POLITICS

Directionless After Punjab Defeat, The Aam Aadmi Party Needs A New Narrative

What does the AAP stand for?

10/04/2017 6:38 PM IST | Updated 10/04/2017 7:40 PM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Once upon a time, Arvind Kejriwal was synonymous with efforts against corruption in India. Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party stood for clean governance, Lokpal, and even made a pitch for decentralisation of power. Kejriwal also published a book called Swaraj and the AAP positioned itself as the party that could solve the mess of governance.

The AAP's central narrative was thus: a party that had the ideas, intention and ability to get things done, solve the people's problems and make lives better. Just as they had the Lokpal idea to solve the problem of corruption, they had answers to problems of water and electricity, even air pollution. They won elections mainly in Delhi, but had some appeal in every corner of India. From Kerala to the Hindi heartland, there were ordinary people willing to associate themselves with AAP voluntarily.

What the AAP is losing now is not just its magic touch at the electronic voting machines, but its central narrative. Today one doesn't even know what the AAP stands for. They passed a Lokpal bill but stopped talking about the Lokpal idea, unable to even corner the Modi government for not appointing a central Lokpal, or ombudsman, to check corruption.

What the AAP is losing now is not just its magic touch at the electronic voting machines, but its central narrative.

Today, the anti-corruption narrative has been owned by prime minister Narendra Modi with his demonetisation drive and other measures around it. Modi is the new Anna Hazare. Modi gets political brownie points for being able to do this, but the Aam Aadmi Party also failed politically in retaining its first claim to fame.

Through the office of the Lt Governor, the Modi government made sure the anti-corruption branch of the Delhi government is taken away from the Delhi chief minister, and if anything, starts investigating the AAP government. This meant the AAP government couldn't go about framing corruption charges and showing itself as taking the lead in the anti-corruption cause. Bereft of the anti-corruption branch, the AAP was unable to make much noise on corruption.

The charges the party has made against Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, its raking up of the Sahara-Birla papers, have failed to make a dent in the Modi government's image. The AAP may blame the media for this, but it is also a failure of political imagination on part of the AAP that they let their anti-corruption agenda slip and be appropriated.

Kejriwal's estranged colleague Yogendra Yadav may not win a single seat in any election anytime soon, but his Swaraj Abhiyan has taken away Kejriwal's Swaraj or decentralisation plank. Again, the AAP may blame the LG and the Modi government for not being allowed to do much, but at least at the level of political discourse, they could have kept Swaraj as their prime agenda. And a few public outreach events called Mohalla Sabhas don't make for Swaraj.

Lame-duck government

The Kejriwal government in Delhi could finally have shown governance in Delhi as its national model, but there again, the LG's office has stifled the elected Delhi government. For all practical purposes, the Kejriwal government is a lame-duck government. It is not so much the daily inquiries, investigations and cases against AAP MLAs but the stifling of decision-making by the LG's office that is preventing the Kejriwal government from being pro-active.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - APRIL 3: Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal, with Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia, addresses a press conference at his residence on April 3, 2017 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The AAP can blame Modi for this, but how does it explain practically forgetting Delhi for most of 2016? Over-confident of winning Punjab, the Delhi government did nothing to push back against the LG's takeover. The AAP thought the government in Punjab would help reduce the LG's interference in Delhi, and then there would be enough time to pay attention to Delhi. After all, 2019 would still be two years away, and the next assembly election in Delhi is in 2020.

That was a critical mistake. The AAP gave up on not just governance but also the politics of Delhi. If it had the LG excuse for governance, it had no excuse for politics, except its over-confidence about Punjab.

The last time the AAP did something that amounted to agenda-setting in Delhi was the odd-even scheme, which was a policy failure but a political success. It now seems a long time ago.

The last time the AAP did something that amounted to agenda-setting in Delhi was the odd-even scheme, which was a policy failure but a political success. It now seems a long time ago.

The AAP tried making noise about how it is not being allowed to govern Delhi, but it was exploited by the Congress in Punjab, which told voters that governance in Punjab would similarly come to a standstill if the AAP was elected, given that AAP's only agenda is to fight with Modi.

Complaining about not being allowed to govern Delhi is a double-edged sword: people can then say, 'Ok, let BJP run Delhi then, let's bring them to power.' The AAP is thus trapped in a Catch-22 situation.

A new narrative

For most of 2016, the AAP was not even in a position to complain about the LG, as it came across as forgetting Delhi and focusing on national expansion. It was just the long periods Kejriwal spent in Punjab and elsewhere. When Delhi was facing a Chikungunya epidemic, deputy CM Manish Sisodia was on a foreign tour. The 'jhadu' party took Delhi for granted.

Had the Aam Aadmi Party won Punjab, India's national politics today would have looked very different. Kejriwal would have been the lone man standing against Narendra Modi. The Aam Aadmi Party would then have been replacing the Congress nationally at an accelerated pace.

What the AAP needs to do now is to set the agenda and offer a national narrative that isn't simply 'we are better than BJP and Congress'.

For months on end, Kejriwal took on Modi, thinking that will help establish him as the national leader against Modi. But Modi went from strength to strength by setting the agenda, owning every narrative, from nationalism (surgical strike against Pakistan) to anti-corruption (demonetisation).

Attacking Modi then only made him stronger, as everyone is realising now. What the AAP needs to do now is to set the agenda and offer a national narrative that isn't simply 'we are better than BJP and Congress'. These days the AAP is in the same boat as the Congress and most of the opposition. We simply don't know what they stand for.

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