Launched by anti-corruption crusaders last year, the Aam Aadmi Party (the Common Man Party, or AAP) defied expectations in the recent Delhi state assembly elections and came very close to winning half the seats — in a state so far dominated by the two national parties. Can the AAP replicate its success elsewhere in India and upset the major parties?
The AAP was fortunate that Anna Hazare campaigned for anti-corruption legislation in Delhi. Its leaders were at the forefront of that campaign. Had Anna fasted in Mumbai or Kolkata and the AAP launched there, it would not have appealed to the popular imagination in equal measure, which in turn would have affected its ability to attract donations and volunteers: the party’s fight for the city of Delhi was simultaneously a fight for control over a state, as well as the national capital. Delhi also provided the party with other advantages that allowed it to avoid suspect money and launch an intense door-to-door campaign at a low cost.
The AAP campaign could access extended coverage from a Delhi-centric national media, while Delhi also has one of the highest concentrations of university students and non-governmental organisations, which provided the party with a large pool of volunteers. Delhi is very well connected by public transport and telecommunication networks so that the AAP leaders and volunteers could attend a number of meetings in different constituencies on the same day, while remaining connected with social media. Moreover, Delhi’s constituencies are small in size compared with other constituencies in the country, which facilitated direct campaigning, and Delhi’s otherwise diverse population is Hinglish-speaking, which allowed the party to enlist volunteers from across the country — and even overseas — to boost the local cadre.
Access to media also allowed the AAP to safely challenge the established order. This would have been riskier in other parts of India, where entrenched powers can use violence against new-comers. Moreover, the AAP would have stumbled in a city deeply divided along community lines. Fortunately, Delhi has been free of large-scale communal violence in the recent past and, unlike many other cities, Delhi does not have an entrenched sons-of-the-soil movement.
In contrast, large parts of rural and semi-urban India are poorly serviced by public transport, not easily navigable by urban/overseas campaigners, and not covered by the mainstream media. Community ties are also much stronger here than in the cities. High costs of transportation and communication, coupled with the exodus of educated youth to the cities necessitate a greater reliance on traditional community leadership, which in turn limits a party’s capacity to disseminate any new ideology.
Two additional factors helped the AAP. Anger against the insensitive handling of the Delhi rape case also rekindled a similar spirit of protest to the one Anna Hazare managed to evoke. This helped the AAP, which at the time was only a few weeks old, take centre stage. Also, the AAP was fortunate to take on a chief minister who was seeking office for the fourth consecutive time amid unprecedented criticism of her party’s governments at both the state and national level.
This combination of factors, which supported the AAP’s success in Delhi, is not available in other parts of the country. It can be argued that success in Delhi has given greater visibility to the party, which could facilitate its entry into other states. But its spectacular success has also alerted other parties. In any case, the AAP’s success in Delhi is likely to inspire the entry of new parties into the election arena as well as revive the spirits of existing small parties, which will try to adapt the AAP model to their local conditions, for three main reasons.
First, the AAP’s success has shown that the perceived financial barriers to contesting elections might be exaggerated. The perception of politics as a hugely expensive affair, which the national parties had successfully cultivated over the decades, is now weakened. Second, while the AAP might not succeed at the same rate elsewhere, it seems to have shown that a dedicated party could deliver quick electoral results for its supporters. Until now the national parties took great comfort in the fact that new parties generally take a long time to register their presence. Third, irrespective of the feasibility of its populist promises, the AAP seems to have shown that at least in the short run a party can mobilize support around the everyday concerns of (urban) people without being trapped in the familiar debates on religion, caste and class. The national parties had seemed invincible because it was believed that the high entry barriers could be circumvented only by parties with an ethnic appeal restricted to a community or region.
So, while the AAP might not find it easy to expand outside Delhi and emerge as a national alternative, outfits in other states will nevertheless be encouraged to replicate its strategies. It will be interesting to see if the AAP and its regional avatars can together present a challenge to the national parties in the foreseeable future.