By Professor Tridivesh Singh Maini
In the aftermath of its clean sweep in Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is being projected as a national alternative to the BJP by not just party members and its supporters, but also commentators. AAP secured 92 seats in a house of 117, Congress, which had received a near 2/3rd majority in the 2017 Assembly election, was reduced to 18 seats, while the 101 year old Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the only regional party of Punjab, suffered severe humiliation being able to secure only 3 seats (even in the previous election of 2017, SAD had been able to secure only 15 seats and was not even the primary opposition party).
AAP’s co-incharge for Punjab, Raghav Chadha, while commenting on the future prospects of his party — before the results had come out — dubbed AAP as a ‘natural and national’ replacement for the Congress, adding :
‘Punjab polls show that AAP has emerged as a national political force. It took BJP ten years to form its first government in a state. It is not even ten years since AAP’s inception and we are forming government in two states. AAP will be Congress’ national and natural replacement’
AAP is the only regional party to now have governments in two states (though Delhi is not a full fledged state). While it is true that AAP has been able to find some traction by successfully promoting its performance in the areas of health care and education, and what it dubs as its ‘Delhi’ model, a few facts need to be borne in mind.
First, the Indian National Congress (INC), in spite of its successive debacles, has a vote share of around 20% nationally (in the parliamentary elections of 2019, the vote share of the INC was 19.5%). Even in the recent assembly elections if one were to look at the instances of Uttaranchal and Goa, INC’s performance in terms of vote share has been reasonable, 37.91% and 23.46%, though it has lost in both states. The BJP has secured 44.33% and 33.31% respectively in these states. AAP also contested in Goa, Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh. While the party managed to win 2 seats in a house of 40 in Goa, it could secure only 6.77% of the vote. Additionally, it’s performance in Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh was rather disappointing.
Second, while AAP may be finding some space in states where Congress is losing ground, it is unable to make any headway into the Hindi heartland or in states, other than Delhi, where the direct fight is against BJP (the next state which AAP is targeting is Gujarat where it seeks to dislodge Congress as the main opposition party). For it to have national presence in the next few years, significant presence in Hindi speaking states as well as Western India is essential, this is not impossible but will be an uphill task in the current political landscape.
Third, unlike regional parties and of late even the INC, AAP so far has not shown any commitment as such towards genuine federalism. On the abrogation of Article 370 (which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir) for instance, AAP extended support to the BJP. On matters pertaining to centre-state relations, especially economic matters, Chief Ministers like Mamata Banerjee, MK Stalin (Tamil Nadu) and K Chandrashekhar Rao KCR (Telangana) have taken a firm stance while AAP has not clearly asserted its position. Senior Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, in a speech in Parliament, in February 2022, also spoke out against increasing centralisation, pointing to the fact that India is a union of states.
Fourth, while other potential alternatives to the BJP, especially parties like the TMC, have taken a firm stance with regard to minority issues, AAP’s record has been rather dismal (the accusation of resorting to Soft Hindutva, with an eye on Urban votes has weight). A perfect example being its inaction during the Delhi riots in 2020. Kejriwal’s government has also not shown any real urgency or commitment towards providing justice to the victims of the riots. During the Punjab election campaign, while AAP and its supporters claim that they have fought on the plank of development, AAP made attempts to polarize the electorate. Kejriwal referred to the insecurities of Hindu traders and businessmen in Punjab with an eye on the Urban vote. AAP has also played cynical politics on the release of Sikh prisoner Davinderpal Singh Bhullar, a death convict in the 1993 Delhi blasts. Bhullar’s death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment in 2014 by the Supreme Court, owing to his ill health and inordinate delays in deciding on his mercy petitions, while in 2019, the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev ji, the Central government had announced the remission of 8 Sikh prisoners including Bhullar (under Article 161 of the Constitution). The demand for his release has been pending with the Delhi government.
Fifth, unlike other regional leaders with national aspirations, Kejriwal has never provided serious views on issues pertaining to foreign policy and ties with other countries, apart from the invocation of nationalism during election campaigns. For a party to emerge as a national alternative, clear views on important issues are essential.
Finally, if one were to add up the number of Members of Parliament from Delhi and Punjab, it totals at 20, while West Bengal, currently governed by Mamata Banerjee, sends 41 members to Parliament, so AAP either needs to spread its area of influence or ally with other parties.
As of now, AAP would be well advised to focus on the state of Punjab, which faces numerous challenges – especially in the economic sphere. The victory is also an opportunity for the party to dispel notions that it is not genuinely committed to Federalism. AAP’s first test would be whether it allows the local leadership of Punjab to function without undue interference from Delhi.
In conclusion, while AAP may capture some of the opposition space and emerge as a spoiler by specifically denting the Congress in certain states, unless it has a clear stance on critical issues, it’s Pan India expansion is likely to be wishful thinking on the part of its supporters and nothing else.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.
Image credits – BBC