While the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) resounding success in the 2014 general elections is undisputable, the performance of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is debatable. Many term its performance as a crushing defeat, while others view its victory in four seats in Punjab as commendable for a first timer. Both narratives – of failure and success – miss the larger point: the AAP will remain relevant in Indian politics.
The 2014 elections are just a starting point for the party. Critics are quick to point out that after fielding 443 candidates across the country, winning only four seats is a ‘huge setback’ for the AAP. However, here are some facts to consider: the BJP, which contested its first national election in 1984, won just two of the 224 seats it contested. It took the BJP 16 years to form a coalition government within the NDA that lasted a full five-year term, and 30 years to return to power with an absolute majority in the lower house.
There are several explanations why the AAP did not win more seats in these Lok Sabha elections, of which the most plausible is that it was too new a player compared to the two longstanding parties. Further, it was a late entrant, with a campaign under four months long. Many refused to even consider the AAP as a strong national contender in the conventional UPA versus NDA debate.
The BJP emerged from the existing organisational structure of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and is considered its political wing. The AAP was not an offshoot of a pre-existing institutional framework. Rather, it emerged entirely as a peoples’ movement. Until now, it has been a manifestation of spontaneous, chaotic collaboration. You could call it India’s largest start-up.
The BJP has been planning its resurgence since its defeat in 2009. NDTV’s 20-minute segment details how the BJP has implemented and used its public relations and marketing strategy since 2009 to promote the Gujarat model and Modi-nomics. While the BJP was coordinating its financial, logistical, and technical might toward forming the government in 2014, no one could have guessed the AAP would emerge from beyond the horizon. Fighting a national election against the BJP’s Rs 5,000 crore campaign was a herculean task, especially when one considers that most of donations towards the AAP’s Rs 37crore budget – less than 1% of the BJP’s – were received in March 2014. Moreover, it sought to challenge the leadership of traditional parties in their safe constituencies, attracting the attention of the media and apathetic citizens alike.
The AAP’s impact on Indian politics goes beyond exposing the potential vulnerability of the traditional establishment. The party sought to be an example of how politics ought to be. Its transparency in politics by making its financial sources readily available is widely talked of. The fact that the BJP has used muscle power to influence media sources and violate election laws is not news. Voters are apathetic towards such violations because they are seen as customary practices in Indian politics. Violations like buying votes by distributing money, meat, and alcohol are accepted as part and parcel of the political industry. Let’s not forget the abuse of communal language.
The AAP adopted a fresh approach to electoral politics by awarding tickets to candidates via an openly competitive selection process, on the basis of their calibre and achievements in their respective fields and constituencies. Many of its candidates may not have won, but its insistence of leading by example had an impact on the minds of the cynical, inattentive, and disinterested segments of the electorate.
The AAP’s stunning performance in the 2013 Delhi Assembly polls led to calls from around the nation for the party leadership to expand the party to a national level. However, Kejriwal’s resignation is believed to have caused a dent in the AAP’s approval in Delhi, and its credibility to handle responsibility on a national scale. The combination of the AAP’s failure to communicate the rationale behind its decision, coupled with the BJP marketing machine’s framing of the incident as an act of cowardice, largely explains why it did not win any of the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi.
But, contrary to those who criticise Kejriwal’s decision to resign as Delhi chief minister and believe the AAP has been crushed, the party’s vote-share in Delhi increased from 29% in the 2013 Assembly polls to 33% in the 2014 general elections. Each of the AAP candidates in Delhi was the runner up in their respective constituencies, having captured at least 30% of the votes. Support for the AAP in Delhi has grown despite facing heavy criticism and limited engagement from the party’s top leadership (who directed their attention to the party’s national pursuits).
The AAP’s presence in the national political landscape enabled it to wield considerable agenda-setting power. The level of media attention it garnered is a measure of its clout. The party’s leadership consistently reiterated that their goal was not to gain seats, but to change corrupt practices in the political system. That the AAP’s message became a national talking point and framed political debate, in whatever way it did, cannot be ignored. The party must continue to highlight issues of serious concern if it wishes to remain important.
The AAP’s relevance as a movement cannot be limited to its performance in its first national election. Its style of politics continues to capture the imagination of many young people who were previously armchair critics, fatalistic, or disconnected with the politics of the country. To remain relevant, the AAP will have to continue to attract youth, and serve as an avenue through which young and mid-career professionals can enter politics. It will have to continue to encourage people to take greater responsibility in matters of governance through the politics of empowerment that lies at the core of its philosophy.
India’s three-tiered nature of governance provides several opportunities for the AAP to emerge as a strong contender in both state and municipal level elections. While these elections are less glamorous, local institutions have significant implementation power over everyday issues that affect the quality of life. The AAP can continue to grow not only as a party but also as a peoples’ movement by recognising those who do good work in their communities, and encouraging people from different fields to engage in electoral politics. With 300 offices, over one crore members and an expansive volunteers across the country as well as active NRI chapters across the world, it holds promise for many.
The fact remains that it is too early to dismiss the AAP’s relevance.
Saanya Gulati is an alumnus of Tufts University with a BA in International Relations and Sociology. She was previously a Legislative Assistant to a Member of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow at PRS Legislative Research.
Digant Raj Kapoor holds an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge, where he was a Cambridge Commonwealth Trust Scholar. He is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow and an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) volunteer.