The Aam Aadmi Party, af­ter the deliri­ous rise, seems com­pletely adrift now. Is the Delhi MCD poll de­ba­cle the be­gin­ning of the end?

India Today - - POL­I­TICS - By Shougat Das­gupta

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?


THE SHINE IS BACK Delhi BJP chief Manoj Ti­wari af­ter the win

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