Anyone who has followed the remarkable rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) over the last year must be dismayed by the events of the last fortnight. At one level, there is the widespread criticism of Arvind Kejriwal’s dharna in the heart of governmental Delhi; the controversy over Kumar Vishwas’ ‘jokes’ about black south Indians and Moharram-observing Shias; and the explosive fallout of law minister Somnath Bharti’s midnight raid on people he described as African sex racketeers and drug dealers.
And at another level, there is AAP’s poor showing in recent election surveys. Only a month ago, Kejriwal’s party was being described not just as a symptom of a national awakening but also an obstacle to Narendra Modi’s hopes of becoming prime minister. But now, two separate polls conducted by respected agencies suggest that AAP is no more than a Delhi regional party. Outside the Capital it will win hardly three or four seats (if that) and even in large metros it will not repeat its Delhi performance.
AAP has responded by blaming the media. Kejriwal has suggested that proprietors are against him and Bharti has publicly accused journalists of being paid off by Narendra Modi. But here’s what’s interesting: despite the media outcry over his dharna, Kejriwal is entirely unapologetic. Accused of behaving in a manner not befitting the chief minister of Delhi, he has done nothing to alter his behaviour. He used an official function to mark Republic Day as an occasion to attack the Delhi Police for their corruption. Even on the Somnath Bharti issue, he has often aggressively defended his law minister’s vigilante approach.
To understand what is going on, we need to recognise the essential schizophrenia at the heart of AAP. Consumers of English language newspapers and TV channels treat it as a phenomenon of the well-educated middle class. AAP’s electoral success, they say is proof of the politicisation of the middle class, which is fed up of corrupt politicians who win elections by pandering to caste and religious vote-banks and less-educated electors.
There is some truth to this — but only up to a point. The reality is that AAP is a coalition. At the most visible top are the educated and erudite leaders and spokespeople: the Yogendra Yadavs, the Prashant Bhushans, and the Shazia Ilmis. But the bulk of the AAP vote in Delhi came from an entirely different constituency: auto drivers, street vendors, residents of resettlement colonies, and people at the very lowest rung of the middle class. Without the support of these voters, AAP would have remained an OB-van phenomenon. But by appealing to those on the margins, Kejriwal was able to create a vote base that went far beyond TV studios and editorial columns.
The problem now is that AAP’s two constituencies have entirely different expectations. The well-educated middle class expects Kejriwal to be a model chief minister who will provide orderly governance. But Kejriwal is smart enough to recognise that this is impossible to deliver in the three months available to him before the Lok Sabha elections. So, he has chosen to address the expectations of his second, more numerous, constituency. Not only has he provided subsidised water and electricity (easy enough to do as a short-term strategy) but he has carried the politics of protest into the chief minister’s office.
His larger constituency regards the Delhi Police as being corrupt, brutal and tyrannical. So Kejriwal will keep attacking the police — even as they salute him on Republic Day. In Kejriwal’s retelling, the Somnath Bharti episode is not about racism or women’s rights. It is about citizens fighting to clean up their own neighbourhoods because the police have been paid off by drug lords and sex racketeers.
Almost everything Kejriwal has done in office has been an extension of his politics of protest. And from his perspective, it is working. TV anchors may fume but to Kejriwal’s larger constituency, the visual of a chief minister sleeping on the streets of Delhi on a freezing, foggy night is an extremely powerful image. It reiterates that despite taking office he is still just like them: an outsider, left out in the cold. Almost every opinion poll conducted during the dharna shows that Kejriwal’s popularity went up during that period.
But this approach comes with its own set of problems. Playing to this constituency involves turning a blind eye to its prejudices. If a member of Bharti’s vigilante posse uses the ‘n’ word to refer to Ugandans, well, that’s just how people talk. If Kumar Vishwas gets cheap laughs by saying how unattractive ‘kaali-peeli’ nurses from Kerala are compared to ‘shaandaar’ north Indian nurses, well, come on, it’s just a joke! And so on.
But the consequence of these prejudices is that the AAP message can never go national. As it is, all of the faces who represent the party on TV are solidly north Indian: Kejriwal, Sisodia, Bhushan, Yadav, Bharti, etc. Nor can there be any connection to Indians south of the Vindhayas as long as they are lampooned as unattractive ‘kaala-peela’ people.
A second consequence — and one reason why AAP has done so badly in election surveys — is that its local units cannot hope to win elections simply by appearing on TV programmes to call everyone else corrupt. They need to follow AAP’s Delhi strategy and connect with a larger non-middle class constituency. And yet, in such cities as Mumbai or Calcutta, there is no evidence that AAP’s appeal has reached working class areas or slums.
It could be that Kejriwal has taken a deliberate decision to just hang on to his Delhi support base in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls. If that is indeed the case then he has thrown away the national goodwill that AAP has earned over the last few months. After claiming to speak for decent educated Indians, he has become no more than a media-blaming, vote-bank politician. The message of AAP’s victory has been muffled somewhere within his ever-present muffler.
The views expressed by the author are personal