The Congress has been left bewildered by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which has come as if from nowhere to steal its thunder. If nothing else, Arvind Kejriwal deserves standing ovation for his dare-devilry in appropriating an idea that has been the core philosophical message of India’s oldest and largest political party. The Congress has always claimed the poor and the marginalised as its own. The image got all but cast in stone during the Indira years. Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter had an iconic following among the masses which she used to great effect — both to push Left-liberal programmes and to differentiate herself from the Syndicate which unabashedly advocated the status quo. The coming of the proudly right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party sharpened the Congress’s identity as a party of the downtrodden. Indeed, the aam aadmi slogan, coined on the eve of the 2004 general election, brilliantly captured the party’s social conscience even as it mocked at the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ preoccupations.
It is a measure of how far to the right the Congress has travelled since then that an upstart party has been able to hijack its principal platform from under its nose. Mr. Kejriwal has got away with AAP precisely because the Congress has failed to protect the interests of its core constituency, the aam aadmi. Nothing illustrates this more than the irony of the Congress pushing market reforms in a political climate stridently opposed to them. That the BJP and the Left have fetched up on the same side on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail is a commentary in itself. Indeed, Mr. Kejriwal has tapped into the anguish of those sections that have felt betrayed by India’s Grand Old Party. The scams and scandals have stuck to the Congress because it has shown itself willing to defend the unexplained wealth of a chosen few. A Congress spokesperson had the audacity to ask why it was wrong of banks and companies to advance unsecured loans to Robert Vadra. Mr. Vadra’s caricature of the aam aadmi as the mango people completed the damage. Unbeknown to himself the Gandhi son-in-law had played midwife to AAP. Mr. Kejriwal’s new-born has plenty of chutzpah, and he and his team have taken on the holy cows in the political class. But feisty oratory and press conferences are not substitutes for implementable policy and vision, and too many exposés too often can induce fatigue. The promise to enforce democracy through local self-governance and referendums is beyond reproach but repeated referrals to the grass-roots can also strengthen majoritarian impulses. AAP must move beyond fighting corruption to evolve into a party with an agenda that addresses all of India’s problems.