AAP - At the Corssroads: Times of India
Perhaps the greatest challenge to Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party came from his unexpected showing in the Delhi polls. It altered what otherwise might have been a set script, and led the party into uncharted waters, which it still struggling to navigate. Till the Delhi results, the AAP was a gutsy challenger that promised to propel the political mainstream towards reform, by calling out the deeply flawed nature of the political and administrative process in the country. It represented a return of idealism and kindled among many a hope that politics in India could change, and that it had place for 'good people'.
28 seats in Delhi meant two things- one that the party had a chance to solidify its base and that it had an opportunity to catapult itself on to the national arena, an opportunity that might otherwise take a full five years to return. In both cases, given the paucity of time before the national elections, Kejriwal needed to magnify his message while operating in a compressed time frame- an imperative that pushed him towards what the party saw as high risk-high reward strategies.
Accepting the Congress offer of support which was a patently insincere offer, neutralised the Congress' gambit but also erected a new regime on shaky and dishonest foundations. Given the cynical offer of power and the equally tactical acceptance, the AAP government had to strive to make as much of an impact as it could, both in terms of showering goodies on the urban poor as well as in creating a high-decibel enactment of protest. It met with some success in the former attempt as it built an electoral base for itself among the economically weaker sections of society although it did alienate sections of its middle class base. But the real damage came as a result of the ill-advised protest against the police on an issue that couldn't possibly have won mass support. As it turned out, the manner in which the party and its leaders conducted themselves damaged the narrative that had been built up around it. the media tide too turned, as the notion of a CM on a dharna violated middle class ideas of what governance should look like.
Also, running a government even for a short period of time meant that the AAP opened up an entirely new front on which it could be attacked. The problem with the kind of excessively self-righteous hectoring to which the party has subjected all those it opposes is that one sets absurdly unrealistic benchmarks for one's own behaviour. Whether it was Kejriwal's house, personal security or his travel in a private plane to attend a function, the leader was held to a very different standard of behaviour as compared to other political leaders. Being in government also exposed the paucity of talent at the AAP's disposal, with many of its leaders led by Somnath Bharti making a spectacle out of themselves.
The party's national ambitions put pressure on it to find strategies that were attention-grabbing and disruptive in the short term. The Congress meltdown and its inability to appear as a credible contender in many parts of the country has given AAP a golden opportunity to carve out significant vote share in a few pockets in the country. The problem for the party was that the anti-corruption plank it had built for itself was not as effective when deployed against Narendra Modi. Modi's alleged collusion with big business became the main line of attack, supplemented with questions about communalism and the real impact of the so-called Gujarat model.
The preferred mode of campaigning continued to be a series of noisy proclamations designed to create media attention. The problem for the AAP has been that the returns on this strategy have been in steep decline recently on account of its overuse. The latest salvo against media is quite simply a battle that cannot be won, largely because the criticism has an element of truth in it. In both cases, the allegations of crony capitalism and vested media interests have a kernel of truth, but the absence of any nuance or finesse in the way these have been made make it impossible for these to be taken seriously.
The two principal issues facing the party are the dilution of its core idea and the growing ineffectiveness of its media-led brand of splashy innuendo. Underlying both, it is the implicit movement that the AAP is making towards becoming a political party rather than a political movement. Increasingly, its actions are built around calculations rather than beliefs, and its patented brand of impractical action seems rooted in a desire to create effect rather than bring about change. Mistakes made when championing a belief may carry political costs but they always add to the power of the idea. But mistakes made in the defence of political calculations are mere mistakes, that lead to some routinely material consequences.
The importance of the AAP lies in the idea that it is built around. It does not matter that much if its ideas are impractical or naive, as long as they help create a new vocabulary of idealism in today's politics. The criticism that they offer of every element in the electoral mix might have more than a grain of truth in them, but by critiquing everything intemperately, the AAP becomes a mirror to the frustration felt by the electorate, rather than represent a conduit to change. And when even that frustration begins to feel calculated, the AAP is in danger of losing its reason for being. It is not important for the AAP to have all the answers, but at least the questions it asks must be pointed and sincere. Dishonest anger might be worse than matter-of-fact collusion more