Is the Aam Aadmi Party on course to becoming India’s next main political opposition?

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(FILE) Aam Aadmi party chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is fast emerging as a possible challenger to India’s prime minister Narendra Modi  (Getty Images)
(FILE) Aam Aadmi party chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is fast emerging as a possible challenger to India’s prime minister Narendra Modi (Getty Images)

Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) founder Arvind Kejriwal made the bold declaration early last month that his political outfit would not align with any other party for the upcoming national elections.

The announcement revealed a risky approach unlike any other taken by the opposition to deny prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a third term in power in 2024.

The comments underline the AAP’s ambition to position itself as the alternative to the ruling BJP in India right after it became the only regional party in the country to hold power in two states, passing a litmus test to prove its national aspiration.

The AAP, that is kickstarting its political machinery to expand to other states, celebrated a resounding victory against the BJP in recently held Punjab state elections.

But Kejriwal, who often likes to position himself as the prime challenger to Modi, also tellingly said he did not “want to defeat anyone”.

“I don’t understand alliances of 10 and 20 parties to defeat anyone. I don’t want to defeat anyone, I want the country to win. I will only enter into an alliance with 130 crore people of the country to make India number one in the world,” he said while delivering a lecture on “AAP and its role in 2024 Lok Sabha elections” in Nagpur, the city where the headquarters of the right-wing, paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – of which the BJP is the political arm – are located.

Buoyed by its poll victory in Punjab in March, the barely decade-old AAP, however, is roundly attacked by critics who accuse it of breaking away from its initial anti-corruption crusade, and say that the party is not an alternative to the BJP – just a softer version of it.

While the Hindu-nationalist ruling party boosted its electoral credentials by winning in four of the five states that had gone into election mode in March – including the most populous bellwether state Uttar Pradesh – it was in Punjab that AAP, and not the other opposition parties, managed to halt the BJP juggernaut.

Born out of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement that caught the imagination of an Indian middle class disillusioned and angry at the Congress party for its inability to crack down on corruption in 2012, “Aam Aadmi Party” literally translates to the “Common Man’s Party” in Hindi.

The party had promised to clean up Indian politics from top to bottom. Its website says it wants to “end corruption from the system and put forth a model of alternative politics”.

It was formed by a group of activists who – after initially being a part of the IAC led by conservative activist-reformer Anna Hazare – left the movement.

Conservative anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare breaks his fast in Delhi in 2011 (AP)
Conservative anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare breaks his fast in Delhi in 2011 (AP)

In its election debut in Delhi in 2013, AAP brought down the Congress’s three-term government by reducing its seat tally to just 8 out of a total 70.

AAP won 28 seats in the state assembly but its first stint in power lasted only 49 days after Kejriwal stepped down for failing to pass an anti-corruption bill.

Fresh polls in Delhi were postponed because of general elections due the following summer and the party decided to field 400 candidates in seats across the country, but managed to win only four seats – all from Punjab.

The 2014 elections also featured a direct fight between Kejriwal and Modi in the holy city of Varanasi that predictably led to the latter’s win.

In 2015, however, AAP scaled back its national ambitions and won a whopping 67 seats in the Delhi assembly on the promise of completing a full tenure and providing corruption-free governance.

In the following years, AAP touted its “Delhi model” of governance with promises of free electricity, power, modernising government-run school education and healthcare.

In the party’s second foray into national elections in 2019, it won just a single seat out of the 40 it contested from Punjab.

In 2020 – just a month before the Covid pandemic began – Kejriwal returned to power in Delhi with yet another resounding mandate by clinching 63 seats in one of the most heavily communally polarised contests ever seen in the national capital.

Arvind Kejriwal (second from right), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief and chief minister of Delhi, celebrates with his wife Sunita Kejriwal (extreme right) and children (EPA)
Arvind Kejriwal (second from right), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief and chief minister of Delhi, celebrates with his wife Sunita Kejriwal (extreme right) and children (EPA)

AAP is again attempting to gain ground in states outside Delhi as it racheted up its expansion plans in recent weeks ahead of state elections in the north-Indian states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh later this year and in Rajasthan, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh next year.

Its win in Punjab has reenergised its hopes of becoming a national party but also increasingly put its founder in the spotlight by his ardent online supporters who frequently cast Kejriwal as a hagiographic crusader against corruption.

Speaking to The Independent, party spokesperson Akshay Marathe says AAP’s national plans rest on its laurels in Delhi and Punjab.

“Our experience [in Delhi and Punjab] has shown that if you talk about people’s livelihoods, issues of day-to-day functioning especially in post-pandemic times when there are no jobs, inflation is high; these issues resonate with people,” he says.

There, however, seem to be signs of the party shifting its goalposts from its anti-corruption plank at the same time as what Marathe terms the “disgust with [the] legacy parties” of the BJP and Congress.

This “disgust” is not limited to only Delhi and Punjab, says Marathe, citing the “Delhi model” as the “Kejriwal model”.

“There is a vacuum due to these traditional parties which AAP is hoping to fill and there is a demand for it as people want the Kejriwal model,” he says.

In an interview with NDTV soon after the Punjab victory, Kejriwal says the party’s “model” is based on three pillars: honesty, patriotism and humanity.

Marathe agrees: “The Kejriwal model of governance surrounds these three pillars.”

“If you look at our idea of nation building, we believe in ensuring that education and healthcare are available to everyone, that people’s ability to live their lives is better through free water and power.”

“Ensuring corruption free governance is the goal of the Kejriwal model,” he adds.

In the last decade, however, it appears the AAP has abandoned its anti-corruption fight and the real promise of an “alternative”.

One of Kejriwal’s top partymen – Delhi home minister Satyendar Jain – was arrested in May by federal authorities in a money laundering case, something the AAP has deemed is part of the BJP’s vendetta politics.

“They have completely forgotten the ideals they wanted to pursue,” says former journalist and AAP leader Ashutosh.

“Their most important plank was that this would be an anti-corruption movement. But today if you look at their MLAs [Members of Legislative Assemblies or state-level lawmakers], even they cannot claim to be corruption free,” he says.

A report in The Hindustan Times reveals that half of the 117 legislators elected to the Punjab assembly last month have earlier been booked in various criminal cases, with every fifth MLA facing serious charges, including murder, crime against women, and illegal mining.

Of this, AAP has 19 MLAs with serious cases against them.

An analysis by the nonprofit Association of Democratic Reforms in 2020 reveals that 61 per cent of the AAP MLAs elected to Delhi’s assembly in 2020 declared criminal cases on their election affidavits.

“They used to say ministers should stay in two-room flats but now all of them are living in palatial bungalows. They denounced security for public servants but now the chief minister himself is surrounded by over 100 commandos,” says Ashutosh.

“They no longer are a political party for which they were known.”

Concerns have grown that AAP’s most distinctive shift has been cosying up to majoritarian, soft-Hindutva politics.

After riots in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri and a subsequent demolition drive by BJP-led municipal authorities in April, the party’s communal narrative took a significant leap after Atishi, a member of AAP’s political affairs committee, and Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister, blamed Bangladeshi Muslims and Rohingyas.

“You will get to know where the next riot will take place if the BJP gives a list of the areas where it has got Rohingyas and Bangladeshis settled illegally,” Sisodia had said.

The party also refused to take a strong stand during the 2020 northeast Delhi riots when 52 people were killed, mostly from the minority Muslim community, by blaming the BJP.

“The party’s position is very categorical and strong against the BJP’s role in propagating violence across the country,” says Marathe.

“BJP is a party of thugs and goons, and it is promoting a culture of violence by encouraging its own political workers to destroy property and wreak havoc in the country.”

“We saw an example of this when the people responsible for vandalism outside the CM’s house were garlanded by the BJP at their Delhi office,” he says.

“When it comes to Jahangirpuri, the specific allegation that AAP was raising was that if you look at Adesh Gupta’s [Delhi BJP chief] letter it is clear they have blamed the Bangladeshis and Rohingyas for the violence,” he adds.

In the past, AAP’s outreach to the majority Hindus also included government funding of pujas (prayer meets) and teerth yatras (pilgrimages) at the taxpayers’ expense.

“There is no soft or hard Hindutva as Kejriwal has already said,” says Marathe, referring to a “tradition” of Hinduism instead.

AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal (left) and Punjab's chief minister Bhagwant Mann (right) gesture during their visit at the BAPS Swaminarayan temple, in Ahmedabad on 3 April 2022 (AFP via Getty Images)
AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal (left) and Punjab's chief minister Bhagwant Mann (right) gesture during their visit at the BAPS Swaminarayan temple, in Ahmedabad on 3 April 2022 (AFP via Getty Images)

Rahul Verma, fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and visiting assistant professor at Ashoka University, says AAP’s actions need to be understood in the context of a BJP-dominant party system in India.

“What a dominant system does is that it forces other parties to mirror its policies. Because BJP is riding on a wave of Hindu majoritarianism and hyper nationalism, most other parties will mirror this,” he says.

According to psephologist and professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) Sanjay Kumar, while AAP may not be much different from the BJP, it enjoys the power of perception.

“Large number of voters think AAP is an alternative to BJP. A very tiny section analyse policies, manifestos and figure out whether AAP is really different because both are playing the Hindutva card in a subtle manner.”

“There is a general perception that they have governed Delhi well without looking at each and every promise that AAP is making,” Kumar says.

Observers believe that despite the traction created by the AAP, it is too early for the party to take up the space of the national opposition in 2024.

“Congress has lost elections in the past, but the loss of faith in the party is a new and unique phase in Indian politics where people have started looking at a small regional party like the AAP as an alternative,” Kumar says.

What is also working in AAP’s favour is the perception that they are better than traditional parties. “Between 2012-15, AAP was seen as unlike any traditional political party,” says Ashutosh.

The path to 2024 and the spot for the national opposition is also fraught with organisational challenges.

“In the last few years there have been three parties – Congress, AAP and TMC [the outfit of India’s only woman chief minister Mamata Banerjee] that have been vying for the second spot,” says Verma.

“Even if AAP wins a few seats in Delhi, Punjab, Goa, Himachal and wherever it is expanding, it would be difficult for the party to cross 30-35 seats nationally,” he points out.

Analysts also say the party is still in its nascent form, compared to BJP’s organisational might.

“If there is no big issue then a party has to work hard and develop party structure and be patient and cannot rise overnight. That cannot happen for instance in states like Himachal Pradesh where it would be their first election,” says Kumar.

“It is a long journey. In Punjab also it took them eight years to win the state. It’s future as national alternative is bleak for 2024 but bright for 2029.”

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