As in every other urban centre in India, a local office of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has sprouted in Thiruvananthapuram as well. Under the leadership of Arvind Kejriwal, the party made a stunning debut in the Delhi Assembly elections last year, despite all the general hostility in the media and the scorn other political parties heaped upon it. But their flirtation with power was short-lived. Kejriwal seemed unable to transition from his formidable activist avatar into the role of an office-going administrator, with the ability to manage the establishment and government machinery. After 49 days as chief minister of Delhi, he quit. By this time the AAP had lost much of its lustre, not least because there is only so much moral grandstanding one can get away with before excitement begins to erode and the more monotonous business of actual governance sobers one down.
In Thiruvananthapuram, the party’s agenda is interesting, and in some ways amusing. To start with, its very name has become the butt of many jokes because ‘aap’ in Malayalam translates literally into ‘booby trap’! It is not unusual to hear Congress or Left workers giggling gleefully about this awkward coincidence. It also doesn’t help that the official symbol of the party is a broom. In Delhi, the symbol may have worked and television images of party workers marching broom in hand caused an interesting buzz. In Kerala, however, the broom, far from being seen as a symbol of cleaning up the inefficiencies of our systems, looks outlandish and alien. The large numbers of bureaucrats and white-collar employees living in Thiruvananthapuram would prefer something a little more subtle and orthodox, thank you very much.
The AAP’s principal candidate for the parliamentary elections here is Ajit Joy, a former IPS officer who also spent some years in a UN department. His selection was in keeping with the much touted interview system of the party, and he was chosen as the most suitable person to represent the AAP in Thiruvananthapuram. Like all the other contenders for this constituency, Joy is also very well educated, with an LLM from Harvard, and a distinguished career behind him. When the AAP was first formed, he reportedly quit his position in the UN and returned to India to help Kejriwal in his efforts in Delhi. He worked in Greater Kailash and in the party’s legal cell, and helped bring the AAP to power last year.
I first saw Ajit Joy when I accompanied Shashi Tharoor, his Congress opponent and the sitting MP, to the Press Club for a debate organised by a TV channel. The Left and BJP candidates were also present, but Joy looked very distinct, not least because of the trademark AAP cap. He was otherwise a serious looking man who wore an expression of unsparing sternness. He spoke in a low, almost wooden tone, which might be a disadvantage insofar as election speechmaking goes. He definitely does not look like our average politician; if you passed him on the street he would look very much like another pedestrian. That, evidently, is also the AAP’s intention.
The debate was about various issues facing Thiruvananthapuram and the sitting MP had to defend his record. One of the main questions was about the difficult garbage disposal crisis the city is facing for the last several years. Tharoor made his position on the subject clear. As MP, he pointed out, his job was in Delhi, in Parliament, and in bringing Central funding to the constituency. In this he had been very successful, channelling some Rs 2,500 crores to Thiruvananthapuram. However, the MP had no power on the ground in terms of implementing schemes and plans; that was the responsibility of the local authorities, in this instance the city corporation, controlled by the Left for some 40 years. For waste management, the MP had brought special funds from the Centre after the crisis began, but the city authorities had failed spectacularly in executing plans and spending this money wisely. His argument was clear: the people must most certainly demand quality services from their elected representatives, but they must also hold the right person accountable for their mistakes, which, in this case, was the mayor.
The AAP position, as explained by Joy, did not recognise such a division of charge and was poised on a more sentimental notion that elected representatives must take up practically every issue faced by their constituents, irrespective of what body they had been elected to. It is, of course, easier said than done, and Tharoor was quick to point out that if Joy wanted to contest elections to manage basic amenities etc., he should stand for mayor and not MP. He clearly, Tharoor pointed out, did not understand that a Member of Parliament works in Parliament and in the capital, on the basis that there are other local representatives to handle local issues, in a more immediate fashion. Joy brought up some other basic subjects as well, some of which were again rather atypical. While Tharoor elaborated on highways, major institutions, health schemes, port development etc., Joy was focussed on, curiously enough, the problem of stray dogs in Thiruvananthapuram, along with other city-level subjects.
The AAP in Thiruvananthapuram may well turn out to be an aap, in the Malayalam sense of the term. It is expected to tempt a slice of the youth vote, although its appeal with other sections is supposed to be negligible. Tharoor, as a sitting MP defending his seat, also points out to every young voter he meets that they should think twice before these elections; is it worth voting for a party that is certain to lose, and to waste one’s vote?
To add to it, the AAP seems currently to be in the midst of much internal turmoil as well, with party workers in several places jumping ship in favour of the BJP. In Thiruvananthapuram alone, earlier this week some 50 volunteers reportedly left the party and went over to the Right. There is some talk that this is because Joy is inflexible and dominating, but what is more interesting is that it possibly answers a question everyone has been asking for months: whose B-Team is the AAP – the Congress’s or the BJP’s? Given the growing stream of party workers flowing smoothly from the AAP to the BJP, this question now seems redundant.
Based in Thiruvananthapuram for the 2014 elections, Manu Pillai is a writer and historian currently engaged on a BBC project, with considerable past political experience that includes working at the House of Lords in London and running Shashi Tharoor's parliamentary office in Delhi. He tweets at @UnamPillai.