You can't help but have a sense of déjà vu when you see how differently the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress are faring in opposition to the Narendra Modi government. The Congress is faltering as usual, and the Aam Aadmi Party is again looking as though it is the principal opposition to the ruling establishment.
India's least powerful chief minister has always had a way of appearing much bigger than his shoes, larger than life. In 2015, Arvind Kejriwal focused on getting his act together as Delhi chief minister, overcoming his "bhagoda" (runaway) image.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Aam Aadmi Party tried to bit a lot more than it could chew. But 2016 has revealed the AAP's Small State strategy. As part of this strategy, it is focusing on small states such as Punjab, Goa and Himachal Pradesh.
Organisationally, large states or those with complex politics are hard to enter. Having learnt from its 2014 mistake, the AAP is now working to replace the Congress one small state at a time. To expand its national footprint, Kejriwal and his team are gunning straight from prime minister Modi. The prime minister's fans on social media say Kejriwal is obsessed with Modi. The Kejriwal-Modi equation again makes the Congress irrelevant, relegated to its indecisiveness and ineptitude.
Having learnt from its 2014 mistake, the AAP is now working to replace the Congress one small state at a time.
The sole exception to the AAP's poor Lok Sabha performance was Punjab, where voters disenchanted with both available options lapped up the new party. Every state where there is a weak opposition or where standard anti-incumbency applies is potentially ripe for the Aam Aadmi Party.
The only problem is, you can't built a party organization across twenty states overnight. That takes time, and resources are always a problem for a small new party. Hence the small state strategy.
Goa's population is about a tenth of Delhi. Himachal Pradesh, whose population is less than a third of Delhi's, is seeing the impact of the AAP's rise in Punjab. In Haryana, however, the complex Jat vs non-Jat equation makes it difficult for the AAP to find a toehold.
The AAP may not be targeting UP or Bihar, in the latter of which it subtly lent support to Nitish Kumar to help combine forces against Modi at the level of the campaign discourse.
The AAP's ability to become a thorn for BJP and Modi despite being such a minuscule party is a lesson for the Congress, and for everyone else. The AAP knows how to grab political attention and make itself appear as the main opposition party, even though it rules a state where the chief minister doesn't even command the police.
Party with a plan
An assembly election in Punjab hasn't been as significant in recent memory as the one in 2017 will be. If the AAP trumps Congress, as seems very plausible, it will have set the tone for national politics in the long run. It will be established that Delhi was no exception, and that the AAP replacing Congress is a process set in autopilot mode.
The domino effect across India will be felt widely. In the short term, this may be good news for Narendra Modi in 2019, as it will adversely affect the index of opposition unity. In the longer term, the Aam Aadmi Party may become unstoppable.
The AAP acted as if it was the main national opposition when UPA-2 was in power, and it is doing the same now that the BJP is on power. Only Narendra Modi has the ability to surpass the AAP's dynamism in grabbing headlines and becoming a talking point across India. The Congress, falling like a pack of cards, has only itself to blame for ceding space.
The AAP acted as if it was the main national opposition when UPA-2 was in power, and it is doing the same now that the BJP is on power.
The Congress announces a man tainted with 1984 as its Punjab general secretary, the AAP announces its entry into Goa. The Congress wonders when Rahul Gandhi will get a family promotion, the AAP makes a noise in Gujarat, Modi's home turf, where Congress is the opposition unable to exploit the growing unpopularity of Anandiben Patel. The Congress's chief ministerial candidate in Punjab, Amarinder Singh, publicly fights with his own campaign strategist. The AAP goes ahead and take free credit for "Udta Punjab". Arvind Kejriwal makes news just for tweeting a cartoon against Modi, the Congress can't even decide if it wants Sheila Dikshit in Uttar Pradesh or Punjab.
Where are the political start-ups?
The Aam Aadmi Party has the gumption to want to expand its footprint. The only other party with the ambition of national expansion is the BJP. The Congress is always trying hard to become more irrelevant, lose more votes, seats and states. Regional satraps are always busy retaining the votes they have.
To use a business analogy, the Congress' decline provides immense opportunity, but there's only one entrepreneur who's doggedly raising the valuation of his start-up. It's a pity that in a country that loves politics, nobody else has a start-up idea in this sector. If this were the start-up ecosystem, there would by now have been a dozen copy-cats replicating the AAP.
The AAP is a regional party, confined to a city-state, but one that puts to shame the anodyne pace of other regional parties. Mayawati sticks to Uttar Pradesh like a silent volcano, Nitish Kumar is dreaming ahead of himself to be prime minister, Akhilesh Yadav is always on a back-foot defending his party's crimes, nobody even remembers Naveen Patnaik is chief minister of Orissa, Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa are also happy with their fiefdoms.
Regional satraps are always busy retaining the votes they have.
As in the case of Narendra Modi, politics rewards those who try. The clearest signal of the BJP's nervousness with AAP is the Modi government's effort to impair AAP in Delhi with the office of profit controversy.