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Lok Sabha election: Congress' inability to adapt to the times means AAP will be BJP's main opponent in Delhi

A week after the Aam Aadmi Party swept the Delhi Assembly election in February 2015, renowned political psychologist Ashis Nandy weighed in on the possibility of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal being mainstreamed. "When you come in as an outsider and then try to become an insider, you sacrifice your appeal right there. The Mufflerman [Kejriwal] should remain like Spiderman, an outsider. I am not saying he should be a complete outsider because that is suicidal. But he should have one foot inside," Nandy said in an interview.

From Nandy's remark, it is easy to identify the attributes of the outsider. He or she does not belong to the traditional political class, is not wealthy, and seeks to make the State responsive to the people. The outsider is one of the people, not cocooned from them as political elites are, precisely why he or she is attuned to their problems and aspirations. The outsider seeks power to usher in the change the people want.

 Lok Sabha election: Congress inability to adapt to the times means AAP will be BJPs main opponent in Delhi

File image of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Reuters

Yet the very acquisition of power turns the outsider into the insider, who has to adhere to the rules of the game. As an embodiment of the State, the insider is restrained from endorsing the mode of protest and confrontation, which the common person adopts in desperation for goading the government of the day into action. That is why it is hard for the insider to play the outsider.

Kejriwal did seem to have adopted Nandy's prescription in the little over four years he has been in power: His government slashed water and power rates, revamped the health and education sectors, digitised and provided home delivery of certain services; yet, he did not shy away from a bruising battle against the Central government, even sitting on dharna for eight days at the lieutenant-governor's residence last year.

Kejriwal's refusal to succumb to the pressure exerted on him by the Modi government has enabled him to play the outsider, even though he is the insider now. This image has been further bolstered amidst the hurly-burly of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, largely because of the candidates that the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress have fielded in Delhi's seven constituencies — they are infinitely wealthier than the AAP candidates.

To compare the wealth of candidates belonging to the BJP, Congress and AAP, the authors added the value of the assets of each party's candidates and divided the total by seven to reach the average asset value per party candidate. The value of assets was taken from the affidavits that the candidates submitted to the Election Commission. It includes the value of assets held by each candidate's spouse, his or her share in the Hindu Undivided Family property, and investments made and assets held in the names of their dependents.

Our computation shows that the average asset value for AAP candidates is Rs 3.98 crore, or nearly a ninth of the BJP candidates, who have an average asset value of Rs 35.59 crore. The AAP’s average asset value was, also, nearly one-fourth of that of the Congress, which clocked an average of Rs 15.12 crore per candidate.

The relatively less-wealthy profile of AAP candidates imparts credence to their claims that they are in politics to change the system, not for power and pelf. This is, partly, because of their educational qualifications and professional background. Some of the AAP's candidates went to elite institutions, but their lived experience prompted them to opt for political activism to transform the world around them. Atishi, Dilip Pandey, Raghav Chadha and Pankaj Gupta belong to this category. These candidates represent the altruistic face of the Indian middle class, which is largely perceived to be insular, insensitive and apolitical. They can credibly claim that they are in politics not to make money, as that would have been for their asking given their qualifications.

This impression is bolstered also because of their work and persona. For instance, Atishi's role in the educational sector has been much acclaimed, as has Chadha's contribution in preparing the AAP government's budgets. Both have also carved out a niche for themselves because of their high visibility in TV debates — they are articulate, bring a certain heft to debates, and refreshingly refrain from screaming to drown out the arguments of other participants.

File image of Gautam Gambhir. ANI

File image of Gautam Gambhir. ANI

Yet it is not just about riding the media wave to acquire political equity. For instance, Brijesh Goyal, the AAP's candidate in New Delhi, was at the forefront of channelising the discontent among traders arising from demonetisation, implementation of Goods and Services Tax, and sealing of commercial properties. The touch of the realpolitik is provided by Gugan Singh, AAP's candidate from the reserved constituency of North West Delhi, who won on a BJP ticket in 2013, was accused of delivering a provocative speech in 2014, and then joined the AAP in 2017. An outlier among AAP candidates, he is credited for scripting the AAP victory in the Bawana Assembly bypoll in the same year.

Most political parties tend to undermine the USP, or unique selling proposition, of their principal political rival by incorporating its facets into their own personalities. Both the BJP and the Congress have plumped for the hackneyed formulas for winning elections — for instance, they have chosen candidates from the non-political arena, hoping to cash in on their charisma to win seats. Think Gautam Gambhir, boxer Vijender Singh, and Hans Raj Hans. From this perspective, the AAP is relying on its work in the social sector to see their candidates past the winning post.

More than the BJP, it is the Congress that should have challenged the AAP's USP. This is because both their social bases overlap. Yet the Congress did not go in for a facelift. Sheila Dikshit is 81 years old and became an MP for the first time in 1984, as did JP Agarwal, who is 74. Mahabal Mishra is 66 years old, which is not the age at which an exuberant message of change can be conveyed, especially with the AAP around. The troika's long innings in politics makes it the archetypical insider. Perhaps the Congress hopes their names could pull in votes for them, not realising that the AAP's emphasis on delivery of services has changed the city's politics in fundamental ways.

India's Grand Old Party needed to adopt a nimble, younger image to counter the AAP's outsider tag. Yet the youthful fresh face it has chosen to field is that of 33-year-old Vijender Singh, whose interest in politics was not known until he was nominated to contest on a Congress ticket from South Delhi. With him just in the fray, the Congress has been unable to shift its horizon of politics in significant ways in Delhi. This is precisely why AAP, and not the Congress, will likely remain the principal contender to the BJP in the National Capital.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. Vignesh Karthik KR is a doctoral student at King's India Institute, King's College London

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Updated Date: May 03, 2019 13:10:24 IST