If we take a 360-degree view of where our national politics stands today, we find action in two distant places: Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, which has yet been in the South, and the Aam Aadmi Party’s activity in Gujarat. This week we are focusing on the latter. This is about two years after we had written a National Interest noting its progress, describing it as India’s political start-up of the decade, and a unicorn at that.
That politics abhors a vacuum is a truism. It’s just that the BJP’s loyalists might ask you a counter: That’s quite alright, but what’s the debate over a vacuum in Indian politics?
The larger-than-life figure of Narendra Modi not only fully occupies that space, but bulges out of it somewhat extravagantly. But the space you are talking about is in the opposition.
No matter how dominant and all-conquering the BJP under Modi, Amit Shah and J.P. Nadda is, it isn’t the Chinese Communist Party and India isn’t a single-party state like China. India isn’t Putin’s Russia either. India will always have a wide open space for the opposition.
In many of the regions and the states, the opposition space is occupied by strong challengers who’ve successfully stopped the Modi-BJP Ashwamedha.
There are leaders, notably Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, who the BJP has failed to defeat in state elections despite throwing every possible weapon, smart or dirty, at them. But pan-nationally, it hasn’t had a challenge for eight years. Which is what the Aam Aadmi Party is threatening to change.
Our definition of pan-national is modest at this point. That is, any party with a strong presence, either in power or as the main challenger in more than one state. Take a close look at the political map of India. Besides the Congress, you can find no non-BJP party with any substantive presence in more than one state.
Of these, the Congress has been moving only in one direction: Downwards. Its footprint has been shrinking for four years now. The last time it expanded it in the winter of 2018, with wins in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, it fizzled out soon enough. We will watch what happens after its Yatra and the presidential election, but for now it is a fast declining power. It has been vacating the opposition space rapidly, creating a vacuum. So, do not blame Modi for it. It is this space that AAP is now beginning to move into.
It is the only party today with momentum in states besides the two it rules.
The Congress may rule Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but it is tough to argue that it’s resurgent in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which are going to the polls later this year. Its next big chance will come in Karnataka in the summer of next year. You would have to be a diehard loyalist to argue that at the moment the party is on its way up anywhere.
While the problem with the Congress is that it’s trying to do too much at the same time, without a specific, near-term electoral target, AAP has a specific target in a state, Gujarat, and an even sharper one pan-nationally, the Congress vote bank.
For a decade now, the disillusioned Congress voters have been looking at alternatives. From Andhra to Telangana and Maharashtra (where it fell behind the NCP) the same story has repeated. In West Bengal, Mamata has fully vacuum cleaned its vote base. In Delhi and Punjab, the two states where the BJP had zero chance of defeating it, it got wiped out by AAP instead. There has been open season on the committed Congress votes across the country.
This is what AAP is after. This is why it doesn’t particularly want to go head-to-head with the BJP. It will question, criticise, even attack them. But it isn’t wasting time targeting the BJP’s vote. If AAP only starts sucking away the Congress vote in states where it has been strong, the party will build a foundation for 2024 and beyond.
These few steps in that direction will take it to play on a higher stage, in a bigger league. Or, if you’d prefer that I use an example from a game other than cricket here, to play on the Centre Court as we say in tennis. It doesn’t have to win Gujarat. If it merely gets about 10-15 seats, it will fully affirm its claims to being a rising national political party. India hasn’t seen that phenomenon in decades, we could even argue ever.
The BJP emerged from the old Jana Sangh in 1980, and so wasn’t quite a start-up, Congress (I) emerged from the original Congress, Janata Dal from among Samyukta Vidhayak Dal and Lohiaite-socialist proliferations and the Janata in the short 1977-80 interim, the others remained rooted in their states. Just a dozen seats in Gujarat and a handful in Himachal as the cherry on the cake would affirm the arrival of a new pan-national political party.
There will be another occasion soon enough for a detailed SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis on AAP. For now, we look at some broad strands.
If you find admiration for AAP qualified, if not muted among many of the Modi-BJP’s critics, it is because they question it for its lack of ideological clarity. Especially on secularism. Translated, it means the view on the Muslims. The answer, simply, is that the party has no ideology. Or does not put forward an ideological proposition.
This is what persuaded Shruti Kapila, brilliant political scientist and professor at Cambridge University, to describe AAP as a “lazy, guilt-free version of the BJP” in this Op-ed for ThePrint. But is ideology-free politics a strength or a weakness? Can politics survive without ideology?
This question will come up soon enough and AAP will have to deal with it. It arrived on the scene as an anti-politician force which called politics evil. Its next avatar was an insurgent party. Now it’s purely welfarist. It is realistic (you may prefer cynical) enough to accept that it cannot fight Modi on nationalism, and is too cautious to speak for the Muslims for fear of angering Hindus. It knows the Muslims will vote for anybody they see as most likely to beat the BJP.
It is much safer to talk health, education, free power, water, subsidies, non-corrupt governance, especially when it comes to delivery of services. This also reflects in its choice of its icons, Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar, the genuinely non-polarising figures in our political imagination. It is great for now, but as it goes out to fill the political vacuum on the opposition side, this ideological vacuum will become a threat.
And finally, its one-man leadership. We are already seeing the problems it is facing in Punjab. Unless it expands its leadership, creates space for giants other than one, it will run the risk of expanding too fast, too far. Just like many of our start-ups that, in the euphoria of initial valuations and easy private equity, spread themselves out too thin and are struggling now.