Victory in the 2020 Delhi Assembly election has given a new lease of life to the Aam Aadmi Party’s hopes of expansion beyond the national capital. Post 2015, similar hopes were kindled by the party’s foray into Punjab and then Goa, but the results did not do much to aid its national ambitions. This second victory has rekindled such hopes again, but signals on its limitations are already visible.

The events of last week have brought Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his new political experiment into glaring public attention. Fresh from a second landslide victory against the much-touted election behemoth of the Bharatiya Janata Party, AAP’s reaction to the riots has been woefully insufficient at best, and unconscionable politicking at worst.

This seriously brings into question the possibility of expansion of the party beyond the urban-educated-service-class landscape of Delhi. In the following paragraphs, I argue that to survive and grow in contemporary Indian politics, sitting on the fence on questions of ideology is not a luxury any party can afford.

BJP = Hindutva + Welfare

Polarisation can be a slippery slope for any political party. On one hand, it increases the identification strength of your party – it deepens party affiliation among existing voters and effectively ensures that voting for the other side becomes an untenable option. On the other hand, because it risks pushing the centre too far, it runs the risk of limiting its expansion capacity; thus, the roots of a party might run deep, but not far. This conundrum afflicts strong identity-based parties such as the Shiv Sena, or the Bahujan Samaj Party and even the Rashtriya Janata Dal, who have strong roots within their particular voter bases, but find it challenging to expand nationally, beyond pockets of electoral relevance.

This conundrum is effectively dealt with by the BJP, with its message of Hindutva plus development. The development plank, resting on a message of public goods provisions and good-old populism, is as much an inherent ideal of brand Narendra Modi as is its Hindutva leanings.

The BJP can assiduously engage in one, without risking the alienation of the other. A multiplicity of voters today support the party, as the CSDS 2019 post-poll survey finds, and its support among the Adivasi and Dalit communities has seen a significant rise. The voter coalition for the BJP is thus identity-heterogenous and ideology-homogenous.

AAP = Welfare + ?

AAP represents a similarly bold experiment which can overcome the conundrum; by aligning middle-class anti-corruption vote with welfare votes of the poor, the party has attempted a coalition that cuts across identity stratification.

More than any other party in the current political space, AAP remains unhindered either with caste or class affiliations, a fact that should ideally allow it to expand to any part of the country. Recognising the advantages of this ideological unencumbered space, the party decided to maintain a studied distance from the Citizenship Act Amendment protests currently taking place across the country.

They were rewarded by a triumphant victory, with resounding support from Muslim voters. Thus, studied silence on divisive issues, and focus on public goods appeared to be a successful strategy to challenge the BJP, at least in state elections.

The limits of this strategy were on display early this week, where the newly elected chief minister and his party MLAs appeared inadequate in controlling the situation. In their refusal, or inability, to articulate a clear ideological stance, they appeared more constrained than the BJP and more lost than the Congress.

If expansion is predicated on the balance between ideology and development (as shown by the BJP), extensive focus on one aspect alone would not serve AAP well. Their current strategic silence on ideologically charged issues is not conducive to appear either as a BJP ally or as an effective opposition.

Polarised polity

The corollary of this strategy reflects, in essence, the pitfalls of a polarised polity. For a new party trying to gain ground in unfamiliar territory, it might be appealing to take up issues of governance: especially given the fact that this is an issue which is bound to appeal to a large voter bases cutting across identity lines.

However, in a polarised discourse where one party, such as the BJP, claims the entire ideological-identity spectrum for itself, it is difficult for a marginal player to change the rules of this game. To expand, AAP would necessarily have to articulate a clear position within the field set for it already.

Given that the BJP has made substantial ground even in rural areas, and practically dominates over the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar belt, one can be assured that any whiff of an electoral challenge will be met with naked polarisation tactics from the party. No party can easily challenge this dominance, but to aim to do so without addressing these divisive issues would be even more difficult.

Not only would that mean that the on-the-fence voter simply shifts to the BJP because the other side hasn’t presented a cohesive enough narrative, it would also limit the appeal of AAP to minority groups, especially the Muslims. While AAP got substantial support from the Muslims, to the detriment of Congress, their purported inaction during the riots might send the community back to the Congress, making it more difficult to win Congress’ vote in other areas.

While good governance is an issue that in theory appeals to voters across identity lines, it lacks the emotive appeals of sectarian implorations so well mastered by the ruling party. To challenge the BJP, the counter narrative would have to address both in equal measure, simultaneously. The important question however is, does AAP (and its leaders) in fact oppose the BJP on these sectarian issues, or is their silence reflective of their acquiescence?

Ankita Barthwal is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research.