Delhi granting Arvind Kejriwal a third inning despite several mistakes and setbacks in his eight-year-long political career has set off expectations that he might just be the dark knight of alternate politics in India.
Liberals' search for an alternative to the personal charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been an ongoing endeavour and Congress, by its own account, has fallen short severely. This is what has brought to limelight regional satraps' national ambitions. Chandrababu Naidu, K Chandrasekhar Rao, and Mamata Banerjee are all former stars in the same script. And Kejriwal has performed well despite what was arguably the most vitriolic campaign led by the country's richest political party and backed by 240 MPs, 60 ministers and the prime minister himself.
But pulling a phoenix's rise in a city-state with surplus revenue is not quite the same as making space in larger states that have complex factors dominating voter behaviour. Kejriwal's national ambitions are not going to come easy to him, as the leader himself must have realised through his past ventures.
AAP's national ambition hindered by lack of organisational structure on ground
AAP has burned its fingers and learnt that spreading the party's limited resources too thin, too soon is not the way to go forward.
Soon after winning handsomely in 2015, Kejriwal installed Manish Sisodia as the deputy chief minister of Delhi and set about the twin tasks of expanding AAP's national base and framing himself as the "liberal" alternative to Modi, a Firstpost article points out. In the next two years, Kejriwal put AAP on steroids, undertaking a project of stunning national expansion. He tried to break new ground in Punjab, announced that it will fight in Goa, took part in Gujarat Assembly polls and even made its debut in Karnataka in 2018. It also contested Lok Sabha polls.
The result: AAP came within striking distance in Punjab, its first attempt at expanding base, but thereafter failed severely in all the other states and in the Lok Sabha election. It hit its lowest point when it not only lost all Lok Sabha seats to BJP in own bastion Delhi but also performed miserably in the city's municipal polls.
The lesson learnt from these adventures still holds relevance because AAP simply does not have the organisational structure to take on even the Congress, let alone the BJP, which is powered by a 180-million-strong workforce on the ground. It had a certain head start in Delhi because of Kejriwal's activism and India Against Corruption movement but in politically important states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Maharashtra it has no local presence nor recognition. Besides, it will have to also counter the appeal of regional satraps whose poll narrative is specifically curated to that space.
AAP realises this and moments after Delhi election trends solidified into unassailable leads, the party harnessed the momentum its social media channels were getting to make an appeal to expand membership.
Politics of freebies not easy outside Delhi
For all the hype about the Aam Aadmi Party’s governance model, in the end, it was the freebies (or welfare politics as it is now being referred to) that got the party a thumping majority. This is not just the excuse peddled by the losing side, but Kejriwal too, in his victory speech called his win an endorsement of politics of paani-bijli-swasthya. In fact, AAP takes pride in the fact that it changed the political narrative, something most Opposition parties have failed to do so far. The party went to great lengths to justify its policies of making power, water, and even commute free for Delhiites; their leading argument was that Delhi has surplus revenue, and the people deserve to get back what was left unspent.
But what about the states with gigantic budgets and surmounting debts?
The AAP's primary USP becomes nearly impossible to implement if you take the Delhi Model and ascribe it on say, Uttar Pradesh. According to a report, at least 20 states have breached the threshold of a debt-to-GDP ratio of 25 percent and these include the most populous, and politically important states.
Furthermore, the AAP will find that the administration of a city-state — which many derisively call a glorified municipality — is vastly different from states as vast as Maharashtra or Uttar Pradesh. In Delhi, despite a weaning trend in Central grants, a lot is taken off the state government's plate financially because it is governed jointly by the Union and the state. Salaries of Central bureaucrats, the security of government officials and the entire police force is all paid from the Centre's kitty.
Delhi is also a relatively well off urban pocket where tax collection is among the highest in the country. All this taken into account, Kejriwal did a fair job when resources were in abundance but has no experience in running crumbling economies. The voters understand this.
No experience in handling thorny issues
One of the thorniest issues for national parties is delivery on the front of agriculture and law and order, both of which were not a concern for AAP in these elections. Even the 'invincible' Modi government had to launch a last-minute pension scheme for agrarians, just months before elections, to blunt their anger. Chief ministers Yogi Adityanath and Nitish Kumar came to power on the promise of eliminating goonda raj from their respective states.
This shows that law and order and agriculture have the power to change the poll narrative in rest of the country and AAP has no demonstrable experience in handling both these issues.
Employment too is another sticky ground which regional and national parties have to deal with. Modi government is facing constant challenges in providing jobs and there is a strike in Karnataka over the issue, as this piece is being written.
AAP, on the other hand, largely remained silent on the 8 lakh jobs it had promised in 2015 manifesto and instead turned the people's attention to other money intensive achievements it could get because Delhi has a juicy budget.
On law and order, the ever-aggrieved Chief Minister of Delhi has always had the Centre to blame. The shoddy performance of municipalities is also on the BJP. However, the Panchayati Raj system and the district collectorates in the states are a different ballgame altogether. AAP will find that it won't be able to skirt accountability so easily in other states.
The good thing, though, is that the party seems to be aware of these shortcomings. So far, it appears to have scaled back its national ambition to allow it to grow at a steady pace.
It has curated its communication strategy to make sure that only Delhi appears to be their priority. No leader from AAP had dropped any hints of a national political plan before the Assembly elections. It was only on the day of counting that the AAP shifted gears and started its recruitment drive. On the morning of the counting of votes for the Delhi Assembly election, the party head office sported a large hoarding with the message: "Associate with AAP for nation building," News18 reported. The emphasis on nation building is key here.
Furthermore, AAP also displayed a clever strategy by maintaining ideological flexibility on polarising issues like Hindutva and Citizenship Amendment Bill. Kejriwal, who dedicated his victory to Bharat Mata and Lord Hanuman, has been guarded in his response whenever cornered on key issues. He decisively stayed away from donning Muslim religious symbols, unlike in the past.
On the other hand, his deputy and close confidante, Manish Sisodia did go out of his way to pledge support to Shaheen Bagh protesters. There was also a word about an AAP pamphlet portraying Kejriwal as a messiah of Muslims. The party also fielded strong and vocal Muslim candidates in seats where the community had a sizable strength, while Kejriwal appeared on camera reciting Hanuman Chalisa.
He seems to have understood the need to strike a balance between promoting an image of pious austerity and going outwardly secular to stay agreeable in eyes of both communities in the face of majority chauvinism. If Kejriwal can keep the mellow pace and the subtle image change, the AAP may be ready to take up a national challenge, but not anytime soon.
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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2020 15:35:32 IST