On the morning of February 11, even before the Delhi Assembly election results were out, huge flex boards were put up inside and outside the Aam Aadmi Party headquarters in Delhi which has party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s face with a message “join AAP to build the nation”. It also had a mobile number in which people can call to be a part of it.
The party was riding on the confidence from exit polls as almost all of them had predicted a sweep by AAP in Delhi.
Around 3.30 p.m., just before Mr. Kejriwal addressed hundreds of volunteers gathered at the AAP office to celebrate the party’s win, senior party leader and Delhi convener Gopal Rai said from a stage set up on the terrace of the headquarters: “The fight has only begun. I want to tell you and volunteers across the country, you gear up, not just in Delhi, the whole country needs change... To people in each corner of India, I request you, what Delhi can do, the whole country can do it, do prepare for it.”
These were the first signs of AAP’s renewed national dreams.
Since then, through multiple statements the party has made it clear that they will be expanding beyond Delhi and fight local body elections in all States where they have a unit and Assembly elections in selected States.
AAP has tried to go national in the past but failed badly, except for Punjab Assembly election in 2017, where they are the main Opposition party.
Senior AAP leaders told The Hindu that they are confident and the party has learnt from its mistakes. They said that AAP is no longer a new party and they will project the ‘Delhi model of governance’ in other States too.
Political experts also said that AAP was moving more carefully and it is the right time as the huge mandate in Delhi where it won 62 out of the 70 seats, has given them another chance of going national.
Why local elections?
“The advantage of fighting local body elections is that in the process of building the organisation, you can fight the elections also. But in Assembly elections, if you want to show your presence, you have to be a challenger and you need organisation till the last booth. Also you have to campaign for at least six months to one year,” Durgesh Pathak, in-charge of AAP’s ‘National Organisation Building Team’ told The Hindu.
“We are already working to build the organisation across the country and fighting local body elections fit in this process,” Mr. Pathak, who is also the youngest member of AAP’s Political Affairs Committee (PAC), the highest decision making body of the party, said.
From Sunday, the party started a “nation building campaign” across the country and posters with the phone number —9871010101— released on February 11 will be put up in 20 States across the country. From February 23 to March 23, the party aims to join one crore people.
“We do not need a lot of resources for the local body elections. Local candidates will focus on it and top leadership from Delhi will not go for the campaigning. We want the local leadership to grow and Assembly elections need more effort,” Mr. Rai told The Hindu , explaining the reason behind the decision.
Even political analysts feel it is a smart move from the party to fight local selections. “If you are fighting the local body elections everywhere, it is a good way to go. And they don’t threaten the big guns of Indian politics by doing it,” said political analyst Neerja Chowdhury.
What went wrong?
“The party was formed in November 2012, with an intent to contest the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections. After we won, we decided to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections,” a party insider said.
“AAP is not a structured political party like the BJP or the Congress. Since it is relatively new, it’s strategy and plans are more dynamic and subject to changing political realities and circumstances,” the insider said further.
Its defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in which it contested over 400 seats across the country but could not win more than four seats in Punjab was followed by a brief lull in relation to its national plans as it decided to consolidate its position in the Capital first, according to insiders.
The first 49-day government ceased to exist in 2014 following which Mr. Kejriwal, as it’s national convener, hit the ground to expand its support base among the citizens of Delhi.
“The period from February 2015 to April, 2017, was the only time when AAP did not contest any elections. This was followed by the party’s decision to contest each and every elections across the country,” the insider said.
The AAP contested the Punjab, Goa, and Gujarat Assembly elections in 2017 in addition to the civic elections in Delhi. In 2018, it fought the Meghalaya, Nagaland, Karnataka, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Telangana Assembly elections.
Later, the party debuted in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand Assembly elections following its defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections which, in 2020, preceded the Delhi Assembly polls that it successfully contested for the third time.
“Beginning with the Uttar Pradesh local body elections in 2017, where the party won 44 seats across various segments, AAP has gradually been working towards the creation of a cadre base across the country and there is no better approach to that than starting from the bottom,” the party source argued.
Both Mr. Rai and Mr. Pathak said that the party has learnt one lesson from its failures outside Delhi: they need to strengthen the organisation in other States.
“I think they went too fast. They thought the country was ready, little realising they did not have the organisation and come a cropper. One of the main criticism against Kejriwal was that he is a ‘my way or highway’ man. All leaders are like this, whether Modi-Shah duo or Congress high command,” Ms. Chowdhury said.
In the run-up to the Delhi elections, AAP was concentrating heavily on Delhi and none of the top AAP leaders went to campaign even in the 2019 Assembly elections in neighbouring Haryana and said that their “full focus” is on Delhi. The win have given them confidence, but they are treading carefully so as to not throw away the huge mandate in Delhi.
Mr. Pathak said that the party will form district and Assembly units where it is not there currently or are defunct. “We will also look at which units are not working properly and from where we get less missed calls [nation building campaign] and then we will focus on these areas. From this election there is an energy across the country.”
Mr. Rai said that a PAC meeting will be called in March to decide on which States the party will be fighting the Assembly elections. “We will review after the first phase of organisation building campaign and we will continue with it. It will go on now,” he added.
“We will tell people about the Delhi model of governance and compare it with the existing governments in those States. We will also focus on local issues and give solutions for it,” Mr. Pathak said.
But both AAP leaders did not say which States they will fight the Assembly elections.
A source pointed out that AAP is “more serious” this time around as it works on an unfolding plan to deploy popular party leaders such as Atishi, its Kalkaji MLA, as election in-charges for States such as Goa and Punjab where the Assembly elections are due.
According to sources, Ms. Atishi’s name is understood to be in the process of being finalised as the party’s Goa in-charge.
Will it work?
“The government will focus on Delhi and we are creating a mechanism so that our focus will be here and we will be able to balance both. In Punjab, people considered us a new party. Now, we have worked for five years and across the country there is a confidence on AAP’s model of governance and this will favour us,” he said.
He said that win in Delhi is not just limited to Delhi as it is a “mini India”. “In Delhi, the politics of work and positive nationalism has work and it has the participation of people from across the country. It is a sign that people from other parts of the country want such politics to work,” the AAP Minister said, exuding confidence.
“There is a political space here and Congress is abdicating its space. They have to go slow and go to the people, put in the hard work. I don’t know whether it will work out for them. Fighting local body polls is a good attempt and they are going much more cautiously this time. Currently, there is a space in Indian politics for AAP to occupy,” Ms. Chowdhury said.
“The party was formed to change the political system of the country. So, it is necessary for the country that AAP spread its wings across,” Mr Rai said. “For that purpose, the party will have to grow out of Delhi and for this, people have to stand up for the party.”
(With inputs from Jatin Anand)