The rise of AAP and a central question

It is still too early to answer whether the party can threaten the BJP-dominant system or contribute to upholding it

Updated - March 29, 2022 10:03 am IST

Published - March 29, 2022 12:12 am IST

The Delhi Chief Minister, and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal, at a press conference in Amritsar

The Delhi Chief Minister, and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal, at a press conference in Amritsar | Photo Credit: AFP

Under a Bharatiya Janata Party-dominant system, most political parties have struggled to hold on to, let alone expand their political space. There are only two exceptions. The first is regional parties in the east and the south whose appeals to linguistic identity or sub-nationalism have found a renewed resonance among the electorate. The second exception is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a centrist populist party which has matured under the Narendra Modi-era into a party of emerging national prominence.

AAP has done this by skilfully negotiating the opportunities and threats inherent in the BJP-dominant system. It has geared itself to occupy the political space that has opened with the steady discrediting of the Congress party under the Modi era. In the recent Punjab Assembly elections — where it swept to power, winning 92 of 117 seats — it rode the anti-establishment mood that was partly prepared with the unrest over the farm laws bulldozed through by the central government. At the same time, it has sought to neutralise the ideological threat of the BJP by operating within the boundaries set by the BJP’s larger ideological framework.

Strategy after 2019

This second strategy was crystallised after its drubbing in the Lok Sabha election of 2019, when it effected a decisive shift in its route to expansion. Before that election, AAP attempted to expand through high-profile attempts at occupying the oppositional space by attacking the central government and the Prime Minister. In the three years since, it has pivoted away from the national arena, focusing instead on localised issues in the pursuit of a gradual State by State strategy.

The focus of this article is to answer one central question: would the rise of AAP threaten the BJP-dominant system or would it contribute to upholding it? The answer cannot quite be straightforward as it depends on the particular strategic positioning of AAP with respect to the BJP-dominant system: a spectrum ranging from acquiescence to disapproval to confrontation. Being a dynamic variable, this strategic positioning would vary with time and context. The only constant is that AAP would seek to take the positioning it calculates to be most advantageous to its rise.

The BJP-dominant system comprises three elements: the ideological dominance of Hindu nationalism; the unparalleled popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the unchecked power of the central government machinery.

After 2019, AAP has consistently shied away from challenging the BJP on each of these elements. In line with the party’s State-wise strategy, AAP has preferred to take on State-level BJP governments by decrying their corruption and inefficiencies, and presenting its own ‘Delhi model of governance’ as an alternative. Going by the results of the Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa Assembly elections (which were held along with the Punjab and Manipur polls), this plan has not worked out well.

It must be borne in mind that AAP’s spectacular triumph in Punjab is, in many respects, an anomaly. It does not in itself prove or disprove the strategic worth of AAP’s positioning in the BJP-dominant system. Punjab was peculiar in it being a State where all the traditional parties were discredited — a dream scenario for AAP. It was also a State where the BJP was not a major player and the central government was highly unpopular. These conditions are unlikely to be replicated in the other States AAP has set its eyes on; therefore, Punjab does not provide a reliable map for future expansion.

The next stage for AAP

AAP’s next phase of expansion would run through States with a largely bipolar competition between the Congress and the BJP — States such as Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, and possibly Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

To succeed in this terrain, AAP has more to learn from its failures in Goa and Uttarakhand (States with a similar political dynamic) than from its successes in Punjab. And it is these failures, precisely, which has informed the latest tweaking in the AAP’s political strategy, manifested in AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s speech in the Delhi Assembly.

AAP has now seemed to modify its strategic positioning in the BJP-dominant system from acquiescence to disapproval. Breaking several self-imposed shibboleths, Mr. Kejriwal underlined a shift in his party’s approach by attacking Mr. Modi personally (with dramatic references to ‘56-inch chest’ and even ‘Hitler’); implicitly criticising the Hindu nationalist propaganda of the BJP represented by the film, The Kashmir Files; and condemning the Centre’s control of independent institutions as reflected in the deferral of the Delhi municipal elections.

Many observers have put down Mr. Kejriwal’s new avatar to AAP’s renewed ambition to fast-track itself into the primary national opposition to take on the BJP, on the back of its electoral victory in Punjab. This would, however, be a misreading of both the rationale and the nature of AAP’s strategic shift.

First, let us come to the rationale. As mentioned earlier, this shift has less to do with the success in Punjab than to the failures in Uttarakhand and Goa. Both these States were marked by high levels of anti-incumbency against the State governments, and AAP expected its alternative model of governance to catapult the party into becoming a major player. In Uttarakhand, specifically, AAP hoped that its centre-right platform (positioning itself between the Congress and the BJP) would help it attract disillusioned voters of the BJP. Yet, in both the States, AAP stopped well short of a double-digit vote-share, failing even to open its account in Uttarakhand.

On pro-incumbency

One big takeaway from this round of State elections is that the trend of de-linked State and national elections has been reversed. This trend was reflected in a poor run for the BJP in State elections between 2018 and 2021. However, these elections mark a sharp break, where the popularity of the central government and Mr. Modi buoyed the BJP in all the four States it won. In Uttarakhand and Goa, the pro-incumbency for the central government more than neutralised the high levels of anti-incumbency against the State governments. The result was the BJP romped back home in both the States while largely holding on to its vote-share from the previous elections.

For AAP, this presented two lessons. One, the party’s State-specific strategies against the BJP cannot afford to ignore the larger national appeal of the BJP. In other words, AAP cannot maintain an agnostic stance toward Hindu nationalism and Mr. Modi if BJP voters continue to vote for them over the governance model presented by AAP. And two, AAP’s cautious and limited opposition to the BJP also hurts it from the other end as anti-BJP voters flock toward the more aggressive posture of the Congress. Since both pro-incumbency (Mr. Modi, Hindutva) and anti-incumbency (unemployment, inflation) in State elections increasingly have national provenance, AAP’s localised strategies seem to be missing a larger national element.

An outlook

Does this mean that AAP is about to resurrect its pre-2019 phase of frontal confrontation with the Modi government, or become part of a broader oppositional alliance against the BJP? The answers are probably in the negative. The party is unlikely to drop its carefully planned State-by-State strategy in favour of another premature dart to occupy the national oppositional space. As a fleet-footed party adept at learning from its mistakes, one would not expect AAP to forget the lessons of the last two general elections in a hurry.

The actions of AAP over the last few years have demonstrated that it has accepted the durability of the BJP-dominant system. The results of the recent State elections would have only reinforced that notion. The long-term strategy of AAP is to replace the Congress as the alternative pole to the BJP. Towards that end, the strategic positioning of AAP in the BJP-dominant system might sway between acquiescence and disapproval. The phase of confrontation with the BJP-dominant system might only come after this long period of, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, hiding its strengths and biding its time.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi

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