How India’s common man’s party lost the plot

Questions being asked about future of AAP party as internal bickering comes to fore after party’s election loss.

A string of strategic slip-ups have pushing the AAP supporters and leaders into a whirlpool of dejection [AP]

New Delhi, India – Inside his softly-lit car rental office in India’s capital, New Delhi, owner Sangat Singh – a supporter of anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – is a frustrated man.

“At the first instance, they divorced Delhi…and at the second, Delhi divorced them. That’s called axing the branch you are standing upon,” the 55-year-old businessman told Al Jazeera in the wake of AAP’s dismal performance in the recently concluded parliamentary elections.

The party made a debut in the national elections in the wake of its surprise victory in New Delhi assembly elections last December, with the promise to clean up corruption with the broom, which was the party’s assigned symbol.

AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal – a former tax inspector – rose to become the chief minister of New Delhi. But his decision to quit the government in 49 days, did not go down well with the public.

The party, formed nearly two years ago on an anti-corruption plank, initially recieved massive support from the youth. It organised a movement against the outgoing Congress party-led government helped by widespread media coverage.

Sangat Singh recently voted for AAP but remians disappointed after the party’s poor show in national polls [Baba Umar / Al Jazeera]

Political pundits predicted the party could fetch 30-40 seats in the general elections at the expense of scam-tainted Congress party and to be a formidable challenge to the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Strategic slip-ups

Kejriwal’s resignation as New Delhi chief minister, which he recently termed a big mistake, and a string of strategic slip-ups disproved those hopes, and have pushed party supporters and leaders into a whirlpool of dejection and self-analysis over what could have possibly gone wrong.

The AAP contested from 432 out of 543 parliamentary seats, but only four of its candidates were successful from the northern state of Punjab, while it was wiped out from New Delhi.

The party candidates in as many as 414 seats forfeited their security deposits after failing to fetch one-sixth of the total votes in their respective constituencies.

In New Delhi, considered an AAP stronghold, the BJP won from all seven seats, leaving the new party at second place.

Insiders also point to the growing discontent within the party as one reason for the election debacle.

“There was no consensus on leaving the Delhi government,” one AAP party leader, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera. “Then, in the national elections tickets were distributed on the basis of how powerful you were in the party and not how powerful the candidate was in his/her own constituency,” 

“For example, [senior leader] Kumar Vishwas wanted to contest from Amethi and no one even bothered to check his ability to win. It reflected in the results. He fetched mere 15,000 votes from the 1.4 million strong electorate,” the party insider said.

Infighting for influence?

Ashok Agarwal says AAP overestimated itself [Baba Umar / Al Jazeera]

Sources also point towards two “slightly rebellious” but “mutually opposed” power blocs within the party, with one group comprising of people with socialist background such as Yogendra Yadav, Ajit Jha, Sanjay Singh, Somnath Triparthy, Anant Kumar.

“Shazia Ilmi, Kumar Vishwas, Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan and Manish Sasodia formed the other group, with activism background. This group felt that the other bloc would become more dominant in AAP if tickets were given to their selected candidates,” sources said.

The party is believed to have given tickets randomly; candidates were many times swapped or replaced while no proper mechanism was employed.

“There was no money to contest all the 432 seats. They gave tickets to people who contested with their own resources. To check the candidates’ background and potential to win, nothing was done,” party insiders told Al Jazeera.

Senior AAP leaders concede that they should have focused on the “safe seats” instead of going pan-India in the debut election.

“Major decisions had to be taken in a short time,” Rajmohan Gandhi, senior AAP leader and grandson of iconic freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi, told Al Jazeera. “And yes, perhaps, we should have contested from 100 to 150 seats only. We underestimated the size of Modi wave and the size of his purse, both.” 

Rajmohan Gandhi believes his party had little sources and less time to prepare for the polls [Baba Umar / Al Jazeera]

Observers say the AAP has lost a landmark opportunity, and the top leadership has to own up the blame for the poll debacle.

“I think Arvind Kejriwal understands how a common man feels but he doesn’t have the understanding of how to lead the entire country. He has never been in political movements and that reflected in these elections,” senior Hindi-language journalist and author, Arvind Mohan, told Al Jazeera.

Mohan believes the party should have contested only from northern states of Punjab, New Delhi, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh “where the AAP leaders knew they would perform well”.

The party fetched 53 percent of all its votes from New Delhi, and the states of Punjab and Chandigarh, suggesting it could not make sufficient inroads in the rest of country.

These are the states where the party managed to secure second place (on 12 seats) while it remained third at 47 seats throughout the country.

“Big parties have network, cadres, pan-India presence which AAP lacked,” he said. “All big names in AAP should have contested for all the seven seats in Delhi. Their count would have been 11 this time and they would have offered formidable resistance upon reaching parliament.”

Irresponsible leadership?

Arvind Mohan feels the AAP should not have contested nation-wide seats [Baba Umar / Al Jazeera]

Mohan said that an average voter of AAP feels the party leadership, especially Kejriwal, has been “irresponsible” and their acts amounted to “political suicide”.

“You can’t make Lokayukta (anti-corruption ombudsman) a peg around to rotate with always. You can’t leave Delhi government just because the BJP or the Congress party scuttled it. And then you are not supposed to contest away from your bastions,” Mohan said on Kejriwal’s decision to contest against Modi.

Even before the party could sit to ponder over the results, two senior AAP leaders quit citing “lack of democracy” and “indifference” in the party behind their decision.

“It was a long overdue,” Ashok Agarwal, a leading lawyer based in New Delhi and former AAP leader told Al Jazeera. “AAP is no longer a common man’s party. It runs on the whims of just one man and his coterie.”

Agarwal, known for his legal battles in the field of primary education, was supposed to contest on AAP ticket, but the party replaced him with a TV journalist who lost the polls to the BJP.

“I had joined the party on Kejriwal’s insistence but when I left the party there was not a single courtesy phone call from them,” Agarwal said, insisting the party should come out of the “NGO and activism culture” to protect its image. “I feel AAP overestimated itself and underestimated people.”

But Rajmohan Gandhi believes that the party fared well and that on the issue of tickets there is a dispute within every party. He added that AAP has succeeded in increasing its vote base, which will help it in the coming assembly elections in New Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra states.

“Leaving Delhi government was a small factor but the big factor was Modi wave,” Gandhi said. “Our idea was to build a national presence. In Punjab we got 25 percent of votes. We are second in Delhi. So we consider it our success.”

However, Gandhi conceded that leaving the New Delhi government after 49 days was largely Kejriwal’s own decision and others were “doubtful” about it.

India: Protest vote or dress rehearsal

AAP’s future

The real impact of the AAP, many acknowledge, lies in the significant change it brought into Indian politics by raising the issues that influenced an average voter.

It was AAP that toiled hard to awaken Indian voter. It created the anger against the Congress party and sustained the anti-incumbency mood for over three years, which might have perhaps benefited the BJP indirectly in many areas at the expense of AAP’s blood and sweat.

Mohan believes that it takes years to build a party.

“That’s why I say, in the first election you lose, in the second you make others lose and in the third you contest to win,” Mohan said. “This may apply for AAP too. They could replace Congress party as the second best party too.” 

While the AAP’s future seems uncertain, hardcore fans like Sangat Singh are ready to try it one more time in the upcoming New Delhi assembly elections.

“Kejriwal has proved he is unreliable, no doubt, but he has offered substantial choices and awareness to Indian voters and shown the world that the broom could really clean the house. I hope AAP rises back once again,” Singh said. “AAP is there to stay for long.”

Follow Baba Umar on Twitter

Source: Al Jazeera