RPI Author Rajesh Rajagopalan: The Aam Aadmi Party and Indian Politics: Winners and Losers
The Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) spectacular victory in the New Delhi state elections is a continuation of the churning in Indian politics. It presents a warning for both the main national political parties but particularly to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which won equally spectacularly in the national elections last summer and in a series of state elections subsequently. The AAP’s prospects beyond New Delhi are still unclear and its path is likely to be difficult, especially because this will depend at least partly on its performance in Delhi. The AAP represents both the future and the past of Indian politics: it is responding to a politically weak but growing and restive middle class that has not yet found a political party home, while its ideology, especially on economic policy, represents a failed past.
The AAPs victory is not record-setting in the Indian political context, but it is close: its 67/70 seats result has been bested only twice, both times in Sikkim. In 1989, the Sikkim Sangram Party won all 32 seats in the Sikkim state legislature, a feat repeated twenty years later in 2009 by the Sikkim Democratic Front. But nonetheless, considering the importance of New Delhi, the fierceness of the campaign in which Prime Minister Modi himself took part, and the BJP’s performance in the recent national elections (when it won all seven seats from Delhi), the result was a clear defeat for the BJP.
The AAP’s victory represents a significant challenge to both national parties, the resurgent BJP and the crumbling Indian National Congress (INC). For the BJP, which hopes to replace the Congress as the main Indian political party, the AAP is a signal that the path ahead will not be unchallenged or smooth. The BJP’s victory in the national elections was more of a victory of electoral math than of majority support in the country. Though the BJP achieved single-party majority with 282 seats in the Lok Sabha – the first time this has been accomplished in two decades – it did this with just 33% of the votes. In essence, the splintering of the non-BJP vote allowed the BJP to win because of India’s first-past-the-post electoral system. On the other hand, the BJP’s 33% vote was the largest share it had ever cornered: much above the 24% it received when it formed a coalition government in 1999 and the 22% and 19% in the national elections in 2004 and 2009 respectively.
Still, the BJP’s support base is largely in the Hindi-belt in north and central India. Even with the Modi magic, the BJP made only minor advances in the South and the Northeast of the country, and drew a blank in some states. The challenge for the BJP comes not just from the fact that it could easily be defeated if the opposition coalesces but also from the possibility that it might potentially have to compete for the same electoral space if it seeks to widen its base to the growing middle class across the country. The BJP has been trying to pursue the same voters that the AAP is also now addressing: the disaffected urban middle class that feels ignored by both the INC and the regional or caste-based parties.
The challenge that the AAP presents the INC is both greater and lesser than that for the BJP. On the one hand, the INC’s decline is near terminal. It fell from 206 seats with 29% of the vote share in 2009 to 44 seats with just 19% of the vote share in 2014 and was blanked out of Delhi in both the general election last year and the state election two weeks back. On the positive side – if it can be called that – many of the INC’s problems are self-inflicted, especially the incompetence of the party leadership, suggesting that sorting out the leadership question could prevent the party from going into oblivion. Additionally, the party has experience with climbing out of such holes, having recovered after a similar drubbing in 1979 and recovering from a similar slide in the 1990s. Leadership was key in both instances, and the ingredient missing today.
But if the AAP presents a challenge to both national parties, it also faces challenges of its own. It has so far been somewhat juvenile in its approach to politics, the best indicator of this being its decision to resign from the government last February and its ill-advised attempt to expand beyond Delhi in the last general elections. Even if they manage to administer Delhi with a modicum of success and efficiency, their growth outside of Delhi is likely to be a hard slog. Building a national political presence is not easy in India because of the country’s size and diversity, as parties as disparate as the BJP, the communist parties and regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have discovered.
The other challenge that AAP faces is in deciding its ideological base. The AAP grew out of a middle-class based protest movement that targeted crime and the endemic corruption in India, but it has shifted to the decidedly un-middle class left of the political spectrum. Indeed, a number of AAP supporters from the business sector have left the AAP because of its increasingly leftist orientation. So the AAP faces a choice: it can become the voice of the urban middle class but it would have to backtrack along the ideological spectrum to a more centrist position on a variety of issues, which seems unlikely given the orientation of its leadership. If it does move this way, the AAP could significantly cut into the BJP’s middle-class base which supports the BJP’s pragmatic economic agenda but is wary of its religious overtones. If the AAP continues with its left-of-centre orientation, the middle class will continue to remain without a political voice, either splitting its vote or becoming a persistent anti-incumbency bloc until some other political formation rises that speaks to its concerns.
Alternatively, the AAP can move to take over the space on the Left that the INC has vacated and become the main centre-left party against the centre-right BJP. Recent moves by the AAP suggest this, particularly its opposition to the reforms in the new Land bill that makes it easier to acquire land for infrastructure and industry as well as its general suspicion of the private sector and industry. This could possibly spell trouble for the INC, considering that it occupies the same ideological space.
In short, the churning in Indian electoral politics will continue for a while. Though there are other factors besides the rising urban middle class that influence Indian politics, the AAP rode to success mainly on this, just as the BJP did last year. The question now is which, if either, will become the voice of this rising political force.