On December 1, two days after polling in phase one of the Gujarat assembly election, an Aam Aadmi Party leader summed up his party’s performance.
“The first storm will damage a decades-old tree to some extent,” he said while he ate breakfast at a hotel in Ahmedabad. “The second one will uproot it.”
This “first storm” was the AAP’s first full-fledged contest in Gujarat. Of course, the election result – with the BJP returning to power for the seventh time in a row – was neither an outright endorsement of the AAP’s welfarism plank, nor a rejection of it. The truth lay somewhere in between.
2022 was an interesting year for the AAP. A landslide victory in Punjab, two MLAs in Goa, a victory in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi election, and five MLAs in Gujarat make the year a seminal one in its 10-year-old political history.
“The most memorable year for us was 2013 when we formed our first government in Delhi. But 2022 is right next to it as we won the Punjab and MCD elections,” said Sanjay Singh, an AAP MP in the Rajya Sabha. “To get 13 percent vote share and five seats in Gujarat, which is considered the BJP’s laboratory, is encouraging for us.”
AAP spokesperson Saurabh Bhardwaj said as much too. “2022 is probably the best year for us after 2015 when we bagged a record 67 of the 70 total seats in Delhi,” he said.
The party currently governs Punjab and Delhi and is likely to have its own mayor in the capital too. It has ward-level representatives in other states too, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In October, all 1,446 of its elected representatives congregated in Delhi for a first of its kind Rashtriya Jan Pratinidhi Sammelan, a national conference.
Ending 2022 on a high, AAP leaders told Newslaundry that the 2024 Lok Sabha election will pitch Narendra Modi against their own Arvind Kejriwal. But political observers say the party’s short-term goal is to replace the Congress as the principal opposition party to the BJP.
Of course, to achieve these lofty ambitions, the AAP first needs to spell out its position on several prickly issues.
Health, education and ‘freebies’
The AAP’s current poll narrative is based on delivering basic amenities like free education, health and electricity. But will this win it more states? If people voted only on the basis of development and welfarism, many parties would have remained in power.
AAP leaders argue that basic amenities affect every voter and so these issues will remain the pivot of the AAP’s poll narrative in upcoming elections.
AAP’s Gujarat president Gopal Italia was more forthcoming. “We will not deviate from our narrative of education, health and free electricity. We don’t want to involve ourselves in communal or caste politics. Even if this means staying out of power for long. We will never compromise with people’s basic issues.”
Sanjay Singh said, “Everyone desires quality education and health. We have ensured this in Delhi without getting into the age-old, degraded debates on Hindu-Muslim or caste. We are the only party that talks about these issues and will continue to do so in the coming elections. The BJP is at a loss as to how to counter us on these issues.”
AAP spokesperson Akshay Marathe said the “Delhi model of education” was widely discussed during the Gujarat election. “People have seen world-class schoolrooms either on social media or TV,” he said. “So, this has visibility value too. People wanted the same thing in their areas. And we got 40 lakh votes.”
Singh also said the AAP “works for the poor” while the BJP “favours” a select group of people. He also defended the party’s “freebies” – now a and derided by the BJP as revdi culture. “ With increasing purchasing power, people will be able to buy more. So, indirectly, markets also benefit.”
When this reporter was in Gujarat during the election, farmers and auto drivers and even AAP workers all asked the same question, “What’s the truth behind the Delhi model of education and health?” They were curious, but that does not translate into votes. How does the AAP plan to transform curious onlookers into a support base?
“It may not be possible to have a huge, 24x7 organisational setup in every state,” said an AAP leader. “But the transition can be achieved quickly if the beneficiaries become campaigners. For example, in Punjab, we did not have huge organisational strength. But we won because government beneficiaries campaigned for us.”
Bhardwaj said the party’s only challenge in expansion is a lack of resources. Singh said voters trust the AAP over the BJP because the BJP is actually a “Bharatiya Jhoota Party”, a lying party. “People trust us because they know we fulfil our promises.”
A studied silence on other issues
But the AAP’s silence on other issues – the release of the Bilkis Bano convicts, the Delhi riots, anti-encroachment drives in Delhi, the arrests of journalists and activists – is equally calculated. Its on Rohingyas, promise of free travel to Ayodhya, call for Hindu gods to don currency notes, and Kejriwal’s reciting of the Hanuman Chalisa all give the party a cloak of “soft Hindutva”.
Bharadwaj claimed the party “understands the trap set up by the BJP” and deliberately did not draw itself into the debate on the Bilkis Bano convicts. “Saying something about the victim during the poll would ultimately help the BJP, not her,” he said.
Marathe also said the party wasn’t silent on Bano, pointing out that Gopal Italia had “strongly condemned” the remission of the convicts’ sentences.
But Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia had on this during an interview, saying the party’s focus was on development. Moreover, during the MCD’s anti-encroachment drive in Okhla in May, when AAP MLA Amanatullah Khan was , Kejriwal and other leaders did not say a word.
Additionally, the AAP backed the abrogation of Article 370, the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya (albeit after a delay), and the implementation of a uniform civil code. In this background, the MCD election results indicated that Muslim voters may be after backing the AAP in the last two assembly polls in Delhi.
When asked if the AAP considers itself a secular party, Singh ferreted out a list of regional parties that were considered communal when allied with the BJP, and secular once they exited the alliance. He asserted that the AAP is “a secular party by dint of its work and principles” alone.
A writer who worked with Kejriwal and Sisodia during their activism days told Newslaundry that the AAP is trying to construct a rainbow comprising a cross-section of voters. “It doesn't want to lose right-leaning voters who are availing welfare schemes,” the writer said. “At the same time, the strategic silence on controversial topics means it wants to bank on a variety of communities for its expansion.”
Eyes on 2023
On December 18, soon after the AAP was as a “national party”, its national executive council met to discuss strategies for the upcoming assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
“It’s too early to say which state we will focus on,” said a leader on condition of anonymity. “We will assess our organisational strength before deciding where to invest ourselves.” Singh said Rajya Sabha MP Sandeep Pathak, who was recently named AAP’s general secretary (organisation), has been holding meetings with state in-charges and other leaders to prepare for the elections.
But can the AAP replace the Congress, which is currently buoyed by its ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra? Gopal Italia said it’s for the people to decide. “We will try our best with limited resources.”
Bhardwaj was more optimistic. “The Congress doesn’t want any other party to take the space of the opposition,” he said. “I don’t think the Congress has the leadership or the organisational structure or the will to take on Narendra Modi.”
Singh cited Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh and Maharashtra to illustrate his point. “Everywhere, they help the BJP form government,” he claimed.
Of course, the AAP has faced the same criticism – that it’s the BJP’s “B-team” because it eats into the votes of other parties. Critics have also pointed to the involvement of now BJP stalwarts – Kiran Bedi, VK Singh, Baba Ramdev – in the India Against Corruption movement and the AAP’s of “Modi for PM, Kejriwal for CM”.
The anonymous leader said the India Against Corruption movement had been a “people’s movement” where “everyone was welcome”. “At that time, these people were not involved in party politics,” they said. “It was in later years that they joined politics. So, it’s not correct to say we’re the B-team of the BJP.”
Abhishek Shrivastava, the author of Aam Aadmi Ke Naam Par, told Newslaundry the AAP “does not have any ambition but a predestined route” – to capture the Congress’s space.
“The Congress’s politics is consensual and the BJP’s coercive,” he said. “With the AAP’s entry in 2012, it brought in new correctional politics. Correction politics complement coercive politics.”
A question of ideology
Cadres of both the BJP and Congress have well-settled views on secularism, civil liberties, capitalism and religiosity. For example, they are well-versed in their responses to riots, to bulldozers demolishing the homes of accused, to journalists being jailed on trumped-up charges.
But for the AAP, the response is to wait and watch.
Kejriwal tried to clear the air on this during the AAP’s national council meeting on December 18.
“There are three pillars of our ideology: kattar deshbhakti [patriotism], kattar imandari [honesty] and kattar insaniyat [humanity],” he proclaimed. “...What about other parties? One party’s ideology is thuggery, abusing people and misbehaviour with women. All thugs are sheltered in that party. The other party’s ideology is corruption.”
Thus, he summed up both the BJP and Congress, respectively.
An AAP leader, who did not want to be named, said voters don’t care about ideology.
“People have voted us to power without looking at our ideology,” he said. “Their only expectation is – can we fulfil poll promises? As long as we are doing this, the talk of ideology or which political spectrum we fit into – left, right or centre – is just a construct of the elite and academia. These tags don’t affect us.”
Marathe repeated Kejriwal’s “three pillars” philosophy.
“In western democracies, journalists never restrict their idea of ideology to religion. Ideologies contain your stance on welfare politics, allocation of resources, tax rates against small and big companies,” he said. “Unfortunately, the debate on ideology in India is seen through the prism of religion. This has no relevance for everyday people. The big question for the people is – what are you going to give me if you come to power? That’s the ideology that people care about.”
The writer who once worked with Kejriwal and Sisodia said that as the AAP tries to expand into other states, it will need to brace itself for uncomfortable questions.
“What will you do if Delhi undergoes a debt crisis? Will you tax the rich heavily? How would you get more resources to continue welfarism?” they said. “In other states, they may have to clearly chalk out their line on bulldozer politics, anti-conversion laws, population control debates, etc. For a national party, silence is not an option. And people will seek answers.”
The unnamed AAP leader said if supporting uniform civil code, the Ram temple, and the abrogation of Article 370 makes the AAP nationalist, “we have no quibbles with the tag”.
Meanwhile, the predictions of the AAP leader in Ahmedabad did come true. The AAP’s Gujarat foray was not underwhelming. Of course, its “first storm” damaged the Congress, so who knows what its second storm will bring?
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