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HomeNational InterestArvind Kejriwal’s start-up AAP is the political ‘Unicorn’ of the decade

Arvind Kejriwal’s start-up AAP is the political ‘Unicorn’ of the decade

AAP broke through entry barriers for newcomers in our politics — caste, ethnicity, ideology, dynasty — to establish itself as a Delhi party with all-India recognition.

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This has been a decade of start-ups. Hundreds of new ones have emerged and more than a dozen have achieved the ‘Unicorn’ status (valuation at more than a billion dollars) in quick time. 

Our vantage point, however, is political. So, in our book, the political start-up of the decade was Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Here are the many reasons why. 

First, with established political parties and caste-ethnic-ideological forces with ossified vote banks and entrenched dynasties, the entry barriers for newcomers in our politics are the steepest. That’s why start-ups of the past — from the Jana Sangh, the Swatantra Party and Janata Party to the Telugu Desam, BJD, TMC and even a durable one like the DMK — have drawn their ideology, leadership, vote banks or caste/ethnic loyalties from a pre-existing force. AAP is sui generis

Establishing yourself even in one small but prominent state, and building brand recognition all over the country, therefore, is a formidable achievement. 

Officially, the AAP was launched on 26 November 2012. We’d say, however, the entrepreneurial idea was sown sometime in late 2010. This is when the premature self-destruction of the UPA, or more specifically the Congress, caught its main rival, the BJP, unprepared. There was space available for just some time until Narendra Modi took charge of his party.   

This is when Arvind Kejriwal was acquiring the national limelight as an anti-corruption campaigner while being seen as incorruptible himself. This, we must note, was also the year when almost all institutions of the old establishment, from politics to bureaucracy, the media and the corporates, suffered a precipitous loss of trust and respect. It was exacerbated by the Radia Tapes disclosures. 

It fed conveniently into a “sab chor hain (everybody’s a thief)” mindset. No established party or leader was spared by this fury. If everybody was already declared a thief, India was desperate to see somebody who wasn’t. In walked the insurgents. Kejriwal and his young team were not yet touched by power and, thereby, corruption. 

They had modest personal lifestyles, spoke a simple idiom and sounded convincing. All they did was berate and condemn the established political class and elites (from Manmohan Singh to Mukesh Ambani) as unworthy of India’s trust. Anna Hazare arrived on the scene as a force multiplier.

Also read: Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP changes its colours this election season — to yellow and black

Nevertheless, Anna was used and discarded within two years (his fast took place in 2011) and AAP came into being in 2012, the first new political party with heft in decades, with zero political legacy, vote banks, dynasties, or an ideology.

This new proposition was neither Left nor Right nor Centre, and so could conveniently attack any party with these ideologies on the day, or align with anybody to discard them later — from the Congress in Delhi to the Sikh radical groups in Punjab. Kejriwal’s genius in political entrepreneurship lay in how he used all of this: Lack of ideology and political fidelity, a ruthless use-and-discard approach for friend and foe, a redefinition of welfarism wrapped in high nationalism — Bharat Mata ki jai and Bhagat Singh’s portraits all became his venture’s USP. He was moving into the political market, but with a product that pretended to be not like any other. That is brilliant entrepreneurship.

Like any classical start-up, AAP also went through near-death moments, some of them self-made. Like the disaster of the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, when it finished a distant third, behind even the Congress, in most Delhi assembly segments. From being written off then, it has made a smart recovery, and now looks like the front-runner in the Delhi elections due in weeks.

Again, like typical start-ups, AAP has had continuing HR troubles. Or, maybe worse, with so many key people, including ministers, expelled on charges ranging from corruption to filming themselves having extra-marital, if consensual, sex. As we often see with start-ups, there has been an exodus of many co-founders.

I may be stretching it, but in Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, Kejriwal may even have his equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg’s Winklevoss twins. The AAP has also built a trait essential for start-ups, which, sometimes, is also the cause of their self-destruction: An almighty personality cult around one leader.

Those who follow my work — written or spoken — would know my often sceptical view of AAP’s politics. As a commentator, I have been at argumentative odds with AAP leaders since the Anna movement. Searching for their non-existent ideology, I read up Kejriwal’s best-selling charter, Swaraj. You can read the pamphlet-sized book in good time — I finished it by the time we were overhead Bhopal, halfway on a Bengaluru-Delhi flight. It was a mish-mash of ideas and idealism drawn from anecdotal wisdom over two-and-a-half millennia. The core came from the supposedly democratic kingdom of Vaishali in ancient times.

The notion was so comic-book and juvenile, I ended up writing a National Interest on it, headlined “Arvind Chitra Katha.” If this is how they planned to change the country and the ‘system’, it was never going to happen, I had said. To their credit, after they got power, they gradually retreated into an establishmentarian calm, or at least relatively so. You now rarely see them abuse anybody, hold morchas, or sound angry. They follow the laws and the Constitution, run a remarkably clean ship, and have developed their own version of non-ideological, underclass welfarism. This change, and success, critics have to acknowledge. 

Also read: Streetfighter ban gaya gentleman: How Arvind Kejriwal has become a changed politician

Compare Kejriwal with another leader in a similar age group, Rahul Gandhi. I will confine myself to how each has responded to three big challenges in our politics since the rise of Modi: Nationalism, religion and welfarism. Unlike Rahul, Kejriwal never went to JNU during its troubles. 

He was smart enough to stay far away from the “tukde-tukde” fire. Recall what he said when Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid were arrested. If he had control over the police, Kejriwal said, those who’d actually shouted the “tukde-tukde” slogans would have been in jail, and the innocents free. I know this entirely fails today’s test of being woke. But what did Rahul get for trying to pass it? Kejriwal was quick to hail the surgical strikes, Balakot, and voted for Article 370. He wouldn’t concede nationalism to Modi. And Bhagat Singh is an enormously more powerful icon than Savarkar. 

While Rahul hopped between temples, Kejriwal kept his under-stated soft Hindu identity, never succumbing to the intellectual Left’s demands for secular purity, and even launched a free pilgrimage programme for senior citizens. The list of pilgrimages did have Ajmer Sharif, but most of these were to Hindu and Sikh holy places, and his advertising painted him as a modern-day Shravan Kumar, the storied, model son from India’s past who took his ageing parents to all 84 centres of Hindu pilgrimage on his shoulders. At the same time, Kejriwal was quick to host the T.M. Krishna concert when forces of the Hindu Right forced it out of elsewhere. Later, there was a huge, community Diwali mela with lasers, as a woke statement against fire-crackers. 

We know that Brand Kejriwal-AAP have a long way to go even if they win another Delhi election. But they are now an established party with a uniquely flexible politics. We will agree with it sometimes, disagree often, but it is a force nobody can ignore, not even Modi, because it will keep punching above its weight. As it does, for example, on social media. We know that in start-up terms, dominating one small state in a decade seems modest. But in a nation’s politics, particularly India’s, it’s a pretty short time.

Also read: Conversational, chirpy & candid — there’s a new Arvind Kejriwal on the Delhi campaign trail


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  1. Shekhar Gupta has made a career bowing to the mighty and powerful, and this opinion piece is an attempt by him to remain on the right side of the establishment. He doesn’t mention these points:
    – Anna Hazare forbade Arvind to start a political party(because Hazare wanted his favorite BJP to reap the rewards of their IAC movement).
    – All cases against AAP MLAs were foisted by an insecure Modi(and lapped up by
    pliant media and the faithful), and none of them have stuck even when
    investigated by an extremely inimical police force.
    – Arvind’s welfare schemes which are wildly popular(and they don’t make the
    state bankrupt) were held by Modi(through a puppet LG) until the SC ruling
    which made it clear what the LGs powers were(none). SG does not mention this
    in more than passing.
    – Arvind has shown to the country how things can be implemented by a state
    govt in a manner visible to the poor and the middle class. He put real money
    in the hands of the common man with his maximum governance(not a mere slogan)
    by making public schools excellent, making private schools reduce fees, providing secondary and tertiary
    healthcare in a very accessible manner and a countless other reforms.

  2. Arvind Kejriwal is honest. He has a handful honest people on board. He has learnt how to walk on fire and survive negativity. He deserves another term.

  3. SG is one of those who continue to support Kejriwal even though most including me who had great expectations from Kejriwal who proved worst than Congress when people gave him the unpresented opportunity. He turned out to be a lier, opportunist of worst kind and the one who joins hands with the Congress, the party he had shown extreme hatred when he was spearheading the fight against corruption. As of now he can’t even expect to survive without the support of Congress in coming elections.

    • I can already feel the presence of BJP media cell in comments!
      Dear SG, I regularly listen to your vlogs and thank you for detailed analysis and insight. But they also subtly reflect otherside of you: a thick skinned journalist who can prosper by making the political masters of the day happy.. Like most media, you’ve been biased against AAP, even in this article, you didn’t discuss the AAP’s biggest strength: it’s dedication with best people oriented governance … I had a glimmer of hope for my India in AAP’s rise but media succeeded in restricting it to Delhi.. the God (if there’s one!) won’t forgive you guys!

  4. This article is perfect example of how to lose liberals. Firstly AAP has underperformed majorly..it wiĺl lose vote share, seats and mostlikely power not what Unicorns do. It is going to be Yahoo story rather than facebook. By all counts GDP of New Dehli state woud have fallen especially if inflation is considered by 15 to 25% since 2008 may not media houses. People are feeling it but not that much as Gurgoan and Noida has filled in and since 2016 because of housing both have stagnated too. To give killer punch Modi will have to just say that revival of Delhi will be his personal responsibility and he would genrate jobs at state level in Delhi. Then you will see how AAP will sink without trace despite all Jumalas and stark warning for all congress state.

  5. In There is no need to overrate AAP. Kejriwal has been a sheer disappointment. He is nobody beyond Delhi. Furthermore, beyond Kejriwal, AAP is nothing This is the vital difference between BJP and AAP. Tomorrow, if something happens to Modi, BJP will not get extinguished; someone else would be there to replace him. Who is there in AAP beyond Kejariwal? It s a single personality-centered party. In Congress, Shiv Sena, RJD, DMK et all there is at least a dynasty and a pretense of some ideology. AAP there is nothing – just Arvind Kejriwal.

  6. Shekhar, you have deliberately failed to mention the role of police in making the false cases against AAP MLA and full might of oppressive CBI and raids of ED against Satyendra Jain and other ministers. If this kind of blatant misuse of power had happened in a western democracy the heads would have rolled including that of police Chief and LG. Media would have demanded accountability from the home ministry but instead people like yourself continued to be derisive. You in particular have more to answer. The shameless persecution of elected state govt. by a central govt home ministery is unprecedented in recent times. People like yourself have clearly let your profession down. You are the worst kind and shameless. If AK comes on top in next election it would be because of his sheer hard work and determination of his team. Tell me a state where a chief minister and his team are so dedicated and responsive to their electorate and easily approachable MLAs.

  7. Arvind Kejriwal sent 2 Guptas to Rajya Sabha at the expense if more deserving AAPtards. Now a third Gupta (Shekhar) has put in his application. Chamchon mein gud bahut hai sada rakhiye saath.

  8. Like all good corporate leaders, Kejriwal has a long-term vision.

    This may turn out to be the first party that develops into an alternative to the Congress/BJP combine. We shall know after the Delhi elections. There’s hope that they will win, because Modi 2.0 has thrown away the immense advantage it had.

    Now also is the time to dream a second party that will be a competitor for AAP.

  9. सर जी शायद यह बतलाना भूल गये कि केजरीवाल ने जिस तेवर का उपयोग अपने राजनीतिक साथियों से निबटने में किया, वही तेवर उसने अपने पुराने कुलीग्स यानि ब्यूरोक्रेसी के देवताओं से निबटने में भी अपनाया। अपने तमाम तेवरों और अक्षम साथियों के साथ उसने जिस तेजी के साथ जनता तक सुविधाओं और राहतों की पहुँच सुनिश्चित करी, वह वाकई काबिले-तारीफ है। मगर 1460 sq km के राज्य में यह सब करना अलग बात है ! असल तारीफ तब होगी, अगर ये यही सब बदलाव बिहार या यू. पी. में लाकर दिखला दें तो……

  10. Everything, including the kitchen sink, has been thrown at AAP over the last five years. If CM Arvind Kejriwal seems poised to win a second term – although not even God could win 67 seats out of 70 – he must be doing a lot of things right.

  11. Yes, you, Shekhar Gupta, have certainly been sceptical, at times, even derisive of AAP in your writings. But so many of us have experienced similar emotions regarding Arvind Kejriwal. The analogy of a start-up is great, but if Kejriwal plays a sensible second innings, which means, steady Dravid style batting in this test match (which essentially requires a wise head on shoulders), he may qualify for National level in a few years to come.

    It takes courage to venture into politics, that too brutally criminalised politics of India. It is this courage we must salute. Let’s pray for an alternative to lazy scions and divisive firebrands.


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