That the rich and the poor, the underdog and the privileged, have responded in equal measure to the desire for political change is a measure of the Aam Aadmi Party’s success

The sight of a Chief Minister huddled under a razai (quilt) during the height of Delhi’s winter is something that is not going to be forgotten easily. Neither will be the one of him — now, as a former Chief Minister — meditating at Rajghat, with his face swollen after being slapped by a disgruntled supporter while campaigning in Delhi.

As the Chief Minister of Delhi, Mr. Arvind Kejriwal and his newish Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) targeted the establishment from within, sparking debate on whether a head of government should turn a protester.

Like everything else he’s done, Mr. Kejriwal has been anything but uncontroversial. He’s even cut electricity wires in a bid to win over the people of Delhi. And I can’t remember the last time a Chief Minister’s speech from a State Assembly went live on national television.

The AAP strategy

The strong signal that Mr. Kejriwal and AAP have sent out to the established political class across parties is this: ‘we don’t play by your rules; that we will challenge, and confront you on political practices in the country.’

Whatever else AAP may or may not have done — and there are many questions on the political calls taken by the party — the fact is that they have rearranged the pieces on the Indian political chessboard by asking the uncomfortable questions no one was asking.

For instance, big corporates, whose names have rarely figured in the media, are now fair game. With the media now afraid of missing the story, just about everyone is willing to publish AAP statements on the role of corporates.

So, irrespective of how many votes and seats they get in the 16th Lok Sabha, AAP has established itself as a formidable opposition force against the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led political establishment.

The failure of the Congress and the BJP to deliver a corruption-free, forward-looking India that shows concern for its poorest citizen is the raison d’être for AAP and its popularity.

The sight of an activist Medha Patkar and a corporate Meera Sanyal on the same forum (like the time at the very crowded Mumbai Press Club when AAP released its city manifesto) or Mr. Kumar Vishwas and Ms. Soni Sori contesting on the AAP ticket may have been something quite unimaginable a few months ago. The point here is that disparate elements make up AAP and it is this internal make-up which could lead to a churn in Indian politics.

Given that the story is now about those whose mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts are not already in politics, the people who have come into politics because of AAP are a breath of fresh air.

Now, when cynicism about politics and politicians is at an all-time high, AAP has stepped in with a promise of a different politics where idealism, and not money, will be the governing force.

India’s weary politics has a chance of being re-energised provided AAP and its leaders make a conscious decision to stay the course and keep all the lurking political influences around them at bay.

That the rich and the poor, the underdog and the privileged, have responded in equal measure to the desire for political change is a measure of AAP’s success.

The notion of “voluntary” political work, as opposed to the use of paid workers, has been given a new lease of life by AAP. It has made space for those who felt the big political parties afforded them no room.

About perception management

That both the Congress and the BJP attack and dismiss AAP in equal measure is a sign that these parties now take this new kid on the block seriously.

In a sense, the politics of AAP and Mr. Kejriwal — which, by the way, are absolutely up for interrogation — have raised hopes for a different political practice and placed a great deal of responsibility on the party.

This election is all about perception management (with the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Narendra Modi way ahead in this department) and Mr. Kejriwal, who owes his rise to the media, is more than conscious of it.

Before taking over as Chief Minister, Mr. Kejriwal was quick to appreciate that his slogan of “na samarthan denge, na samarthan lenge” (we will neither give nor take support) would be in tatters if he decided to form a government with Congress support.

The shrewd politician that he is, the former civil servant decided to ask for a referendum by appealing to people to send text messages on whether or not he should form the government.

It is possible Mr. Kejriwal and his team had not anticipated that they would do so well in the Delhi Assembly elections or that they might even be within striking distance of power.

After having gone into government, the people of Delhi wanted Mr. Kejriwal and his team to get on with the job. Perhaps, eyeing the bigger national pie in the wake of political success, the Chief Minister got into battle with the Delhi police and finally resigned his newly acquired job.

The eyes of Mr. Kejriwal’s critics and, it must be said, those of his many supporters were on him. “If he could seek people’s views on forming the government, why could he not have taken the same route before quitting?” asked one who had voted for AAP in the Delhi Assembly elections but chose not to in the Lok Sabha poll.

Whatever one may think of his decision to resign, he did lose support and people began to question the idea of whether AAP wanted to govern in the first place.

In situations where the media can make or break the prospects of political parties, there is little doubt that the running-away-from-the-battle-zone perception did the party and Mr. Kejriwal no good.

Even Mr. Kejriwal had to admit that the decision boomeranged on him. In an interview with The Economic Times, the AAP chief said, “The mistake we made was to assume that the people will celebrate our decision to quit on principle…but it did not happen. There was a communication gap and that gap was filled by the BJP and the Congress who told people that we ran away from responsibility.”

“We should not have quit government the same day the BJP and the Congress blocked the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill. We should have waited for a few days, held public meetings to explain the rationale behind our decision,” he added.

Behind the secular battle

By taking on Mr. Modi in Varanasi, the former Chief Minister might just have established his secular credentials given that many of his associates like Mr. Vishwas still face that litmus test.

Mr. Vishwas, interestingly, is no longer by Mr. Kejriwal’s side, a space that now seems to belong to Mr. Manish Sisodia.

It remains to be seen what kind of a challenge Mr. Kejriwal will pose to Mr. Modi, whose larger-than-life image makes him a huge target. After having defeated the sitting Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, the AAP leader does bring a certain reputation with him to Varanasi.

AAP will know that after winning 206 seats in 2009, the Congress lost the battle for public opinion quite rapidly as the scam-a-night show unfolded on television screens.

The rise of Mr. Modi on the national stage was also scripted through generous dollops of media coverage, which has continued even on polling days.

While the Lok Sabha poll will definitely test AAP’s mettle, many pundits believe that the party has spread itself too thin and expanded much too quickly for its own good.

These pundits are of the view that the party might have had a better chance had it concentrated on fewer seats, but the die has been cast.

The people, however, will have the final say. And they have had a history of proving the pundits wrong.

amit.b@thehindu.co.in

More In: Lead | Opinion