Last year, in July, I met a seasoned activist from Uttar Pradesh who considered Arvind Kejriwal a colleague. He believed Kejriwal was trying an experiment with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and expected him to return to his roots after the Delhi elections. There have been many other such experiments with well-meaning people getting into the ‘dirty world’ of politics. None have survived for long. Most folk in the Congress and the BJP shared the same opinion, with former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit famously dismissing Kejriwal as a ‘naa-cheez’ (literally ‘nothing’). Everyone (including this writer) is wiser since December.
The short-run Delhi government showed that the AAP was capable of political manoeuvring and understood the rules (or rather their absence) as well as its opponents do. This was not expected from a bunch of activists. Typically, activism is issue specific with a very clear objective, like, for instance, the laser sharp focus on the Lokpal bill during the anti-corruption protests. Transitioning from an activist movement to a political party has been the most challenging for the AAP. From the Lokpal bill, it expanded to include water and electricity as its issues in the Delhi elections, and is now taking the mantle of being defender of the ‘Idea of India’ in the national elections.
This expansion and evolution of its charter in a matter of a few months has been a tumultuous journey. The Delhi elections saw the AAP expanding its support base from the Lokpal bill’s professional middle class supporters to the urban poor. The Lok Sabha elections sees new supporters – the complete ‘Jal, Jungle, Jameen’ (water, forest and land rights) related activist cohort joining in with the AAP – to take its base far beyond the urban middle class to now include small business owners, the urban poor, villagers and tribals. This has riled many of the older middle-class supporters but the AAP has achieved a transformation few would have imagined six months ago.
On the whole there are now three sentiments regarding the AAP. First, that it is still irrelevant. There are many who feel the AAP’s success in Delhi is no guarantee for success at a national level. Delhi was unique in its density, lack of regionalism and as ground zero of the Lokpal movement. Also, the AAP had 12 months to prepare for Delhi, but has had just three months for the Lok Sabha polls. Hence, the prognosis here is that even if Delhi was a wrong call by most analysts, at the national level, the AAP is still irrelevant. Most opinion polls telecast recently also agree with this assessment. A young political party with meagre funds and no cadre base is probably going to be more noise than substance in this election as per this view.
The second sentiment is that of nuisance. The AAP has been the biggest nuisance for the BJP, with which it shared many initial supporters. A lot of these supporters backed the AAP during the Delhi elections, but became unhappy with the party’s decision to participate in the Lok Sabha polls. Suddenly, the sole beneficiary of the anti-UPA sentiment found a usurper in the room. The AAP’s own current positioning as the main opposition to the BJP should have an even more worried Congress, since this encroaches on its core proposition.
Even if the AAP won’t win significant seats in the Lok Sabha, it has made the electoral calculations unpredictable for both the major parties since it eats into one or other’s votes in many constituencies. With no precedent of such a young party going national in this meteoric fashion, electoral managers are hugely nervous with the unpredictability thrown into their careful calculations. In one of the constituencies, an election manager says the AAP will not win, but it has created a huge problem by keeping a hawk-eye on the campaign expenses of major parties.
The AAP’s journey has been a mixture of guerrilla tactics, modern low-cost campaign 2.0, and a ‘what’s to lose’ bravado. Social media gives it free volunteer management tools that scale seamlessly from city to national scale. Its election symbol can be bought from roadside kirana shops all over the country. The jhadu conveys an “I will clean it myself” attitude combined with a symbolic appeal to the Dalits. This kind of political symbolism was not expected from mere anti-corruption activists.
Thus, the final sentiment has been that of hope. The same political acumen that has found the AAP its detractors, also gives credibility to them as a real political party rather than just a bunch of do-gooders tilting at the windmills. The AAP has become a symbol of hope to many people who had been repulsed by the Indian political class as a whole. Whether it be the middle-class, who sees the same faces move from one party to another, or the marginalized class left on the way-side, or older vote-banks that have suddenly found their party moving on (like the traders who have found BJP move on to big businesses, leaving them behind) – a motley coalition that has created an alternative.
The AAP has reinforced this hope with its bid for a first all India clean candidate election. In the past, a few political newbies with clean reputations have tried fighting elections in urban constituencies and mostly lost. The dominant narrative has been that it takes more than just clean antecedents to win. The BJP’s answer to its choice of tainted candidates has been that they have been chosen based on their ability to win, reinforcing this narrative of who can be a successful MP. With candidates like Rajmohan Gandhi, Soni Sori, Gul Panag, Medha Patkar or Tanveer Maqbool Dar, a young doctor in Anatnag from 320+ constituencies, this is a first of its kind experiment in India. Even if a small number of such people win, it will challenge conventional wisdom. And that is the biggest hope – not that the AAP will win elections, but that it may change politics itself in India.
Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore-based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra.