The confusion regarding the chief ministerial candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab reflects the dilemma of a party that is going through growth pangs. Delhi’s Deputy CM Manish Sisodia told voters in Punjab that they should cast their vote as if Arvind Kejriwal was going to be the next chief minister, a broad hint that in the event of a victory, the AAP chief could contemplate taking over. Kejriwal swiftly rebutted that, saying that AAP would select someone from Punjab as the CM. But who? That is where the party cannot make up its mind.
There is of course an underlying assumption that the Aam Aadmi Party will win enough seats to form the government in the first place, but it is brimming with confidence and is being taken very seriously by the other players. The Congress and the Akali Dal don’t lose any opportunity in attacking Kejriwal and there have also been reports of violence against AAP workers, allegedly by Akali Dal’s activists. That by itself should show that the fledgling party, with just one small state under its belt, is making its rivals nervous.
AAP and its chief have always punched above their weight. From the time Kejriwal broke away from the India Against Corruption campaign and started his own party, he has always thought of himself and behaved as a national level politician. In the 2014 elections, he stood against Narendra Modi, a move guaranteed to get him eyeballs, and garnering over two lakh votes was no small achievement.
The two rounds of victories in Delhi – the first before the general elections and the second in February 2015, when the party won 67 out of 70 seats – further bolstered AAP’s standing; from here on, expansion was a natural next step. At the same time, AAP has been careful where it goes — it tends to move into states where there are two dominant parties, hoping to cut into the vote shares of each. Kejriwal’s media savviness has ensured constant publicity and his frequent claims of there being many conspiracies against him and his party by the Congress, the BJP, the corporate sector and most of all the media have helped keep him in the headlines. The constant pressure on his government by the Lt Governor Najeeb Jung – at the behest of the Central government, according to Kejriwal – has not gone unnoticed either and has worked in AAP’s favour.
Arvind Kejriwal is the mascot of his party. But while that is its strength, it is a major weakness too, and the net effects are showing in the Punjab campaign. The lack of a credible face – or any face -- as a potential chief minister is a handicap in a situation where the Congress is projecting Amarinder Singh and the Akali Dal has a surfeit of Badals. Navjot Sidhu came close to joining AAP, but would have wanted the top chair. This could have been a win-win for both, except that Kejriwal would have had to share space and attention with a high-profile name. That was clearly unacceptable.
AAP’s dilemma is not unique. Many regional parties suffer from this problem. The votes come in because of the recognisable leader who has a rapport with the masses — Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu are good examples. If there is no natural-born heir who can take over — the famous dynastic principle — a second line of leadership is not allowed to emerge.
But regional parties rarely look outside their immediate domain. Large parties such as the Congress and the BJP also suffer from the one-man band syndrome, but have enough regional leaders. AAP falls somewhere in between--is not a regional party in the conventional sense, but is not a full-fledged national party either. It is much too dependent on one man, but has aspirations to grow beyond its small base.
An outright victory in Punjab, if indeed it happens, will help in the emergence of regional leaders, but will come at a price — Kejriwal will have to learn to let go. A big defeat will reflect the party’s inherent structural weaknesses. A creditable performance, giving it a substantial number of seats, should be used as an opportunity to start scaling up the organisation and create young leaders who subscribe to the AAP ideology but have enough initiative of being self-starters. Instead of sidelining them, Kejriwal should nurture them.
If AAP does not want to remain a one trick pony and wants to expand organically, it has to create structures that have the potential for long term growth. It has already indicated its willingness to fight in Goa. Other opportunities will emerge in time. This will require creating an organisation that does not bank on one man, even if he continues to be the face and the spearhead of the party. It’s a treacherous route to traverse, but there is no other way ahead.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and commentator and founder editor of the www.thewire.in
The views expressed are personal