The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) burst onto the political scene in Delhi as an anti-corruption crusader. After winning the Assembly elections in Delhi in 2015 and again in 2020, the AAP went on to form the government in Punjab this year and is trying to expand its presence across the country. In terms of political messaging, though, the AAP has travelled a great distance from its conception.
During its initial years in power, anti-corruption was the AAP’s anthem. In his first, brief stint as Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal launched a helpline number asking people to report government officials who asked for bribes. Mr. Kejriwal, his deputy Manish Sisodia, and other Ministers held ‘janata darbars’ (public meetings) to address people’s grievances. The anti-corruption branch of the Delhi government worked overtime to cleanse the Augean stables. But these experiments did not last long as there was overwhelming response from an aggrieved electorate.
Today, as the party is under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), a voter may find it difficult to distinguish it from other political outfits. The party’s image as a prophet of probity is somewhat stained. A Cabinet Minister, Satyendar Jain, is lodged in prison and is facing trial in a money laundering case. Mr. Sisodia is being investigated by the CBI in connection with an alleged liquor scam in Delhi. And as per an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) of the affidavits filed for the Gujarat elections, the AAP fielded the highest number of candidates with criminal cases (61) as against the Congress’s 60 and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s 32. In a similar analysis for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) elections, the ADR found that 45 of the AAP’s candidates have criminal cases against them, against the BJP’s 27 and the Congress’s 25.
Defending the party, Mr. Kejriwal has said all these cases have been foisted on his party members by the BJP. In various interviews, he has stated that the CBI charge sheet in the alleged liquor scam recently filed in a Delhi court does not name Mr. Sisodia. “They claimed he is the kingpin. If that is the case, why would you skip naming the kingpin in the charge sheet,” he asked. The Chief Minister claims that the BJP will continue to launch such “meaningless” investigations against the AAP, but has found no evidence so far to prove any wrongdoing by the AAP.
The anti-corruption agenda does not occupy central space in the AAP discourse any more. While it has not been entirely eliminated, there is a visible shift in the party’s language. In the last few months, the speeches of AAP leaders have oscillated between focusing on the so-called Delhi model of development and Hindu symbolism, where they are in competition with the leaders of the BJP.
While this may have grown louder in recent months, ahead of the Gujarat elections, the journey towards this end had begun with the AAP’s third innings in Delhi. Ahead of the Delhi Assembly elections in 2020, Mr. Kejriwal’s recital of the Hanuman Chalisa hit the headlines. In his victory address to party workers, he invoked Hanuman saying, “This is the day of Lord Hanuman who has blessed the people of Delhi. We pray that Hanuman Ji keeps showing the right path to us so that we continue to serve people for the next five years.” In March 2021, Mr. Kejriwal announced that he will send senior citizens in Delhi for a free pilgrimage to the Ram temple in Ayodhya; and in October, the Delhi cabinet added Ayodhya in the Delhi government’s free pilgrimage scheme, the Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra Yojna, for senior citizens. In the last few months, the AAP’s comments on the Rohingya and Mr. Kejriwal’s suggestion that the pictures of the Hindu deities Lakshmi and Ganesha be printed on currency notes to pull the country out of the current economic rut caused a stir. “I am a Hindu, what else will do if not Hindutva,” Mr. Kejriwal said to a TV channel.
These efforts are clearly directed at challenging the BJP while occupying a space within the ideological boundaries set by the BJP. The AAP is using this strategy keeping Gujarat, especially, in mind. But given how the party has changed its messaging drastically from the first time that it came to power, the question is whether it will be able to defend its turf in Delhi in the next Assembly elections, slated for 2025, and expand beyond Delhi and Punjab — all while looking only mildly different from the BJP.