THERE WERE PLENTY of signs for quite a while that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), once the poster child of ‘clean’ politics in India, was in trouble. But when the results of the intensely contested municipal elections in Delhi came out on April 26th, ‘trouble’ was hardly an adequate description of what AAP was in. Delhi, don’t forget, is the party’s birthplace and backyard. Of the 270 seats up for grabs, the BJP walked away with a lion’s share, leaving AAP languishing a poor runner-up. The Congress finished third.
Perhaps it is not fair to extrapolate the results of a civic election to an existential question about a political party. But view it—or wish it away—the way you like, the writing on the wall for it is clear. As an organised political force, AAP’s future looks grim.
One simple answer to what went wrong is that AAP stretched itself too thin. Instead of focusing on governing Delhi, the party—in particular its top leader Arvind Kejriwal—wanted too much of the country’s political pie too soon. Behind this straightforward answer lies a dilemma faced by all insurgent political parties: how to transform itself from a force that opposes an incumbent into one that governs. That challenge is not easy.
Originally a party that was deadset on getting a strong anti-corruption law passed in the national capital, AAP soon realised that it needed much more than a Lokpal Act to turn into a party with India-wide appeal. On this, it faltered badly. In Delhi it resorted to populism—cheap water and electricity—and in Punjab, more darkly, it hobnobbed with separatists. Its overarching programme was simple-minded—if bitter—opposition to the leader of its main rival: Narendra Modi of the BJP. This worked to an extent as a rabble-rousing tactic, but did not get it the electoral base needed to secure power.
All parties have to adopt a certain position on the left-verus-right spectrum—not only as a signal to voters, but also to firm up a policy programme, one to be implemented once in power. AAP did not do that. Beyond promising to ‘work for people’ , it did not crystallise a stance. It is a bit early to claim that AAP is on its way to extinction; it still has two years to demonstrate that it can change things in Delhi. But for now, it is safe to say that its pan-India ambitions lie shattered.