How ‘disruptor’ AAP became just another mainstream Indian party

Arvind Kejriwal’s party promised to shake up the political system, only to be co-opted by it.

ByAnand Vardhan
How ‘disruptor’ AAP became just another mainstream Indian party
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In 1966, a year after his death, German political scientist Otto Kirchheimer’s thesis on “catch all parties” reached the global academic readership with its inclusion in the Political Parties and Political Development, published by Princeton University Press. To put it briefly, while keeping German political parties in mind, Kirchheimer explained how parties in modern democracies were similar in the way they joined the mainstream of power politics and the pursuit of electoral gain by adjusting or even shedding their ideological baggage and stated values.

In a way, this position had evolved from what political scientist Sigmund Newmann had suggested in his 1956 study of political parties, Modern Political Parties, a decade previously. The study observed that parties tend to grow into vote-catching entities by seeking to reflect popular orientations, not by shaping them. One may be tempted to apply the rational choice model to power-seeking political actors, on the lines of what Joseph Schumpeter and Anthony Downs had developed.

Even though such studies were focused on western party systems, some of the insights they offer are useful in tracing the trajectory of political parties in the third world too, particularly in India.

A case in point is how over the last six years, the Aam Aadmi Party has moved from its projection as a contrarian political start-up to a routine political actor. The mainstreaming of AAP reinforces the gravitational pull of the grammar of the party system in India. In moving from its self-perception as a “disruptor” to being a part of the mainstream political culture, AAP’s case is that of eventually conforming with a playbook that has been scripted over decades of the working and conduct of political parties in the country.

Following the crippling of its national ambitions with the dismal show in the 2014 general election subsequent Assembly polls, AAP’s recalibrated approach to running the party and its government in Delhi was as much a reconciliation to being a metropolitan force as it was of graduating to the ways of regular political parties. In the process, the party has now embraced some of the traits and practices it had once attacked political parties for, and promised to “disrupt”. In gradually distancing itself from its initial claims of causing “disruption’’, some of the points of departure became more visible.

First, the element of elite accommodation, a feature of political parties in general and third world political parties in particular, became obvious in the working of AAP when its leader Arvind Kejriwal chose Sushil Gupta, a Delhi-based businessman for a Rajya Sabha seat in 2018, overlooking party leaders. The patronage system of the party for those with limited association with it but seen as useful in strengthening its financial resources, left many disillusioned. That wasn’t the message a fledgling party eyeing a paradigm shift in intraparty democracy, or rather the lack of it, would send its rank and file.

With this decision, the party showed that its patronage system was no different from the rewards other political players had in store for those helping to fill the party coffers.

Second, further undermining its claims of ensuring intraparty democracy, AAP witnessed the rise of the personality cult around and the centralisation of decisionmaking powers in the hands of Kejriwal. While the purging of senior party leaders such as Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan a month after being voted to power in Delhi in 2015 was seen by the latter as Kejriwal turning “dictatorial”, the subsequent Kejriwal-centric advertisement splurge and the party’s electoral campaigns revealed that it has become captive to the personality cult.

That’s not different from regional satrap-driven political parties such as the Biju Janta Dal in Odisha, Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana. Even national political parties like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are more or less personality-driven entities. In the last six years, the BJP’s dependence on the personality cult has been what it was for the Congress in the Indira Gandhi era, particularly in the 1970s.

Third, for a party which had its origins in early last decade’s anti-corruption movement, it has had to learn the delicate distinction between making high-profile corruption allegations and taking them to logical conclusion. In a sharp departure from his brand of hit-and-run corruption allegations against political rivals, Kejriwal had to eat his words in face of a slew of defamation cases. In a moment of late realisation, the party came to terms with the fact that while such reckless adventurism was an easy route to win some supporters, its legal sustainability was fraught with danger.

This eventually forced Kejriwal to go on an apology spree. If one may draw a parallel from the world of journalism, AAP resembled a media organisation seeking an apology after publishing a series of news stories with unsubstantiated allegations or unverified information. In other words, it was the political equivalent of spreading fake news.

Such U-turns and abandoning the zeal to stick to, and if possible pursue, corruption charges against the high and mighty doesn’t distinguish AAP as different from the political parties which are flexible with the polemical use of allegations. Nor is it different from the parties which don’t have much substance in terms of evidence and action to follow up such accusations with.

Fourth, in ongoing election campaigns as well as the choice of candidates, the party has shown the same faultlines that run across the political spectrum. While campaigning for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, AAP’s East Delhi candidate reportedly asked voters to even support the goons of the SP-BSP alliance if they could defeat the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, AAP’s candidates for the forthcoming Assembly polls include those facing criminal charges. That’s neither a type of campaign nor the choice of candidates that befits a party which had once made ushering in clean politics its key electoral plank.

Fifth, if dynastic politics or nepotism mark the selection of candidates in other parties, there are signs that AAP isn’t immune to it. This, for instance, was evident in how AAP selected its candidate for the Tri Nagar assembly constituency in Delhi. The party replaced Jitender Tomar, whose election was set aside by the Delhi High Court for giving a false declaration in his nomination papers for the 2015 Assembly election, with his wife Preeti Tomar.

Similarly, the party hasn’t been hesitant about identity politics mobilisation whenever it has suited its purpose. The party realised that for the complex social formation and electorate which comes from it, identity politics is at times indispensable to India’s body politic. A case in point is Kejriwal identifying himself as Baniya to woo traders while campaigning for the last Assembly polls.

One may go on to see similarities between the heavy subsidy policy measures adopted by AAP and far earlier by regional parties such as the DMK or TDP. It has been one of the familiar routes taken by regional forces for consolidating support among certain sections of their base in a bid to insure against the vagaries of floating voters even within groups that are favourably inclined towards them.

These points of departure from any claim of being a disruptive or contrarian political force are just a few of the many significant ways in which AAP has been mainstreamed into the fold of India’s party system. In the process, it has become one of the latest adjuncts to a well entrenched political technology developed over decades by many political entities in the country.

In the gulf between its initial projection and its actual conduct in the last six years lies the turf of AAP’s co-option into the mainstream. Eventually, that’s the turf which hosts power politics – and AAP is now entrenched there.

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