If the Aam Aadmi Party’s intention in setting long-winded preconditions for accepting support was to put the Congress and the BJP off, it should have stuck to the basics of opposing VIP culture and doodling with the idea of a Lokpal Bill

Did the citizens of Delhi read party manifestos before they voted? If they had studied all of that and then set out for the polling booth, the results may well have been different. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) could have come a distant third: a David crunched by two Goliaths. If truth be told, the Congress probably had a better programme on paper than the other two, but look what happened to it.

The reason the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did well was because the electorate had had enough of the Congress. The reason why the AAP did well was because, once again, people had had enough of the Congress. In both cases, where was the manifesto?

How then did these two parties fatten themselves by devouring the same animal? Simply by dividing the spoils without a well- thought-out recipe. The BJP bit into chunks from the north west, south and southwest Delhi, leaving the heart of the capital to be savaged by the AAP. The rich, the poor and the middle class spread their favours equally among the three contenders, which shows, once again, that manifestos did not count.

Preconditions and impact

Is the AAP now overcooking its goose by thrusting a manifesto-like document on us? That is indeed what it looks like as one goes through its long-winded 18-point set of preconditions for allying with the Congress. The many details in it have surprised a number of AAP activists and robbed the organisation of its stir-fried crispiness. AAP supporters, in the main, did not vote for neighbourhood committees, or for blocking FDI in retail, or for regularising unauthorised colonies either. Rarely did an AAP voter think of any of these at election time, so why bring them up now? The day is not yet done.

Yet, by putting these out as inalienable must-do items, the AAP is forcing its support base to do a think, perhaps even a rethink. From the beginning till election day, what Mr. Kejriwal’s followers wanted most was a regime free of VIPs and corruption. In their view, the two were interlinked by definition. Hence, if one went, so would the other. This is why the Jan Lokpal Bill escaped voters’ scrutiny and remained, for all practical purposes, a pie in the sky.

The anger against VIP swagger figures elsewhere too, but never with the same ferocity as it does in Delhi. Politicians collude to make the capital their fiefdom, converting citizens to subjects, and corruption to a way of life. This is the culture that AAP supporters wanted out, which is why they turned up in such large numbers and with so much enthusiasm. They were certainly not charged up by the idea of street corner huddles taking policy decisions, or giving “swaraj” to Delhi, or rejigging VAT.

On issues such as these, the ordinary AAP enthusiast is uncertain, often even unsupportive. By forcing these divisive matters to the front, the party is placing itself on the skids for no good reason. The Congress and the BJP have so far kept quiet about taking a fresh view on anything and, wisely so. They probably know, by instinct, never to force a manifesto in the open for that only troubles settled waters. Yet, the AAP has gone ahead and done just that; keeping things simple suddenly looks very complicated indeed.

If its intention was to set preconditions that would put the Congress and the BJP off, there was a better way of achieving this. All it had to do was to stick to the basics: oppose VIP culture and doodle with the idea of a Lokpal Bill. Its biggest appeal lay in its promise of a “no-frill” government where ministers walk with the people, out in the open. No politician from the Congress, or the BJP, or any other party for that matter, would ever countenance such a nightmare world without privileges. The threat of becoming ordinary mortals without security, without bungalows, without motorcades, would be enough to leave them sleepless.

Perhaps its eagerness to go in for the kill has made the AAP overzealous for a quick second election. No doubt, its suitors are black-hearted, but by saying “No” in 18 different ways it has lost some of its boy-next-door appeal. Word might go around that Mr. Kejriwal either fears a commitment or fears an inability to perform. These doubts would not have surfaced had the AAP pruned its 18 points to just, maybe, three or four. That way it would have kept its youthful good looks for another day.

Voter turnout

After all, what made the difference in 2013 is that unlike the 2008 polls, young voters came out in large numbers from both the poor and posh quarters of Delhi. Five years ago, the New Delhi constituency had a very low voter turnout, but not this time. It is here that Mr. Kejriwal trounced Ms Sheila Dixit by over 26,000 votes. Not just that, in neighbouring Greater Kailash, the AAP shamed the BJP from what was considered to be its safest seat in the city. In R.K. Puram, it lost by a mere 326 votes; it was that close!

None of this could have happened had not the 2013 Delhi election been visited by a “movement” in the shape of the AAP. It is this that turned a staid voting scenario to a turbulent and carnivalesque one. A three per cent margin held it back from being in complete power, but it had made even cynics sit up and take notice. It was the movement, the mobilisation, the big agenda of anti-corruption that was everything.

This is why it is too early yet for Mr. Kejriwal to step out of the movement’s skin and get weighed under by the nitty-gritty. He must hammer away at his promise to deliver just one spectacular thing and not 18 dull, but potentially divisive, ones. Only then can he keep the AAP’s elan alive and halt it from becoming a humdrum party; an also-ran.

In the ultimate analysis, it may even be better for the AAP to form the government for that is really a low-risk option. If the Congress, at some point, were to withdraw support, Kejriwal and company could go to the voters with an “I-told-you-so.” It would make it that much easier to demonstrate that the BJP and the Congress are indeed in cahoots and resentful of a clean government.

The BJP may still salvage something out of this wreckage because it retained at least a third of its seats from the previous elections. The Congress will, however, be a loser no matter which way one looks at it. It has a bellyful of its own words to eat besides holding up Dr. Manmohan Singh in the centre. After labelling the AAP challenge as a no-contest, it has now to play second fiddle to it. Nor can it bring down Mr. Kejriwal after supporting him for then the Congress and the BJP would be walking down the same aisle.

To force the opposition to be on the defensive would allow the AAP to have its movement and its party too. This is why while the night is young and the guests are still around, Mr. Kejriwal must bring back to the AAP what made it so festive — the no frills anti-corruption drive. Nit picking over 18 points is inviting quarrelsome conversation whereas it needs just one grand issue to make the party rock.

Otherwise, all bets are off and if the next elections are held soon, the results are up in the air once again.

(Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist who taught in JNU for over 25 years, is now distinguished professor at Shiv Nadar University. His latest book is Revolution from Above.)

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