The South Asia Channel
Rise and Divide? The Future of India’s AAP
India's underdog AAP swept the Delhi state elections against its BJP and Congress Party opponents last month. But just as it climbs, internal rifts are also rising and challenging its political future. Here's a three-step survival guide on sticking around.
Last month, the Indian state of Delhi saw a David and Goliath battle when the underdog Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept the legislature, winning 67 of 70 seats and trouncing Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The AAP, also known as the “Common Man Party,” reduced the BJP to a mere three seats and left the Congress Party seatless in the capital state it ruled for 15 straight years until 2012. But just as the AAP is rising to the political apogee, internal rifts within the party about its future strategy are causing pause for its long-term viability.
The AAP began as an anti-corruption movement barely four years ago before transforming into a political outfit headed by Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax inspector. Given its inexperience in electoral politics, its refusal to run a negative campaign even as the BJP commissioned a series of advertisements attacking Kejriwal and his family, and its insistence on playing by campaign finance rules in a country where political parties routinely expend millions of unaccounted funds, few expected the AAP to emerge successful. But in securing a mandate never before seen in India, the AAP has raised hope of an alternative politics. Yet, if the AAP is to become a serious political alternative and consolidate its meteoric rise, it will have to learn to be mature beyond its years in both its politics and its policies.
First, the AAP must embrace the features that make it different and popular. For the common man, the rise of the AAP provides at last a meritocratic, non-corrupt, and secular alternative to the dynastic regime of the Congress Party and the right-wing Hindu politics of the BJP. The AAP’s insistence on fielding candidates with no serious criminal records; its transparent organizational decision-making; its shunning of the privileged treatment conferred upon Indian politicians; and its insistence on adhering to campaign finance rules in a country where most other parties do not — all inspire the imagination of a rising, aspirational middle-class. To consolidate this appeal, the AAP must stay the course in both its internal conduct and its political moves.
Second, the AAP must make clear its broader vision for India. So far, the AAP’s rise has been fueled largely by its anti-corruption rhetoric. Such a stance is unsurprising for a party that began as an anti-corruption movement. But in order for it to become a serious contender it must enunciate a clear vision for the whole range of issues facing India today. From economic policy to national security to law and order and foreign relations, the AAP needs to agree upon and project a message that is clear and articulate. Its campaign in Delhi suggests that the AAP could fit into the left-of-center space the Congress Party currently occupies. Its pro-poor pitch and its secular inclusive vision would find a natural constituency in India’s center-left liberals. But for the AAP to decisively capture those votes, more must be done.
Lastly, the AAP must quickly learn the skill of public administration and deliver on its promises in Delhi. Critics fairly argue that the AAP is populist, promising everything from electricity subsidies and 100,000 public toilets to free water and Internet. The economic and administrative viability of its proposals cause many would-be supporters to view it as a well-meaning but an idealistic and inexperienced bunch of volunteers who can be trusted with agitation but not with real power. They further doubt the AAP’s ability to fulfill promises that rely on the form of participative governance it currently advocates. In an age when Indian citizens are morphing into demanding consumers in the political supermarket, their active participation in the running of the state might prove difficult. In contrast, many see Modi as a political veteran and a determined enforcer, experienced in statecraft and capable of working India’s byzantine bureaucracy. For the AAP, catalyzing real development in Delhi would be the best way of putting such speculations to rest. Sensibly, at his inaugural address, Kejriwal pledged to focus on delivering results in Delhi before venturing out to other states. A good performance in Delhi would allow Kejriwal to earn his stripes as an administrator and put to rest allegations of impractical populism that is a constant refrain for naysayers.
The AAP’s promise of participative, experimentalist governance has deep roots in Indian political culture. The panchayati system consisting of self-contained, self-governed villages has been around for more than 100 years in India. These systems encourage decentralization and subsidiarity, empowering people to solve their own problems. Conceptualized smartly, the AAP’s aim of swaraj (“self-rule”) may help provide Delhi’s inhabitants with a structured role in administering their own localities, transforming the common man from a political consumer into a development partner. Together, these political moves, if successful, could usher in a political transformation in India, one that Mahatma Gandhi ardently hoped to catalyze in the years after India’s independence, but did not live long enough to achieve.
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Neeli Shah is a Washington D.C.-based economics, law, and policy professional. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. @neelishah