Delhi's regional party

The results of the Delhi election are, on some level, stunning. The original Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sweep five years ago was extraordinary — winning 67 of 70 seats was surely beyond what anyone had imagined — but that it would nearly repeat that feat five years later is remarkable. Some might argue that this suggests that the Indian voter is no longer reflexively anti-incumbent, which was long the assumption about how re-election campaigns would turn out. The fact that the prime minister was also returned to office in 2019 with an increased majority would tend to support this argument. 

But the fact is that the voters of Delhi have never been particularly prone to anti-incumbency when it comes to voting in a state government. Remember, this is the place that was ruled by the Congress for 15 years, with Sheila Dikshit having relatively easy re-election runs until the big anti-corruption movement of the early 2010s derailed her government. Delhi has never had a real problem voting someone back in if they think they have done a reasonably committed and competent job, and it seems that this was their verdict on the AAP government. 

Opinions might differ on this, but it seems to me that this was not a vote for a “face” or a personality. Of course, the AAP is Arvind Kejriwal’s creation, but the Delhi voter was this time voting for the party and the administration, not the man. If anything, the big way in which the AAP has changed over the past five years is that it has sought to create an identity separate from that of its founder. Kejriwal himself had almost become a liability when it became generally thought that he protested too much and was not taking the responsibilities of being voted into power seriously enough. Today, the Delhi chief minister is neither as outspoken nor as confrontational as he was earlier. This is a large part of why the AAP has done well — it is no longer tied to Kejriwal’s image or his statements, both of which may not have been as acceptable or popular as the Delhi government’s record. 

This is in some ways different from many other regional parties, which remain tied very much to individual leaders or families. There is little doubt that in Delhi at least, the AAP could continue without Kejriwal going forward. But how the Trinamool might do without Mamata Banerjee or the Samajwadi Party without Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family is far from clear. 

It also reveals the limits of traditional analysis of elections which claims that a “face” is essential for success. Yes, the Bharatiya Janata Party had no chief ministerial candidate in this election. But that is not why it lost. A political analysis that is based purely on personalities is useful only to a certain point. What matters in the end is not simply a “face”, but what a party is seen as selling to voters. 

And what was the AAP selling to voters? It is too trite to say, as the party will, that it was simply “governance”. Just because the AAP was too cowardly or compromised to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) majoritarian rhetoric, and in many ways submitted to it, does not mean it was an ideology-free election. In fact, the AAP does have a ruling ideology. It is a party of radical decentralisation. This has always been central to its approach, and in fact emerges from Kejriwal’s own career. His book Swaraj, which has some distinctly strange ideas when it comes to economics, say, nevertheless is largely a paean to the accountability that Kejriwal believes emerges from a programme of radical devolution and decentralisation. This ideology is also what underlies, for example, the mohalla clinic experiment or much of what it has tried to do to Delhi’s schools by involving parents. 

This — and not the social domain, where they agree — is in fact where the AAP clearly differentiates itself from the BJP, which is a more traditionally Indian party of centralisation. The BJP is the party of the Sangh and its shakhas, which are part of one carefully structured whole; its pitch today is essentially “trust the leader”. The AAP, on the other hand, is the party of the north Indian middle class, the purest organisational form of which has hitherto been Residents’ Welfare Associations or RWAs. This is why the party might find it very difficult to scale itself up to the national level, where centralising rhetoric might have a political advantage, but will be difficult to dislodge at the state level once it has reworked Delhi in its ideological image. The question is which other states and cities could usefully replicate this model even at the state level. For electoral success, this ideology seems to require a more urban and diverse polity, of the sort that currently only Delhi has. Those who imagine the AAP is about Kejriwal, or about pragmatic and ideology-free “governance”, might long for the party to go national. But, if this analysis of the AAP’s real appeal is correct, it is hard to see how the AAP could easily spread outside Delhi.

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