AAP celebrates strong show in Surat, but party has often flattered to deceive outside Delhi
If past experience is any indication, the party has often failed to capitalise on its initial bursts of success
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sprang a surprise of sorts on Tuesday when it emerged as the main Opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Surat civic body.
After the results of the Gujarat civic body polls, party supremo Arvind Kejriwal, in an exuberant tweet, said that this was the beginning of a new brand of politics, and lauded the people of Gujarat.
नई राजनीति की शुरुआत करने के लिए गुजरात के लोगों को दिल से बधाई।
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) February 23, 2021
Kejriwal has also announced that he will visit Surat on 26 February to thank the people of the city for making his party the main Opposition there.
Speaking to Firstpost about what clicked in Surat, Preeti Sharma Menon, national executive member of the party, said, "The AAP has done a lot of groundwork in Surat. People have been working on local issues for quite a while. Further, senior leaders such as Manish Sisodia and Sanjay Singh campaigned extensively, while leaders such as MLA Gulab Singh oversaw the efforts in Gujarat as a whole."
Menon further said, "In Gujarat, the Congress has been decimated, and it has been so even before the AAP's entry into the state. The Congress at present is just a poorer version of the BJP. The two parties are broadly similar in terms of both corruption and communalism. The people are now considering the AAP as an acceptable alternative to the BJP."
The AAP may well have reason to celebrate the fact that it managed to get a foot in the door in Gujarat politics. However, if past experience is any indication, the party has often failed to capitalise on its initial bursts of success.
One only needs to contrast the current upbeat mood in the AAP ranks with the palpable disappointment in the aftermath of the Punjab municipal elections, where it would have expected to do much better.
After all, if there is one state where the party can realistically hope to win power in the near future, it is Punjab. For the AAP, winning an Assembly election outside of Delhi is crucial if it is to be taken seriously as a party with national ambitions. The results of the municipal elections in Punjab, where it finished third behind the Congress and Akali Dal, cast serious doubts over its chances in the Assembly polls.
Thus, as the AAP sets out to unlock new territory in Gujarat, it must be careful not to repeat the mistakes that it made elsewhere. A common factor in the party's failed forays in electoral contests in states such as Rajasthan and Haryana has been the absence of a credible chief ministerial candidate. In Gujarat, the AAP would need to zero in on a state-level face, and then consistently project the person as a political alternative.
The AAP has done so in Uttar Pradesh, by projecting party MP Sanjay Singh as its face there. Of course, the party may not emerge as a serious contender in the state anytime soon, owing to the sheer size of the state and the presence of several deeply-entrenched political parties there. However, it seems to have taken some initial steps in the right direction.
Speaking about the party's future strategy in Gujarat, Menon said, "We will contest the Assembly elections wholeheartedly. We are not aiming to be an 'also-ran', or to be the Opposition, but will contest with an intent to win."
However, as the AAP expands its footprint in Gujarat, it would also need to guard against factionalism and over-centralisation. It has felt the repercussions of its mistakes in Punjab, where former leader of Opposition Sukhpal Singh Khaira left the party in January 2019, accusing Kejriwal of a 'dictatorial attitude.' Khaira had also said in his resignation letter, "I was highly impressed by the emergence of AAP on the political spectrum of India, to cleanse the rampantly corrupt system. But after joining the party, I realised that the hierarchy of AAP was no different from the traditional centralised political parties."
Similarly, its former state convenor Gurpreet Ghuggi quit the party in May 2017, terming the appointment of Bhagwant Mann as the party's state chief as a 'farce'.
Navigating politics outside of Delhi will also require engaging more directly with equations of caste and religion in various states. At a small level, the AAP seems to have succeeded on this front in Surat, where it appears to have succeeded in weaning away a significant chunk of Patidar voters away from the Congress.
Finally, a significant danger for the AAP is spreading itself too thin in its hurry to become nationally relevant. At the party's ninth National Council meeting, Kejriwal announced that it will fight elections in six states in the next two years — Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. The AAP's rationale may be to build a support base in various states through its electoral campaigns. However, in the process, it may find itself short of firepower in places where it actually stands a chance of winning.
The AAP needs to look no further than its own performance in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections to come to terms with this reality. The party only won four seats in 2014 and one seat in 2019. Even with respect to the recent Punjab civic polls, it is possible that the AAP would have done better if it had directed more resources towards the state.
However, commenting on the AAP's showing in the Punjab municipal elections, Menon said, "The verdict in the Punjab civic polls was essentially against the BJP, and was an expression of anger against the farm laws. Possibly, people may have felt that they should not divide their votes. Despite that, we have done fairly well. We have managed to make an entrance in every municipal corporation."
While the party may well claim that the electorate in Punjab did not want to give a split verdict, the northern state provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of not capitalising on initial successes. As the AAP embarks on its national expansion plans, it will need to chalk out plans to ensure that green shoots such as the ones seen in Surat are consistently nurtured over time.
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