The Aam Aadmi Party, after the delirious rise, seems completely adrift now. Is the Delhi MCD poll debacle the beginning of the end?
The Aam Aadmi Party was adamant, after the disappointment in Punjab and Goa, that these defeats did not represent an existential crisis. Its faith must surely now be wavering as it surveys the wreckage of its performance in Delhi’s municipal elections where it was beaten into a distant second place by the BJP. “This is the end,” says Prashant Bhushan, once a leading light in AAP, his legal activism reflective of the party’s combative approach to the status quo. Bhushan, alongside Yogendra Yadav, fell out prominently with Arvind Kejriwal but he still sounded saddened by the Delhi CM’s fall from grace.
Kejriwal, at his best, was the mad hatter of Indian politics, the Shakespearean fool who dared to speak truth to power. In the character of the ‘Muffler Man’, he seemed to represent an impossible dream: the ordinary man, physically unprepossessing, with no particular advantage of birth or personality, succeeding through sheer orneriness, through a bloody-minded willingness to confront political corruption and entitlement. Of late, though, Kejriwal’s spikiness, his gumption, had curdled into paranoia, into an unlikeable surliness. “We were fooled,” Bhushan admits. “I didn’t see that he was a man without principle, without ideology. That he would stop at nothing to achieve political power, to win votes.”
Will Kejriwal be chastened by these few weeks in which he has seen his political ambitions crash, like a soup tureen that has had the tablecloth whipped out from under it, the contents spilling embarrassingly across the floor? The signs are not promising. Since Punjab, he has spiralled off on another quixotic battle, swinging crazily at windmills such as EVM tampering and the wrongheadedness of voters. While Kejriwal said little in the immediate aftermath of the defeat, even congratulating the BJP, his surrogates told every reporter they could that voting machines were to blame, that the French had not used EVMs in the first round of their recent presidential elections, and that people were voting for the BJP for no rational reason.
“I feel like a child who has studied hard for the exams,” said Somnath Bharti, the controversial AAP MLA, “but the results went in favour of those who bought the question papers and answers.” Bharti’s Twitter feed is a string of accusations of EVM tampering and voter fraud. Manish Sisodia, essentially the chief executive of the Delhi government given Kejriwal’s distractibility, stormed out of a press conference muttering about EVMs.
It may be too early to expect the party to acknowledge that it had, in fact, been beaten by a better run BJP campaign headlined by actor Manoj Tiwari that focused effectively on the capital’s large migrant ‘poorvanchali’ population. Meanwhile, AAP’s campaign, while hard working, was coloured by a negative streak characterised by the CM’s remark on voters having only themselves to blame if they caught dengue after electing the BJP.
The AAP government, having come to power in a blaze of publicity about free water and lower electricity bills, have found it difficult to effect much visible change in Delhi. Functionaries have asserted that their successes—improvements to schools, mohalla clinics,
keeping their promises about utilities—have benefitted the lives of the poor but have been invisible to the middle classes, hence the lukewarm press. But the scale of their defeat indicates that voters across the board are unimpressed. Some of this may be because a Delhi government, sharing power with municipal corporations and a hostile Centre, cannot effect substantial change; some, too, may be due to AAP stretching its thin resources by campaigning in Punjab and Goa, motivated in part by wanting to show what they could do when in command of a state. Mostly, though, AAP was hamstrung by its growing reputation for querulousness, for Kejriwal’s reflexive, near pathological, need to compete with Narendra Modi, and its penchant for attributing blame to everyone but itself. Indeed, the party’s very public confrontation with and failure to stare down the former Lt Governor Najeeb Jung over control of the police and service transfers may have convinced voters that AAP was incapable of getting on with the job of administration in the face of the complex hierarchy of administrative authority that characterises the capital. The division of jurisdiction between the state government and the MCD, for example, hinges on details such as the width of the city’s roads and drains.
Before the election, Sisodia had expressed confidence in AAP’s prospects. “We are taking all three,” he said, referring to the zones, North, South and East, into which the Municipal Corporation is divided. Sisodia is an energetic man, with a vigorous handshake, and the appearance of enthusiasm, of optimism, but his boast had seemed particularly empty, shorn of any real belief. Among Sisodia’s portfolios, as deputy CM, is education and he has won a number of admirers in NGO circles. Several who work in the field said he impressed them with his willingness to grapple with detail, to take a technocratic approach to his role, to seek out a variety of educated opinions.
Sudhanshu Mittal, a significant backroom figure in the BJP and often drafted to speak for the party, said, in a phone conversation, that the people of Delhi treated the MCD election as “a referendum on how they perceive Narendra Modi and Kejriwal, how it is the former that represents probity, a new direction and hope, and the latter who, for all the talk about a new politics, has perpetuated the old—the exploitation of women, fraud, land grabbing, abuse of power and a degraded language”. Kejriwal, Mittal said, should resign, making the latter and former AAP ally Yogendra Yadav strange bedfellows. More ominously, Mittal suggested that the AAP government should be dismissed, that “the people of Delhi have registered their disapproval”. He criticised Kejriwal and AAP for failing to properly acknowledge their defeat: “It is an affront to the people’s mandate and the people will not forgive them anytime soon.”
Bhushan, like Mittal, also expressed doubt that the AAP government would be allowed to complete its term. “The
BJP may use this result,” he said, “and the Shunglu Committee report to question the legitimacy of the AAP government.” The structure of Delhi, not a full-fledged state, means that the government wields relatively little power; the municipal corporations have been controlled by the BJP for a decade and AAP’s defeat means that the chance to control the corporations and remove a significant obstacle to their effectiveness as a government has been lost. The next three years, if AAP survives that long, will be enervating. Already, based on the Shunglu Committee report, which accuses AAP of several irregularities, including nepotism and the customary flouting of procedure, Lt Governor Anil Baijal has asked the party to vacate its Rouse Avenue office. As many as 21 of AAP’s 67 MLAs may lose their status in the ‘office for profit’ imbroglio, another example of the party’s blithe disregard for rules.
Congress supporter Tehseen Poonawalla argues that “while it would be foolish to write off a political operative as shrewd as Arvind Kejriwal”, the BJP is scheming to poach AAP MLAs and seek the dismissal of the Delhi government. “I give AAP about six months,” Poonawalla says, “because the BJP has a plan prepared, Operation Lotus Bloom, to replace the AAP government. And the EC will support them.” In support of what some might call his conspiracy theory, Poonawalla offers the examples of Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in which last year rebel MPs were able to destabilise sitting Congress governments. Poonawalla, though he insists he is not a supporter of AAP or Kejriwal, also broadly agrees with their position on EVMs. “Only in dictatorships,” he alleges, “do ‘Dear Leaders’ win elections so consistently and by such large margins.”
Setting aside the tragicomic shadowboxing over EVMs, AAP finds itself at the lowest point in its short history. Its remarkable Delhi assembly election win in 2015, in which it famously won 67 of 70 seats, and the promise it offered of an alternative politics, is a memory from a distant, naive age. For all that a triumphal BJP feels vindicated at the ballot box, AAP’s victory was an even more emphatic signal that people were tired of traditional politics, fed up with the Congress and BJP. The flurry of excitement that greeted AAP in Punjab and the party’s vertiginous ascent to being discussed as viable opposition to the Modi phenomenon were further indications that people were ready for an injection of new energy, new ideas.
It is perhaps AAP’s most profound failure that those same people appear so ready to scurry back to politics as usual, to bask in Modi’s aura. Bhushan, like other disillusioned former AAP members and supporters, says that Kejriwal is to blame for reverting to conventional politics: “He has set back the cause of alternative politics by being so unwilling to countenance personal opposition, by being so closed to ideas or anything beyond electoral efficacy.” Predictably, Manoj Tiwari, the BJP Delhi president, and other BJP leaders such as Harsh Vardhan, minister of science and technology, are calling for Kejriwal’s resignation. Ajay Maken, the leader of the Congress in Delhi, has already fallen on his sword, embroiled in an increasingly vocal spat with three-term chief minister Sheila Dikshit.
Kejriwal, of course, will not do the same, not so long as he remains chief minister of Delhi. But is there a way back for a man who is among the most recognisable political leaders in the country? Yadav, though his own fledgling party failed to capture the imagination, thinks not. For columnist Santosh Desai, Kejriwal has exhausted what appeal he once had. “Why should anyone vote for AAP now?” he asks. “What does it represent any longer, what alternative?” Some party volunteers, anonymously, insist that it was adventurism in Punjab and Goa that undid AAP. Sisodia, in his house, the MCD election still ahead, insisted that there was no distraction, that volunteers in Delhi were working all the while to spread the message of what AAP had done and could do for the city. But who can blame Kejriwal from trying to seize low-hanging fruit; Punjab was there for the taking. Perhaps, as Bhushan maintains, it’s not about being an absentee CM or having megalomaniacal dreams of challenging Modi that defeated Kejriwal. It was his betrayal of the people’s trust that he represented an alternative.
“Arvind,” Anna Hazare said, in the wake of the MCD polls, “has forgotten the people.” “Shree 420,” Subramanian Swamy exulted in a tweet, “[y]ou can fool some of the people all the time... but not all of the people all of the time.” Indian politics offers its favoured sons numerous lives, but if the BJP has anything to do with it, Kejriwal’s epitaph has already been written. Yet Kejriwal’s first priority should be to ensure his government serves its full term. Certainly, he should forget Gujarat, towards which AAP was casting covetous glances, and seek to rebuild trust with the Delhi electorate. They will also need to learn to play nice with the BJP; “AAP,” said urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu, “has to decide whether it wants us to come together.” The vultures are circling. Do Kejriwal and AAP still have it in them to breathe fresh life into their moribund project?
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