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Early in the summer of 2014, a rather offbeat photograph had appeared in newspapers across India and even in this part of the world — that of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convenor and then former chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, leaping straight into the river Ganges at one of the timeless banks, or ghaats as they are better known, in the temple town of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh — India’s largest state. Kejriwal had just announced his decision to take on Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwart and prime minister-in waiting, Narendra Modi, at the Varanasi parliamentary constituency. The hype and hoopla around Kejriwal and a rather ragtag AAP outfit in Varanasi was quite a spectacle.
Weeks later, Kejriwal lost to Modi by 337,000 votes.
Thereafter, his political careergraph has gone for a roller-coaster ride — and so has his party’s.
Having won the Delhi assembly polls by an astounding majority in 2015 and then having failed to win a single state election — even on turfs where it was believed to be strong, such as Punjab and Goa — and finally being trounced by BJP at its own backyard in the Delhi civic polls last month, the AAP story of an alternative narrative in Indian politics seems to be fizzling out all too soon and with a rather pungent after-taste. The allegation of graft against Kejriwal over the water tanker scam, levelled by one of his former Cabinet colleagues, Kapil Mishra, is the latest addition to what now seems to be an endless saga of infighting and bickering within the AAP fold.
And that is rather unfortunate.
In little over two years’ time, the party that had promised better governance — with transparency, honesty and accountability as its core principles — seems to have set itself on an autopilot to a crash-landing!
Having germinated from Indian social activist Anna Hazare’s widely successful and acclaimed mass movement against corruption in public life, AAP ticked all the right boxes from the time it emerged as a political outfit and decided to fight the Delhi assembly elections in 2014. However, perhaps ironically, the seeds of an AAP disintegration were also sown in its DNA at the very moment this new political entity was being conceived — with the party and its supreme leader Kejriwal failing to win the blessings of their mentor Hazare. Until this day, Hazare has been sceptical about Kejriwal’s intentions and has been rather economical, so to speak, in his praise of AAP and its leadership.
Whether it is proclaiming oneself as an “anarchist”, taking oath of office with full public participation at Delhi’s Ram Leela Maidan or deciding to hold a sit-in demonstration on the streets of New Delhi, even though he was the chief minister ... the AAP brand of politics has always been too heavy on optics. As this was not an outfit made of career politicians, one still gave Kejriwal & Co the benefit of the doubt initially. In fact it was quite heartening to see people from diverse walks of life, such as engineering, management, public administration, entrepreneurship and journalism, flock under the AAP umbrella. For many voters, not just in Delhi but in other parts of India as well, AAP presented that long-lost opportunity to indeed bring the aam aadmi, or the common man, back into the political mainstream. The doors to what had long ceased to be the common man’s domain were suddenly thrown open in a gust of wind that threatened to undo the business-as-usual, staid, straightjacketed realm of politics that one had known since India’s Independence in 1947. Steeped in a culture of nepotism, corruption and greed, politics in India had increasingly become a pulpit for the high and mighty and in keeping with such a water-tight delineation, the political mainstream came to be increasingly identified with a few dominant forces — chief among which are the BJP, Congress and a clutch of regional parties.
Into such a monochromatic slide, the emergence of AAP marked some much-needed infusion of colour and verve that were hitherto unseen in the Indian political sphere. And with the party led by Kejriwal — himself a former Indian Revenue Service joint commissioner and a graduate from the haloed Indian Institute of Technology — there was every reason for one to look forward to the dawn of a new era, one in which accountability and honesty would hold sway over allegiance to political pedigree and a deep-rooted desire to serve the people would propel one to reach for higher ground, not lust for power or wealth.
It all sounded and looked too good to be true, though, as people in Delhi soon found out.
An over-dependence on gimmick, a mindless pan-India expansion plan without building up the party organisation at the grass-roots level, inability to stay focused to the cause of good governance in the only state it rules, Delhi, and an abject failure to enforce discipline in the party have all put paid to the AAP’s much-vaunted promise of transforming India. Moreover, the lack of experience of having run a government or a political party started showing all too soon. Promising Delhi residents free water and electricity before even having formulated one full budget and accepting donations from individuals and entities based beyond the shores of India, without cross-checking their credentials, are just two of the many instances where a gung-ho party leadership exposed its soft underbelly and played into the hands of opportunists. No wonder much of the chaos and back-biting that hobbles AAP today is self-inflicted.
And that is truly disappointing.
BJP’s stupendous success in recent polls notwithstanding, there is a large section of the electorate in India that still believes that there can and ought to be an alternative other than the all-too-obvious choices at the hustings. Just check the rising number of voters who have pressed the Nota (none of the above) button on the electronic voting machines since the introduction of the option a couple of years back.
Kejriwal’s leap into the Ganges in 2014 was a symbolic leap into the unknown for a technocrat who knew little about politics. It was a leap that could have changed India for the better. Unfortunately, it has turned out to be a ‘leap’ that has only plunged Kejriwal deeper into an existential crisis, with no immediate intellectual or moral deliverance in sight.
You can follow Sanjib Kumar Das on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@moumiayush.