The experiment goes national

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On 18 February, the Sikh Insaaf Lehar, an organisation seeking justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, held a rally in Moga, Punjab. Among those who attended the rally was JNU professor Anand Kumar, who is also an executive member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

When the erstwhile AAP government in Delhi announced an SIT probe into the 1984 riots, the Sikh Insaaf Lehar was one of the first to welcome the move. And professor Kumar’s presence at the Moga rally was to ensure that the Sikh Insaaf Lehar’s support could be cemented further ahead of the General Election.

While Kumar was busy soliciting support for the fledgling party at Moga, AAP’s chief ideologue Yogendra Yadav came calling his voters in Gurgaon for the first time after his name was officially announced as the party’s Lok Sabha candidate from the urban jungle. During a symbolic jhaadu yatra (broom procession), Yadav harped on wiping corruption from Indian politics.

At around the same time, in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, where AAP leader Kumar Vishwas is pitched against Rahul Gandhi, party strategists gathered from California and rural Rajasthan to chalk out AAP’s course of action.

“Resource and social mobilisation of an unprecendented nature is happening in support of AAP across the country,” says Anand Kumar. “It’s already in the public domain that eminent people from diverse backgrounds like Medha Patkar and Meera Sanyal have joined us.”

Eminent people attached with the Sarvodaya movement in Bihar and various farmers’ movements in Uttarakhand have also expressed their support for AAP, say insiders.

It certainly appears that unlike in Delhi, where the 49-day AAP government indulged in the politics of fait accompli, for the Lok Sabha polls, it is gearing up to play the long haul and busy taking carefully calibrated steps.
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For example, the first list of 20 Lok Sabha candidates that the party released last week has its thoughtfully picked members pitched against Congress heavyweights.

To woo Sikh votes, the party has fielded lawyer-activist HS Phoolka against Union Information & Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari in Ludhiana. Phoolka played a major role in fighting for justice in the 1984 riots cases.

Besides asking poet-turned-politician Vishwas to take the fight to Rahul in Amethi, AAP has fielded former IBN7 editor Ashutosh against Union Law Minister Kapil Sibal in the prestigious Chandni Chowk constituency in Delhi.

At the cost of drawing flak from various quarters, including a section of its own supporters — especially those belonging to the upper middle class — for “abandoning” the Delhi government without fulfilling its pre-poll promises, the party disintegrated its 49-day experiment and forayed into the Lok Sabha polls.

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Former Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti, who made headlines for all the wrong reasons in an apparent drug bust and spamgate, reportedly had a tough time fielding questions from supporters during a mohalla sabha in his Assembly constituency of Khirki Extension. Angry people wanted to know why AAP had abandoned power whereas they had voted for the party to fulfil its promises.

Notwithstanding such doubts, what explains AAP’s move to quit Delhi and focus on the national picture?

Professor Kumar says that the Delhi Assembly election results were “wonderfully surprising” and AAP could spring a surprise in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election, too, “given the support that is pouring in from various corners of the country”.

So, is this AAP buoyancy in the Lok Sabha polls due to the incredible 28-seat haul in the Delhi Assembly polls, where the party was not expected to do so spectacularly?

Professor Kumar stops short of conceding that. “When AAP realised that the power it got in the Delhi Assembly couldn’t be utilised for the sake of the people due to the destructive roles played by the Congress and the BJP, it quit and went back to the people,” he says. “Voters are not naïve and they know how to differentiate between what can be achieved immediately and what should form the ultimate goal. On our part, we have to stay pragmatic without losing sight of the long-term goals.

“For us, every election will be an opportunity for engaging with the people across the country. We don’t know about the number of seats we will win, but like in the Delhi Assembly polls, there could be wonderful surprises. Going by the unprecedented resource mobilisation that we are undertaking,  in the long run, we would be taking Indian politics to a new level.”

Senior journalist and political commentator Saeed Naqvi is much more blunt in his estimation: “Arvind Kejriwal never wanted to form the government in Delhi, but he won the seats and formed the government. Now, he has made it clear that he wants to be in the national scene.”

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Some political analysts predict that after a decade or so, AAP could occupy a major space in Indian politics.

“Arvind Kejriwal used these 49 days to project himself nationally, while knowing that he could not fulfil the promises he made in reference to the existing issues in Delhi as well as the tall order he set for himself,” says Vinod Sharma, senior journalist and political commentator. “He took on Mukesh Ambani and others and then came the issue of tabling the Jan Lokpal Bill and he very well knew that it could not pass muster constitutionally. Then, he decided to demit office and go to the people. He reinvented the Jan Lokpal issue to appear as a martyr in the cause of anti-corruption.

prominent_people“To know what people think of him now, one has to talk to the lakhs of people whose jobs he promised to regularise and those to whom he promised to lower the power and water tariff. However, we cannot fool ourselves by thinking that his support has waned. He enjoys more support now among the middle classes, but we have to see how long this honeymoon will last. In fact, before the Lok Sabha polls, someone should do a survey on his popularity in the million-plus-population cities because he is now fighting for urban territories.”

On 14 February, Kejriwal and his council of ministers resigned. According to the party’s official stand, this was done to maintain the high moral ground after the move to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Assembly was thwarted thanks to the machinations of the Congress and the BJP.

In effect, however, Kejriwal and his team, which shot to glory through its activism (remember the Anna Hazare-led Jan Lokpal movement) was back on the roads again.

At AAP’s Hanuman Road office in Connaught Place, Kejriwal announced his resignation amid high-voltage sloganeering and cheers by supporters reminiscent of the Hazare-led agitation, which began from Jantar Mantar.

So, what about the promises the AAP government made to Delhi voters? Has the party fled from its responsibilities and exposed itself of being inefficient when it came to governance as its critics accuse?

The results of last December’s Delhi Assembly polls showed that AAP had tapped into the huge democracy deficit like no other party in recent political history. By all means, for a party that had come into existence barely a year ago, winning 28 Assembly seats in its first election foray was nothing short of a huge victory. Following some unexpected political developments, the party, though short of majority, did finally get to form the government with outside support from the Congress.

It was a golden opportunity the mostly activists-turned-leaders of the party led by Arvind Kejriwal had been claiming they desperately wanted to usher in the promised changes through sincere and honest governance.

aap_moneyHowever, as contributing editor Ashutosh Varshney pointed out recently in The Indian Express, “How AAP combines its anti-system impulse with governance will remain the party’s fundamental political dilemma.”

Other critics point out that AAP relinquished power in Delhi under a well-calibrated strategy to hamper Narendra Modi’s march to prime ministership as the UPA and Congress are already on their worst downslide.

During Yogendra Yadav’s visit to Gurgaon on 18 February, reporters pointed out that AAP had ditched a great opportunity to clean Delhi of corruption by relinquishing power and taking a plunge in Lok Sabha polls, where the party’s prospects are not yet very clear. Yadav reiterated the party’s stand that the Kejriwal government had to quit because the Congress and the BJP did not allow the Jan Lokpal Bill to be passed.

Donor_country“The Congress and the BJP are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “If the BJP led by Narendra Modi is voted to power, his actions and work style would not be different from that of the Congress party. We were left with no choice but to relinquish power in Delhi because, as a party in minority, we couldn’t implement our decisions.”

Journalist-turned-candidate Ashutosh agrees that he himself in Chandni Chowk and his party overall may or may not be able to create a huge impact in the Lok Sabha polls, but justifies AAP’s decision in Delhi on the ground that the party had set a new moral high ground after it couldn’t keep its promise of passing the Jan Lokpal Bill.

“The Aam Aadmi Party is prepared for the long haul and can wait for five or 10 years for our ideas to percolate among the people,” he says. “However slow and gradual it may be, we would need to stand by our principles and stick to the promises we have made to the voters.”

Meanwhile, the opinion in the viewers gallery is split on AAP and its potential to affect the Lok Sabha polls, but the commonality of the observations by political experts now brings AAP on board as a force to reckon with. Win or lose, they feel, the new party will play spoiler to the straightforward Congress-BJP fight it was slated to be.

“As far as 2014 is concerned, the agenda has changed in a dramatic way,” says political commentator Aditya Nigam. “The normal standard election between the two national parties (the most predictable scenarios) with the Congress raising the fear of 2002 (Gujarat riots) to polarise and the BJP with its cries of anti-national, Italian, etc would have gone on. Modi would have pitched development supported by the corporate sector. That would have been a standard election and Modi was prepared for that. But, as you can see, Modi has no ammo to attack AAP. The BJP actually comes out as the most confused party. With Kejriwal writing to Modi and Rahul on the gas-pricing issue, it puts some pressure on them. Finally, someone has actually taken on the holy cows of the Indian corporate world. For the first time, someone has also used a non-doctrinaire, non-Marxist argument and queered the pitch. It opens up other possibilities. The BJP has to deal with fighting AAP benefit from the anti- Congress sentiment.”

With the advent of AAP’s election journeys, first in the Delhi Assembly and now for the Lok Sabha, the political discourse sure is witnessing many changes.

left_sideRemember the 2004 slogan that helped the Congress win the Lok Sabha polls? “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath (The Congress’ hand is with the common man)”. Make no mistake, that slogan is not coming back thanks to Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party.

In a recent interview, Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram admitted that AAP will definitely be a factor in the forthcoming election but could not predict the exact effect of the ‘common man’ party.

Organisationally, the AAP effect reaches further than stray comments and forced assessments. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is holding primaries in 16 constituencies to decide the party candidate, of which two have been contested and candidates declared.

A senior Congress leader said that the party will be talking about AAP and its decision to “run away from governance in Delhi” at every urban centre, which forms a potential base for AAP. Though he denies any uneasiness in the party about AAP, the Congress leader said that city units have been briefed to carry out door-to- door campaigns where AAP’s failure will be pointed out.

And it is true that the top two contending national political parties are factoring in AAP in their Lok Sabha election gambit.

The Congress has almost erased the phrase “aam aadmi” from its campaigns and flagship programmes. The UIDAI tagline has been changed from ‘Aadhaar Aam Aadmi Ka Adhikar (Aadhaar is the right of every common man)’ to ‘One India One Identity’. The Youth Congress no longer uses the slogan, “Aam Aadmi ke Sipahi (soldiers of the common man)”.

“We cannot deny AAP’s presence, but we will carry the message to the people on how they have worked,” says Dr Harshvardhan, BJP MLA and Leader of the Opposition in the Delhi Assembly. “In the Assembly polls, AAP was not exposed and we did not take them seriously. Now, we know about their anarchy in governance and we will expose that. The foreign funding and how they function shows that they have entered politics only to disrupt the BJP’s chances. In 49 days, they have done and achieved nothing. They have made the Jan Lokpal, a non-issue, into an issue.”

The BJP leadership has decided that door-to-door campaigns in Delhi and other states will use more or less the same case in convincing voters against AAP.

“Somehow or the other, with the aid of foreign funding, AAP managed to disrupt the BJP’s work and win seats in the Delhi Assembly,” says Ramesh Bidhuri, the BJP MLA from Tughlakabad. “They made a lot of false promises during the course of their campaign. We promised a 30 percent decrease in power tariff and AAP tried to outdo us by promising a 50 percent decrease. They also promised up to 700 litres of free water, regularisation of several illegal colonies and regularisation of contractual employees in the state government. But they did not disclose any blueprint for these ambitious promises, because they were false. They will try to make similar false promises to the public while campaigning for the Lok Sabha election.

“In 1972, the Congress had won the election (under Indira Gandhi) with the slogan of garibi hatao (eradicate poverty). Decades down the line, they haven’t inched anywhere closer to removing poverty. AAP is on the same path with a set of false promises to con the electorate. We would have supported the Jan Lokpal Bill but why use unconstitutional means to table a Bill? We can’t override the Constitution.”

Strangely, both the BJP and Congress MLAs say they would have supported the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill in Delhi if it had been tabled by constitutional means.

One of the main criticisms against AAP is that it’s a B-team of the Congress. Congressmen such as Delhi Congress Legislature Party leader Arvinder Singh Lovely vehemently deny this accusation.

“If they are our B-team, why would they lodge FIRs against our leaders and would we then stand by letting them pursue such a course?” asks Lovely. “In fact, the kind of scripted politics that Kejriwal practises shows him to be an RSS man. We believe he is an RSS man.”

In Delhi and wherever else it matters, the BJP’s campaign is focussed on AAP’s 49-day experiment. They are also pushing counter-narratives in reply to issues raised by AAP against Modi and his reportedly being a frontman for industrialist Mukesh Ambani.

“AAP has never answered the questions about how it gets funding from Ford Foundation and the media skirts this issue,” says Bidhuri. “Why doesn’t Kejriwal dismiss the allegation that the Ford Foundation has funded him to disrupt the polls because they are opposed to Modi winning with a clean sweep, as he is projected to do?”

“Firstly, even if we were taking support from Mukesh Ambani, he is at least an Indian citizen. Secondly, why would he support the BJP, when it was the BJP who disrupted the Assembly sessions throughout last year over the issue of rising power tariff in Delhi?”

Bidhuri and other senior Delhi BJP leaders are dismissive of Kejriwal, calling him a “mere trainee opposing a seasoned professor such as Narendra Modi, who has won three Assembly elections, while Kejriwal has only run an experiment in the state for less than two months”.

They believe that Kejriwal has no national election agenda and clearly avoids taking a stand on issues of national importance such as the Naxal conflict, rebellions in the Northeast and secessionism in the Kashmir Valley.

The BJP’s statements and campaign strategy show that the party considers AAP as a serious threat to its aspirations in the forthcoming General Election. The complacency has diminished. Prior to the Delhi Assembly election, senior BJP leaders such as Arun Jaitley had said that AAP was not going to be a major factor in the polls.

But, since AAP brought home the bacon, formed a government, shook up the political and governance status quo and then relinquished power from its high horse, both the BJP and the Congress have no option but to factor in AAP while formulating their campaign strategy.

journeyAccording to a BJP insider, Nitin Gadkari, who was in charge of the party’s election machine in Delhi, had predicted a 17-18 percent vote share for AAP. But this never reflected in their strategy at that time because the BJP did not want to lose any more voters to AAP.

Though this sounds more like an afterthought after AAP’s success, the BJP has come back to the ground and is conducting door-to- door campaigning with the agenda of trying to tell the electorate that AAP floundered with false promises and stumbled in governance.

Relinquishing Delhi over the Jan Lokpal Bill has ensured that right before the Lok Sabha polls, the party is in focus with an anti-corruption agenda. In a way, this shows AAP as stealing the BJP’s thunder, but also proves that its leaders are wily political strategists, no doubt under the able guidance of veteran political observers such as Yogendra Yadav.

Yadav’s former colleagues in the political commentary circuit are closely watching the rise of AAP, which has them on their toes since the Delhi poll results came out.

Whether AAP has realised it or not, the national parties have betrayed the fact that they are unnerved by the newbie’s charm and the consequent mobilisation of the urban, suburban and peri-urban middle classes.

As the proverb goes, “Make hay when the sun shines.”

Professor Kumar sums up the likely shape of the AAP effect in what promises to be a high-voltage Lok Sabha election. “To say the least, AAP is going to create a substantial impact in the coming election,” he says. “It will be a close fight with the BJP. AAP will tap into the people’s desire to find an alternative to the 10 years of UPA’s bad rule.

“In the process, if the Congress party ends up with less than 100 seats, its putative prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi would prove to be a non-starter. Similarly, if the BJP, under its prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi, doesn’t get more than 175 seats due to the AAP effect, it will prove that despite the great packaging, he isn’t really the leader that India shall look up to.”

deevakar@tehelka.com | ushinor@tehelka.com

 

 

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