AAP’s Bypoll Rout: Unbridled National Ambition Undoing Kejriwal?

It is still early to write AAP’s political epitaph after Delhi bypoll debacle, writes Kay Benedict.

In its sonic ambition to become a national player, the fledgling Aam Admi Party had fielded 434 candidates across 16 states in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; a move that turned out to be super flop. Barring Punjab, where it won four constituencies, the party lost deposit in as many as 413 seats. The signs were clear, they still are: “Go slow, roads ahead are bumpy.”

Kejriwal’s PM Aspiration Now on a Back-Burner

Conventional political wisdom has it that the ruling parties usually win by-elections held in their respective states. Conventional wisdom also says that victory or defeat in a bypoll is no big deal. Yet, the rout of AAP candidate Harjeet Singh in Delhi’s Rajouri Garden constituency on Thursday at the hands of the BJP’s Manjinder Singh Sirsa is a big personal jolt to Arvind Kejriwal’s prime ministerial ambition. Whether the AAP is a wave or just a 2015 bubble sprouting out of a putrid political puddle, wait till 23 April when crucial elections to three municipal corporations of Delhi will be held.

Ordinarily a by-election defeat should not rob the party of sleep, but what is galling for the AAP is that it came third (the Congress being runner-up), losing deposit on a seat held by it till January when sitting MLA Jarnail Singh quit to contest against Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal (the AAP lost that too).

Do NOT Take Voters For Granted

The humiliating defeats come just two years after Kejriwal’s party clocked a spectacularly historic performance winning 67 out of the 70 assembly seats. The bypoll debacle comes close on the heels of the party’s crushing defeat in Goa where not only it failed to win a single seat, but lost deposit in 38 out of the 39 constituencies it contested and in Punjab it won a measly 24 out of 117 seats despite the hype and two years of preparation.

Two years back, AAP’s slogan of clean politics and corruption-free government had caught the imagination of Delhiites. However, the message from Rajouri Garden is loud and clear. Do not take voters for granted.

According to political analysts, Kejriwal’s unbridled greed for power and the haste to become a national player are subverting his initial advantages, the novelty of being an outsider, a political greenhorn and a landslide victory in Delhi catapulting him to the CM seat.

Kejriwal – The Modi Demolisher?

AAP sources, however, underplayed the bypoll defeat saying that it was primarily due to local factors, such as fielding a weak candidate and former MLA Jarnail Singh (the journalist-turned politician who shot to fame for lobbing his shoes at then Home Minister P Chidambaram, during a presser at AICC headquarters in the run up to 2014 Lok Sabha polls) not campaigning sincerely; he kept himself busy in Canada and Europe mobilising funds.

They said the by-election result will have no bearing on AAP’s long-term objective of becoming a national party. Kejriwal has delivered on many of his promises like rationalising electricity tariff, ensuring water supply, setting up Mohalla clinics and many other pro-poor measures.

AAP source There is an alternative narrative and Kejriwal still occupies the imagination of that section of people who believe that only he can demolish Modi.

Impact of Opposition and Media ‘Propaganda’

Sources claim that “propaganda” unleashed by the BJP, the Congress and a section of media has besmirched the image of the Delhi government.

On the eve of the civic polls, the Lieutenant Governor and the Supreme Court ordered recovery of Rs 97 crore from AAP for “illegal spending on advertisement”, payment of Rs 3.86 crore fee to laywer Ram Jethmalani in the Arvind Kejrwal Vs Arun Jaitley defamation case and the Shunglu committee report indicting the AAP government for illegal allotment of land. Charges of nepotism and unauthorised foreign trips by government officials had portrayed Kejriwal in a poor light.

The AAP now fears that the Election Commission and the apex court may also make some adverse observations on the appointment of 21 MLAs as parliamentary secretaries ahead of the civic polls influencing the voters.

Too Early to Write AAP’s Political Epitaph

Kejriwal himself is partly responsible for the growing trust deficit of people. An impression was created that much of his time is wasted with needless spats with the L-G and the Centre at the cost of governance.

Delhi is a city-state with a teeming population of over 12 million facing myriad problems – from pollution to population to public transport to sinking law and order. The demanding city needs a 24x7 CM.

Analysts say Kejriwal erred in squandering his energies and resources outside before consolidating in Delhi. The AAP lacks charismatic state leaders and organisation muscle outside Delhi.

Instead of leapfrogging onto the national scene, he should have stayed focused on Delhi and ensured quality governance.

Five years later, his record in Delhi would have helped him reinvent AAP and carve out a pan-India niche for himself. After all, time is on his side. Kejriwal will be just 57 before the 2024 Parliament polls.

It is still too early to write the political epitaph of AAP.

AAP’s next port of call is Gujarat. In Delhi, the BJP ruling the MCD for a decade is facing severe anti-incumbency. The poll outcome later this month will reveal if the party is over for Kejriwal.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached @benedict18. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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