The dream and the reality of AAP

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is five years old . When I reported this to a friend of mine, he laughed and said that AAP is a concept that unfortunately degenerated into a party. AAP was a set of ideals and one was excited by the number of idealistic people who joined it — students, activists, IFS officers. In fact, the first casualty of AAP was its ideals. It shed a lot of its early exemplars to become a more mundane party. One wishes AAP had remained an experiment, a perpetual hypothesis reworking the idea of politics and even the ritual of the political. The banalisation of AAP might be its biggest tragedy.

A long journey

When it appeared, there was something carnivalesque about it. Anna Hazare appeared like an Old Testament prophet and Arvind Kejriwal, who is now Delhi Chief Minister, as a milder version almost had the gentleness of a later Testament. Mr. Hazare smelt Gandhian, more Swadeshi rather Swaraj, but his battle against corruption and alcohol had an old-fashioned style to it. He reeked of nostalgia and India wanted the nostalgia of Gandhi and the national movement for a while. But one sensed an authoritarian streak in him, and Mr. Kejriwal seemed to be more fine-tuned to the new generation.


As a former Indian Institute of Technology student and revenue officer, he seemed more real. His arrival was greeted with a sense of unprecedented joy. AAP seemed amphibious enough to be both non-governmental organisation and political party, and be naive enough to be quixotic. The beginning was almost like a reverie. Sadly, his Teflon-coated attitude to feminist issues did not work and instead of sounding progressive, he betrayed hints of a khap panchayat mindset. Yet, his audience was loyal. Each of us could reel off the names of idealistic people who had joined him. They came from many walks of life and helped create a halo of expectation around the party.

There was also a sense of moral luck because the Congress was at the height of its inanity. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had become formidable as the main bet, many felt AAP as a side bet would sustain a more creative politics. In the beginning, the very disorder of AAP conveyed that sense of effervescence. There was a gossip of the new, a real sense of pluralism, a bilingual idealism where English-speaking college students and Hindi-speaking activists found a meeting point. For many of them, politics offered the possibility of a career which allowed for both ideals and a real impact. AAP for a few months seemed to be the harbinger of a new future.

Too inflationary

But three things happened which vitiated these possibilities. First, many outstanding people who joined the party found themselves at odds with it, in fact sometimes conveying an aesthetic distaste for it. Second, many who joined it promising a new sense of solidarity across a variety of styles seemed to return to their old narcissism. Each was an egoist who thought he was the party. Third, AAP as an idea became inflationary. It threatened to promise an all-India impact when it was still a local phenomenon. The dream of AAP was bigger than the reality called AAP. Oddly, it is this very reaching for the impossible that brought it down. As Humpty Dumpty, it could be put together again only locally.

The local dramas were of a different and more mundane kind. They had a more routine quality to them, from factionalism to the predictable melodrama of corruption. For a party that came in like a bunch of Savonarolas, its private lives were more questionable than its public face. A sense of scandal ate into the party. Oddly Mr. Kejriwal, as a leader, seemed strangely oblivious to all this. He seemed to read it as teething pains, convinced that some kind of naturopathy would cure both his asthma and the party’s growing sense of disorder. Also, he seemed less quixotic. It is as if he had switched costumes to be Hamlet while Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister, continued to play Sancho Panza.

Also, the BJP kept gnawing at its edges, playing to the ambitions of lesser players. For all its publicised sense of ideological rectitude, the BJP was pragmatic about enticing floor crossers. The BJP could combine hypocrisy and pragmatism while AAP was expected to be idealistic. Yet for all this, it was the voter that insisted on sustaining the dream of AAP, convinced that AAP as a hypothesis, an alternative idea must survive. AAP remained the one party that could trounce the BJP. The BJP had to live with the irony that it swept India but could not win Lutyens’ Delhi. It was an irony it must have found painful as all its sanchalaks wondered when the fairy story called Arvind Kejriwal would end.

But what local bosses could not do, the Lt. Governor could. He became a barrier to AAP, more loyal than the king. Many AAP experiments were still-born as he asserted his primacy over AAP. It was an odd case of the law upholding an appointed over an elected official. The battle between Mr. Kejriwal and Najeeb Jung became the Capital’s favourite Punch and Judy battle as the Congress and the BJP watched this development with obvious delight.

Ageing fast

As time went by, AAP seemed to age faster. A realistic Mr. Kejriwal echoing the problems of governance was less impressive and engaging that his earlier quixotic incarnation, the party symbol of the broom less magical than before. Comrades who were once core members claimed more prime time than Mr. Kejriwal. Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan were more effective at denting the pretensions of AAP than in building their own constituencies with Swaraj Abhiyan.

The results in Punjab offered a small breather as AAP was one party that had heroically battled the drug menace and brought it to public light. The battle to create a more open budget, to have a more inclusive educational model to rally the public around pollution was not as convincing. One cannot decide whether it was a failure of communication or half-chewed ideas of governance. As a sympathiser remarked sadly, as an asthmatic, Mr. Kejriwal could have brought a difference passion to solving pollution.

By year five, from an epidemic dream of alternative politics, AAP had become a more modest hypothesis. Yet it created a sense of excitement among people across India. There was a magic to the idea which almost has an existence parallel to the travails of the actual party. People often talk of inventing an AAP in Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, or Bengaluru. AAP as an unofficial dream appears to have a life of its own. There is an optimism about such politics that is both moving and endearing.

Yet, one senses a reverse trend around Delhi. Aspirational Delhi seems to have dropped ideals as unnecessary or unconvincing. Delhi prefers the grim realism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, or the cynical power of BJP president Amit Shah. Yet there is a loyalty to Mr. Kejriwal and his dream of a decentralised polity among migrants to Delhi, among the margins of the middle class, people who still sense an authenticity and hope in his programmes and are ready to wait.

A new party has survived five years. One cannot grudge it a celebratory cake even as one looks critically at its next move.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P Jindal Global University

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