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.