Kejriwal Delhi
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal Image Credit: ANI

The year 2022 was the year of the Aam Aadmi Party in Indian politics. 2023 is proving to be a nadir.

In 2022, they won a second state, Punjab, and became the only Indian party other than Congress and BJP to have more than one chief minister. Their national ambitions finally started to look real.

The AAP went straight for the jugular, aiming to displace the Congress in Gujarat. Had it not been for the high expectations, the AAP’s 13% vote-share on the BJP’s home turf would have been lauded as an achievement.

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Instead, Gujarat was seen as proof that the AAP wasn’t about to replace the Congress anytime soon. For some reason, the BJP decided to not wait until the AAP grows into a national force. Corruption investigations against the AAP were turbo-charged. A senior minister in the AAP’s Delhi government was already in jail; deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and Kejriwal aide Vijay Nair were also arrested on money laundering charges.

Meanwhile, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s already weak hold over the administration of the Delhi government was completely severed, with the Delhi government’s bureaucracy made to answer to a Lt. Governor appointed by the centre.

The BJP also managed to get its first success in making a charge against Kejriwal that stuck — the expensive renovation of the chief minister’s official bungalow, with gory details of how the money was spent on providing him with luxuries.

These events demoralised the AAP so much you could see it on their faces. Arvind Kejriwal was forced into non-stop Modi-bashing, forgetting the education and health-driven “Delhi model” narrative that had been getting him national traction.

INDIA alliance: Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge with party leader Rahul Gandhi, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal during the Opposition leaders' meeting, in Patna

Kejriwal under Rahul

With this series of events, the AAP of 2023 looks like a shadow of its 2022 self. Things are so bad that the AAP that once sought to distance itself from the Congress now appears to be pleading to get space in a Congress-led “INDIA” alliance.

Such is the desperation that the AAP even wants to have a seat-sharing alliance with Congress in states that it rules: Delhi and Punjab. Such is the desperation that one hint from a Delhi Congress leader that they may not do an alliance, and AAP threatened to quit the INDIA alliance.

The central government’s ordinance, now a law, effectively making Delhi’s bureaucrats answerable to the central government became a moment when the AAP needed support of the Congress and regional parties across India. This marks a turning point when AAP is forced to stop behaving like a disruptor and instead submit itself to the wider array of opposition forces.

If the implication of this is not clear, let’s spell it out: Arvind Kejriwal, once a prime ministerial aspirant, is effectively accepting Rahul Gandhi as his leader, even if he won’t say so.

Tea and sympathy

We need to ask what brought the AAP to this? How do we understand the great diminution of Arvind Kejriwal? It cannot just be some corruption cases and arrests of a few leaders. Many opposition parties are facing worse. Look at Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar — they have had most of their parties poached away.

Yet, while there is considerable sympathy for Thackeray and Pawar in Maharashtra, there seems to be no sympathy for Arvind Kejriwal. The man who has won Delhi state elections twice with thumping majorities, who has managed to snatch Punjab away from Congress and Akalis, doesn’t seem to be getting even perfunctory commiseration.

Their protests and events don’t seem to make an impact, a far cry from their days of agitations, and no, you can’t blame the media alone for this.

Forget protests, you do not find ordinary people standing up for AAP on social media. You do not hear people express any shock or dismay about what is being done to the AAP. It’s all par for the course.

By contrast, even in the Congress party’s worst days you will find supporters and sympathisers aplenty. In UP and Bihar, you’ll find enough people to stand up for Akhilesh Yadav, Tejashwi Yadav and even Mayawati, even when they’re not at their best.

Everyone left the building

What explains the lack of sympathy for the AAP is the ideological suicide the party has committed. Until about 2019-20, the AAP managed to evade the ideology question. They presented themselves as ideology-free, committed to governance and welfare without being trapped in questions of ideology.

Since then, the AAP has played footsie with left and right alike. One day they sound secular and one day they sound communal. One day they are supporting the BJP’s ideological agenda and the next day they are fighting the BJP.

Kejriwal has surrounded himself with young, enthusiastic political novices who will deflect the party’s wishy-washy stance on ideology. Depending on the ideological ‘experiment’, they are upto, critics could be labelled as ‘stupid liberals’ or ‘agents’ of other political forces.

The result is that today there is nobody left to stand up for the AAP. The reason why parties like BJP and Congress always have at least some people willing to speak up for them is ideology. When all else fails, core ideological support remains. The patronage-based vote of the poor is not enough to get a party going for the long run.

Kejriwal’s ideological flip-flops have meant that left, right and centre all have a deep distrust of the AAP. Nobody wants to defend AAP today and feel stupid tomorrow when they do another ideological manoeuvre.

It is for this reason why the Congress and the INDIA alliance must also be careful of Kejriwal. When they don’t need you anymore, AAP and Kejriwal are the best use-and-throw artists.