survival of a party once vying for te national stage has been reduced to the results of the MCD polls, which it is fighting against the BJP, Congress and its own splinter groups.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2017