Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar is Deputy Editor of The Wire. With 20 years’ experience in journalism, he is at present writing on political and governance issues
If 2015 was the year of ascendancy for the Aam Aadmi Party as it returned to power in Delhi with a thumping majority and winning 67 of the 70 seats in the Assembly, 2016 saw it make some critical mistakes, especially in poll-bound Punjab, which in 2017 brought it down on its knees – as it emerged a poor second in Punjab managing just 25 seats in the 117-member house. It failed to win even a single seat in Goa and thereafter lost the municipal elections in Delhi too, bagging less than 50 of the 272 seats in the three corporations.
But what went so horribly wrong for the party which had only a couple of years ago scored an emphatic win in Delhi despite the Modi factor? Following the debacle in the assembly elections, party leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had pinned the blame fairly and squarely on the electronic voting machines – the party appeared in denial that people had rejected it in both the states. But following the loss in the municipal elections in Delhi, after which too manipulation of EVMs was projected as the main cause for the humiliating loss of ground, Kejriwal finally admitted the loss to AAP’s own “mistakes” and vowed to introspect and do a course correction to revive the party’s fortunes.
Political watchers in Delhi were left surprised by Kejriwal’s “rare admission” of failure. He is not the kind of man who would admit to any wrong. In fact, it is this charisma of Kejriwal to attack the leading lights at will and scoot from major issues which endears him to his cadre.
So was it another party founder, Kumar Vishwas’s plainspeak about issues related to the party which changed Kejriwal? Some believe he did actually realise at heart that there was no logic in pinning the blame on EVMs – for which the party even organised a special demonstration in the Delhi assembly – and the need of the hour was to go back to the basics and the very people who had voted for the party in the first place.
The recent attempts by senior AAP leaders, especially Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia, to go back to the roots by visiting hospitals, schools and anganwadis is a clear attempt to win back the hearts and minds of the voters.
There is no denying the fact that there has been significant improvement in some fields in Delhi. The infrastructure and education standards at most government schools has improved; the hospitals have also seen considerable improvement in terms of both facilities and delivery, and the new schemes like mohalla clinics have improved the lot of the ordinary citizen.
But it is equally true that in the last two years, the AAP leadership somewhere lost sight of these projects or deliberately overlooked their shortcomings. This reflects in the manner in which over 60,000 Delhi government school students failed this year after they were removed as regular candidates on repeatedly failing Class 9 exams and made to sit as private ones for the Class 10 boards.
Similarly, shortage of medicines in government hospitals, the limited reach of mohalla clinics and several scams pertaining to government infrastructure contracts which have come to light show that all was not well with the implementation aspect and vigil over the schemes.
For this Kejriwal needs to shoulder the blame. Before the 2015 assembly elections in Delhi, he had promised to the people of the capital city that he would never desert them again – as he had quit the post of CM just after a 49-day stint in 2013-14 to contest the Lok Sabha elections. But despite the people giving him a complete mandate, he did not mend his ways.
Rather than focussing on Delhi and its problems, Kejriwal continued to spend much of his time on seeing the party’s expansion in other states – particularly those bound for assembly elections like Punjab and Goa.
As the basic problems of Delhi remained unsolved with people still struggling for potable water, hygienic surroundings, proper schooling and medical facilities and with the public transport system struggling to cope with the increasing demand, the Aam Aadmi Party felt that in blaming the Narendra Modi government at the Centre for all the ills it would find its succour.
As a union cabinet minister pointed out, the party named Modi over 80 times in the two-year period for various troubles.
The reason for targeting Modi was the same as that for Kejriwal going to Benares to contest against him in the Lok Sabha elections – there was the belief that by taking on Modi he would be seen as the second most powerful politician in the country. Similarly, AAP hoped that by targeting Modi repeatedly it would be able to occupy the opposition space being ceded by Congress and other national and regional parties.
But that was not to be. People are wise enough not to be fooled twice. The result was not only a drubbing for AAP in Punjab and Goa, but also in the Delhi civic polls.Following inputs from his party workers, Kejriwal said in a tweet: “Yes, we made mistakes but we will introspect and course correct. Time to go back to drawing board. To not evolve will be silly.”
But is the AAP evolving? Some recent developments would suggest so, but at the time it continues to hold on to its dogmatic denial of a large number of issues.
As the party realised that its confrontational politics, particularly of targeting Modi and blaming the Centre for creating hurdles was not paying dividends, it stayed away from naming Modi during the civic polls in Delhi. But by then it was already too late. However, the party thereafter too has refrained from attacking Modi repeatedly.
The troubles for AAP are, however, far from over. The last few months have been turbulent to say the least. First it was party leader Kumar Vishwas who spoke out in favour of “introspection” and was attacked by AAP MLA Amanatullah Khan of being an agent of the BJP and trying to split the party. Kapil Mishra was also removed from the post of minister as it was felt he was one among those trying to engineer a split. Mishra retaliated by accusing Kejriwal and minister Satyendra Jain of corruption and lodging complaints with the Lieutenant-Governor and the CBI.
As Vishwas also offered to resign, Kejriwal and the top leadership moved in to assuage his hurt feelings by making him in-charge of Rajasthan, which is headed for polls later this year.
That this has not ended the rift between some Delhi-based AAP leaders and Kumar became evident when senior leader Dilip Pandey recently accused him of targeting the Congress but not the Vasundhara Raje government of the BJP in Rajasthan.
Vishwas countered saying the “days of Delhi’s dominance were over”.
In the meantime, AAP has also been forced to battle the allegations of corruption and various raids on its ministers like Manish Sisodia and Satyendra Jain and their families for various alleged omissions and commissions by central investigation agencies like Central Bureau of Investigation and the Income Tax department. Though it continues to blame these raids on “political vendetta” of the BJP, it is not certain if Delhi’ites view it the same way.The party has also now changed its course for the future. At the national executive recently, it decided nationwide protests over farmers’ rights. There is a newfound belief that it should keep its national ambitions alive but should be selective about the electoral contests it enters. As such the party has decided to contest the Ghaziabad civic body polls and Rajasthan elections, but is yet to make up its mind on Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh assembly polls.
There is also belief that Kejriwal is still seen as an anti-corruption crusader, drawing from his close association with Anna Hazare during the India Against Corruption campaign, and therefore he should remain the face of the party as it seeks wider national acceptance.
But there are two major hurdles in AAP’s path. One is the other opposition parties are not willing to yield it any space now. This was also evident as it was portrayed by the Congress as the “B-team of BJP” and an off-shoot of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh during the discussions among opposition parties recently over selection of the presidential candidate. As such AAP also did not find itself in the 18-party committee which was formed for the purpose.
The other major limitation for AAP remains Kejriwal’s projection by the BJP and other opposition parties as an escapist. They never miss the point to state that the AAP leader never stays with anything for too long. “He did engineering from IIT but then got into Indian Revenue Service. Left it to start an NGO and then got into a social campaign against corruption only to abandon it to join politics. Even after becoming Delhi CM, he quit the post in the hope of becoming prime minister. And on getting elected back as Delhi CM, he kept his focus on other states and ignored the capital city” – so goes the argument.
It is only Kejriwal alone who can now steer the party now to greater heights or into oblivion. The days to come would reveal if the change he spoke about following the municipal polls is really taking place.
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