THE Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has had a remarkable 2022 — winning both the Punjab Assembly elections and the Delhi Municipal Corporation poll. It has also marked a presence in the Prime Minister’s home state, Gujarat, and fulfilled the requirement to acquire the status of a national party. However, the flop show in Himachal Pradesh and the reports of some newly elected AAP MLAs in Gujarat keen to join the BJP should prompt the party to do introspection.
At this stage of its journey, the decade-old party needs to pause, reflect and find its own authentic voice. To do so, the AAP needs to abandon the cardboard-cutout Hindutva policy that it has taken a fancy to. For, if there is one message that this election should teach the AAP, it’s that it cannot beat the BJP at its own game. Although the BJP lost the MCD elections, the party increased its vote share by three per cent in the national capital despite its unimpressive 15-year reign in the corporation.
The AAP’s vote share in the MCD elections was 42.05 per cent, way above compared to the 2017 MCD poll (21.09 per cent) but lower than its nearly 54 per cent vote share in the 2020 Assembly elections.
Likewise in Gujarat, where the AAP got a vote share of 12.9 per cent, it hurt the Congress, but the BJP’s vote share went up from 49 per cent to 53 per cent. So, the Hindutva-inclined voters stayed with the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It’s apparent that Arvind Kejriwal’s efforts to assert his Hindu credentials have not taken away the core Hindu vote bank of the BJP.
Meanwhile, according to polling agencies, the AAP has lost votes among two sections of society in Delhi — a drop of 16 per cent votes among Dalits and 14 per cent among Muslims in the 2022 MCD poll in comparison to the 2020 Assembly elections. The loss among Dalit voters is intriguing as the AAP has always been more popular among the poorer sections of society in the city-state.
In October, the AAP’s most prominent Dalit face, Rajendra Pal Gautam, resigned from his ministership after he participated in a ceremony where 10,000 people repeated the vows taken by Dr BR Ambedkar on October 14, 1956, when he had renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism. In the midst of the Gujarat campaign where the AAP was trying to showcase its Hindu credentials, Gautam had said he quit because he did not want to hurt his party’s prospects, but hastened to add that he remained a true Ambedkarite and a Buddhist.
The question arises: has the AAP abandoned radical mobilisation and chosen to conform to a template created by the BJP-RSS, offering free pilgrimage package tours to Ayodhya and bringing Hindu religion into political messaging/branding?
Besides, the big question is that can the AAP really continue to try and clone the BJP when its most substantial holding is currently Punjab and not Delhi, where its powers are circumscribed? The social makeup of Punjab makes the AAP’s national posturing somewhat strange. The state’s population includes 58 per cent Sikhs, while the Scheduled Castes, drawn from both the Sikh and Hindu communities, account for 32 per cent, the largest percentage among the Indian states.
Yet, the AAP’s national leadership seems determined to project itself as Hindu, with all idioms and symbols. For the subaltern social groups, it offers civic services but not identification with the party as such. In Delhi, for instance, it is quite clear that on some seats, the Muslim community chose the Congress, which got a dismal nine seats in the MCD poll, of which around six came from pockets with large minority population. This happened particularly in south Delhi areas where the anti-CAA protests began and in northeast Delhi where riots broke out in February 2020 and where the AAP was perceived as not standing up for minorities when they underwent trauma.
I returned to the riot-impacted streets of northeast Delhi on the last day of the MCD poll campaigning and found that a clear polarisation was still persisting, with Hindus rallying behind the BJP and many Muslims saying they would prefer the Congress over the AAP. Yet, in the old city of Delhi and other parts of the national capital, the AAP still held on to Muslim support as the party has not ‘communalised’ the delivery of services such as health clinics and government schools, even as the poor working class of all faiths has benefitted from the free electricity scheme of the Delhi government. Yet, the AAP’s margin of victory over the BJP would have been greater if support for it among the minorities had not frayed at the edges in parts of Delhi. The AAP’s counter-argument is that it showcases Hindu idioms, but does not attack or target minorities.
Perhaps, the party believes that it can factor in such losses in its larger national game plan. But does it really make sense for the AAP to package itself this way when a chunk of the voters won’t abandon the BJP? Or does it need to find another voice that can fight unafraid for the weaker sections of society, be it Dalits, Muslims or tribals (among the latter in Gujarat, the AAP has gained a foothold in terms of the vote share).
Strategically, if there is little purpose in posing as ‘Hindutva-lite’, is it not time to regain the moral high ground linked to the constitutional values of India?
It’s not that the party cannot be innovative and unorthodox. Delhi got its first transgender member in the MCD after the AAP gave the ticket to Bobby Kinnar, who won from the Sultanpuri A ward. The party still has the capacity to be radical, but not if its thinking comes from the BJP-RSS playbook. Having had an amazing year in politics, the AAP must take a cue from its formative days when it was courageous and non-conformist.
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