There are no full stops in Indian politics. So, tempting as it may be, it would be premature to write the obituary of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party after the rout in the MCD elections. AAP came a distant second to the BJP, which comprehensively swept all three of Delhi’s corporations.
Climax for AAP Came Way Too Early
Yet, even as Kejriwal and his men blamed faulty and rigged EVMs for their humiliating defeat, they must surely realise that they are hurtling dangerously close to oblivion with the future of both their party and government at risk. The Delhi loss has become a fight for survival amid rising demands that Kejriwal resign as Chief Minister.
The denouement has come surprisingly early. Just two years ago, AAP had won a famous victory in the Delhi state polls, reducing the two national behemoths – BJP and Congress – to 3 and 0 respectively in an Assembly with 70 seats.
The victory was built on the magical promise of a corruption-free government that would put the aam aadmi on the centre stage of policy making. Democracy would belong to the people instead of a small feudal ruling elite, which Kejriwal evocatively symbolised as lal batti culture.
Image of being a Disruptor Backfired
It’s a measure of Kejriwal’s inexperience and naivete that he was unable to calibrate his politics of disruptive innovation in a manner that would help him push boundaries beyond Delhi to Punjab and Goa.
His constant spats with Delhi Lt Governor Najib Jung, his regular potshots at PM Narendra Modi and his inability to create structures that would make AAP a force to reckon with made him look like a disruptor rather than an innovator.
And when the establishment struck back through constitutional and extra constitutional means like CBI raids, stings and police cases, many filed on frivolous grounds, Kejriwal had nothing to fight back with. He was after all, just a half Chief Minister of a state which is really nothing more than a glorified municipality.
Failure in Communicating Achievements
Maybe Kejriwal was doomed from the very start. You can’t be an outlier and take on the establishment without fortifying yourself for the consequences that are bound to follow. At the same time, Kejriwal made some strategic mistakes along the way which have left him staring down an abyss. For one, he let his national ambitions cloud his focus.
While his government in Delhi actually did some seminal work like start mohalla clinics for the poor, improve services in government hospital with the dispensation of free medicines, clean up the education system to make admissions free and fair and, of course, reduce water and power tariffs, he failed to communicate his achievements to the people of the city.
Just posting ads on hoardings and flashing television clips is not enough. AAP’s strength has been direct messaging through door-to-door campaigns. His volunteers lost that vital connect with the people.
Error of Judgement by Kejriwal
When the time came for him to spread his wings into Punjab and Goa, where Assembly elections were due in the first half of 2017, he gave the impression that he would much rather be the Chief Minister of a full state like Punjab rather than a half state like Delhi.
Statements from his closest aide Manish Sisodia that Kejriwal may shift to Punjab if AAP formed the government there only brought back memories of his “bhagoda’’ phase when he suddenly resigned as CM of Delhi after a 49-day stint in 2014.
Although Kejriwal was fully aware that municipal elections were due in April this year, he made no preparations for them. Instead, he put all his eggs in the Punjab basket, convinced that a victory there would help him coast to easy victory in the MCD polls.
He has paid dearly for this error of judgement. The establishment closed ranks to ensure that AAP lost Punjab. At the same time, the BJP scored a stunning victory in UP, bedazzling the people of Delhi who were already disenchanted with Kejriwal. Immediately after the results, Kejriwal went into a shell.
There was virtually no campaign by AAP. This gave the BJP the time to turn what should have been a referendum on its poor performance in the MCD for the past ten years into a vote on Kejriwal’s government.
Options Before BJP
Put this way, there is no doubt that the people of Delhi have decisively rejected Kejriwal and his AAP. His popularity is at its lowest today as the figures in Delhi show. AAP is just a nose ahead of the Congress and way behind the BJP.
This gives the Centre and the BJP an opportunity to snuff out the Kejriwal challenge before it’s too late. They have two options. They can move to dismiss the Delhi government on the strength of the plethora of cases against AAP MLAs and ministers. Or they could simply nudge the government to collapse under its own weight. There are enough disillusioned workers in AAP who are ready to challenge Kejriwal’s style of functioning and his politics.
Will AAP Rise to the Challenge?
There is one thing the BJP and the Congress agree on. Both want to show Kejriwal the door. The BJP considers him an irritant who fancies himself as a challenger to Modi in 2019. The Congress is frightened because AAP presents an existential threat. It has gobbled up the Grand Old Party’s base in Delhi and was moving to do the same in other states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The weeks ahead will be critical for Kejriwal as he fights for survival against the combined might of the BJP and Congress. He could well end up losing his government but the idea that AAP represented – of an alternative back-to-the-people brand of politics – will remain. The world over, people are yearning for change. The question is whether AAP can position itself again as the agent of that change or whether a new force will rise to take that space.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. 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.)