AAP is dead. Long live AAP. Two spectrums and two views. A section of its critics would like the Aam Aadmi Party to die a premature death, while another section wants to see AAP succeed to change the landscape of Indian politics.

Till the morning of March 11, AAP was riding high. An anticipated victory in Punjab and moderate success in Goa was expected to help the party rewrite the politics of India. This is what a senior editor – a brilliant mind – had said to me in the run up to the results for Assembly elections in five states. But sometimes defeat is more powerful than mere victory. AAP’s debacle in Punjab invited ridicule, hatred and contempt. The entire country was captivated by the BJP’s historic, Narendra Modi-driven victory in Uttar Pradesh. A myth was immediately built around Modi’s aura of invincibility. In this debate, AAP became the odd man out overnight. The loss in Delhi’s municipal elections brought the debate to AAP’s doorstep.

Battling powerful forces

In this post-fact world, has AAP played its innings too fast and too soon? It is logical to ask if AAP can sustain the momentum it created in 2013, shortly after it was set up as a political party. Does AAP have a future, or is it the past? As a student of history – and not because I belong to the party – I can say that AAP cannot be written off so easily. It is a party that emerged from nowhere, it does not have a legacy prior to 2011, it is the product of a beautiful dream: that India can be changed, that it can be made corruption free with transparency and participatory democracy as its core value.

When AAP first emerged and captured the attention of the public, it was not the victory of a political party, or the victory of a few individuals. It was the march of an idea. It was the hope of millions. It was the beginning of the revolution that the country had been waiting for since the JP movement in the Seventies. It was the beginning of the fulfilment of a hybrid aspiration – carrying the ideals of the freedom movement along with values of the new economic revolution.

Arvind Kejriwal, during the campaign for the Punjab elections in December. (Photo credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP).
Arvind Kejriwal, during the campaign for the Punjab elections in December. (Photo credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP).

AAP is up against powerful forces – a classic combination of whatever is wrong with old and new India, essentially a marriage of decadent feudalism with crony capitalism. The demise of the Congress at the Centre created a vacuum, which has been filled by the most conservative elements of society, and backed by the extraordinarily powerful business class and exceptionally well-organised propaganda of the kind found in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In 2015, these forces were vanquished in Delhi by an army of newly born political warriors. AAP’s sweep in Delhi – it bagged 67 of the state’s 70 seats – shocked them. It deprived them of their late night sleep. A vicious attack followed. AAP’s leaders naively believed that their government in Delhi would be allowed to function smoothly. We soon realised how wrong we were.

The murder of hope?

“Mission Discredit AAP” was unleashed like a tornado. Every party MLA and leader was targeted, every minor detail of its government was leaked to the media, every attempt was made to embarrass and humiliate the party. Unfortunately, a section of the media too played this game. By the time AAP geared up to contest April’s municipal elections in Delhi, a picture had been painted of the party being confrontationist, naive, inexperienced and knowing nothing about governance. The fabulous work the Arvind Kejriwal government has done on basic issues of water, electricity, education and health were ignored.

A few days before the elections, AAP-related papers and files were regularly leaked to the media. A hostile media environment was created and AAP’s office registration was also cancelled to break the morale of its volunteers. The municipal elections were presented as a referendum on AAP’s governance of the last two years when the public actually had to vote on the performance of the BJP in the Municipal Corporations of Delhi – which it has ruled for 10 years, and which has been plagued by misrule and rampant corruption.

Mission Discredit AAP was not to defeat the party as such but to kill its very idea, which has a strong connection with the aspirations of new India. Eventually, the mission was to kill all hope.

Modi and Donald Trump represent a new reality of a new age in which fiction is more vibrant than facts, myth is more inspirational than the truth. The myth that has been constructed is that AAP is finished, it has lost the confidence of the people, it is a sinking ship. I am not denying that there are no takers for this myth. But the truth is different. Similar phrases were also uttered when, in 2014, AAP did not win any of Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats, and could muster only four Parliament seats across India. AAP’s obituary was also written then. But the party bounced back with a massive mandate in Delhi in early 2015. That was the time when AAP was practically on the road. It had no permanent office and was facing the most charismatic leader since Indira Gandhi, a leader who had not lost a single election since 2002. An existential crisis stared AAP in the face.

Down, not out

Today, despite two consecutive defeats, AAP is running a government in the national capital, is the principal Opposition party in Punjab and has garnered 6% of the vote in Goa. It is on the verge of becoming a national party. AAP still commands 26% of the vote in Delhi and 24% in Punjab. It is the fastest-growing political party in India. Other than the BJP and Congress, AAP is the only political party that can organise a successful rally in any state. Just after the declaration of demonetisation last year, Arvind Kejriwal addressed well attended rallies in Meerut, Varanasi, Lucknow, Ranchi, Bhopal, Jaipur, Rohtak, Surat and Goa, with literally no resources. In Delhi and Punjab, Kejriwal attracts a huge crowd anyway.

Can the same be said about politicians like Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, Mamata Bannerjee, Uddhav Thackeray, M Karunanidhi, Sharad Pawar, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu, K Chandrashekhar Rao or even Sitaram Yechury? They are strong leaders with huge legacies but they have territorial boundaries, a limited area of influence and the image of a traditional leader with no new agenda or aspirations to offer. They are tall and powerful but are conventional leaders. All of them have gone through the drill, have spent years in anonymity, lost many elections and forged holy or unholy alliances. With no disrespect to them, and with all humility, it has to be stated that AAP and Arvind Kejriwal’s rise is unique. It has a national appeal unlike that of these other leaders.

It is not as if AAP is not aware of the challenges it faces. There is a serious resource crunch, it faces a hostile media. The modern, secular, democratic, liberal space is shrinking, and ultra-conservative, intolerant, communal forces are trying to establish their dominance in the most abusive fashion.

In this new environment, AAP has to reinvent itself as a political party, reorient its policy formulations, re-polish its ideological foundations and re-strategise its broader vision. Since November 26, 2012, when AAP was founded, the world has changed completely. Today the middle and upper classes have a new hero who changes the goal post frequently. The fervour for macho-nationalism is all pervasive, and AAP, as a toddler in politics, has to grow up. The task is difficult but the raw energy and ambition of an outlier cannot be underestimated. AAP might be down but not out. For sure.

Ashutosh is the official spokesperson of the Aam Aadmi Party.