There are no certainties in politics. Politicians and parties who are written off have shown they can return afresh. There was a time when Lalu Yadav was said to be over, there was a time when it was said Uttar Pradesh has become a bi-polar state like Tamil Nadu, with governments alternating between SP and BSP. There was a time when it was said a media-created Aam Aadmi Party won't win more than 4 seats in the Delhi assembly.
Similarly, there was a time not so long ago when the Left parties had enough seats to hold the central government hostage, people wondered if Hindutva had peaked and the Congress party was seen as the 'natural party of government'.
There is similarly no certainty about the future of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Its current low could be the beginning of the end. But crises are also opportunities. The current crisis could also be used by it to reinvent itself for the times ahead.
Here are a few things the AAP could do to script a comeback.
1) Stay focused on Delhi: The stunning 2015 victory in which the AAP won 67 of 70 seats made it complacent about Delhi. Paralysed on its home turf by the Lt. Governor and the Delhi Police, the AAP decided to take a year off from Delhi. More than governance, it took a holiday from the politics of Delhi.
While it made some efforts on governance – mohalla clinics, improving the quality of education in government schools – it was unable to make voters talk about them. The impression that Kejriwal has left Delhi to fight an election in Punjab was almost as deep as the "bhagoda" tag the AAP had earned when it resigned just before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.
Delhi is the AAP's karmabhoomi. It is only by doing well in Delhi that it can sell itself in the rest of India. Neither Kejriwal nor AAP can afford to be seen as neglecting Delhi, both its governance and its politics. In the era of permanent political campaigning, it can't take the focus away from Delhi and then suddenly return the focus before an election.
2) Stay focused on governance: It was thanks to matters of governance that the Lokpal movement was successful and transformed into the Aam Aadmi Party. The Lokpal movement was about an idea to solve the problem of governance, namely corruption. With Lokpal and decentralisation of power (Swaraj), the AAP was seen as a party of solutions. Even after it is in government, its agitations, disruptions and negative campaigns can only be secondary to the narrative of governance. The AAP needs to be seen as a party of solutions, not a bundle of problems.
3) Set the narrative: In the era of permanent campaigning, the AAP, or any party for that matter, needs to set the agenda, not follow it. The odd-even scheme may not have reduced pollution, but it helped set the narrative in favour of the Kejriwal government: it was seen as a party of solutions. Similarly, the Lokpal movement set the agenda, and everybody in politics, media and society had to choose whether they are for or against Lokpal. By simply opposing Modi, the AAP often ends up helping Brand Modi.
4) Create many Kejriwals: A large part of why the AAP has succeeded in Delhi is that it has sold Arvind Kejriwal as the face of the party. With some exceptions, most elections are won by parties whose CM or PM face is known to voters during the campaign.
The AAP lost Punjab not because of rigged voting machines or merely thanks to a last-minute Hindu consolidation in favour of the Congress. The Congress campaign was entirely around selling Captain Amarinder Singh as the right man to run the Punjab government. The Aam Aadmi Party went from crisis to crisis after the Sacha Singh Chotepur scandal, which was clearly a result of party infighting. The confusion over whether Kejriwal himself wants to be Punjab CM was clarified only in the end.
The AAP should make it clear in advance, wherever it seeks to contest elections, who the chief minister will be. This should be done a year in advance. The BJP's rise and success has been on the back of some strong regional faces, be it Shivraj Singh Chauhan or Raman Singh or Vasundhara Raje Scindia. If the AAP wants to win other states with the Congress model of managing warring factions, that model is not going to work in the era of presidential-style campaigning.
5) Build brand Sisodia: As Arvind Kejriwal focused on national expansion and possibly hoped to become Punjab chief minister himself, Manish Sisodia suddenly became the face of the Delhi government. Sisodia's face replaced Kejriwal's but Delhi had been told it was electing Kejriwal as their man. Apart from the inconsistency of messaging, there's also the problem that the AAP hasn't built Manish Sisodia's profile as a mass politician. Kejriwal is perhaps the only CM in India with no portfolio. The deputy CM is the man looking after matters of governance. Arvind Kejriwal needs to display personal attention towards governance of Delhi, but at the same time, the party needs to build Sisodia's image as a mass leader.
6) Address MLA anti-incumbency: The 67 AAP MLAs are now 66, with the BJP winning the Rajouri Garden bypoll. One of the reasons why it won Rajouri Garden was that the AAP MLA who had resigned, Jarnail Singh, had been unpopular. People complained he wasn't accessible or visible since he won the election. People complain about most of the remaining 66 MLAs as well. The obscenely 67/3 victory of 2015 means the AAP will face MLA anti-incumbency in almost every constituency. This was also one of the main reasons for the party's poor performance in the municipal elections. If the AAP has to win future elections in Delhi, it will have to devise innovative mechanisms to address MLA anti-incumbency.
7) Solve the patronage problem: Unlike traditional politicians, AAP MLAs and leaders are mostly not wealthy. That comes in the way of their being able to distribute patronage – giving money to poor people in desperate situations for instance – is not possible for them. Similarly, the AAP's anti-corruption stance and lack of full statehood in Delhi have made sure it can't give anything meaningful to volunteers who helped it win elections. Increasingly transparency of governance through online processes is reducing discretionary powers of government officials, again preventing free distribution of patronage to volunteers and party supporters. Why should someone help the AAP win elections if the AAP government can't help the volunteer get his neighbour's child a school admission? The party will have to find means to attract volunteers and workers despite these limitations.
8) Claim victimhood: The Lt. Governor of Delhi and the Delhi Police, along with the Modi government, have used Delhi's lack of full statehood to stifle the AAP government's day-to-day functioning. If the AAP complains too much about this, it will be seen as a party that is unable to govern, a party that only complains, that only seeks to pick a fight with Modi. So the AAP has decided to keep mum about this. However, there is no reason why the AAP can't claim victimhood where its MLAs have been falsely accused in criminal cases
9) Attack Modi's policies, not Modi: Another decision the AAP seems to have taken is to not attack Modi. After attacking Modi day and night, it now thinks targeting Modi only helps him. Both these may be extremes. Modi and the BJP go into state after state like an opposition party. Be it UP, Bengal, Maharashtra, or Odisha, the BJP's campaign has attacked the incumbent with a very strong anti-incumbency campaign. There's a thin line between critiquing an opposition party's policies and seeming like you are making personal attacks. Not attacking Modi also helps him: it lets him get away with policy failures.
10) Fight every election: Whether the AAP should fight an election in this state or not, should not be a question. Figuring out winnability should not be a criterion. The AAP should fight every election from panchayat to Parliament so as to show itself as a national option before every voter, just like the Congress and the BJP. Before the party decided to contest the Lok Sabha elections, did it know it could win four seats in Punjab? Not every election can be won, or even contested like a war. An election where you are going to lose is also an option to create local leadership, networks, long-term memories of your party, and so on. So that when you do go to contest that state like a war, you are not an unknown entity in local politics.
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