The latest opinion polls indicate that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will end up with at least 21% of the votes and its national convenor Arvind Kejriwal has already bested BJP’s Vijay Goel in the popularity charts. Whether AAP fares better or worse on December 4th remains to be seen but the fact remains that even seasoned political pundits didn’t expect them to do this well.
If you’re wondering as to how no weather doctor saw the storm coming…well, that’s because they used conventional wisdom to judge a movement that breaks all conventions.
Normally the lazy mind searches for lazy switches that could trigger a power surge. The BSP’s switch was deliverance for Dalits. Shiv Sena’s switch was Marathi pride. Trinamool’s switch was the fearlessness of Mamata. Samajwadi Party’s switch was the trust it commanded among Muslims and Yadavs. And NaMo’s is a curious mix of Hindu machismo and decent governance.
AAP didn’t seem to have the luxury of any of these switches. No caste card to play. No religious issue to stoke. No linguistic wounds to soothe. No incendiary demands for a state. No dynast with a distinguished pedigree. Not even a magnetic leader to pull in the crowds.
All it had was a rag tag coalition of rookie politicians with zero national standing, negligible money power and a forgotten piece of legislation that failed to see the light of the day. In short, a recipe for disaster, right?
Wrong. Where AAP surprised its detractors was in turning its weakness into its strength. Money bags and vote banks are needed only when you play the game by the rules. What if you rewrote the political lexicon and shook things up. Wouldn’t that change the result? Here’s what they did to set themselves apart:
Innovation # 1: Making honesty their USP. Getting national attention after being pilloried by your own mentor for straying into politics can be a tough nut to crack. But Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan & Co licked the problem with their series of ‘shoot and scoot’ exposés. One by one they took on the high and the mighty on prime time national television. If it was Salman Khurshid and his NGO scam on one evening, it was Nitin Gadkari and his farmland scam on another day. Even holy cows like Vadra and Ambani weren’t spared. Result: The entire political establishment was up in arms against them and AAP was summarily blacked out from all channels. Despite this loss of valuable TV coverage, Team Kejriwal scored one significant victory. The young and the restless admired their temerity in challenging the status quo and not surprisingly, started viewing them as the only honest men in the dustbowl of politics.
Innovation # 2: The best ideology is not to have one. Political parties make a hash of things by boxing themselves into archaic ideologies. BJP wasted almost a decade by debating endlessly between Gandhian Socialism, Integral Humanism and home grown Hindutva. The Communists didn’t know whether to sneeze if it rained in Russia or China. The Congress, for long, struggled to find the right ‘ism’ to describe their philosophy of ‘liberalisation fuelled nanny state’. AAP flummoxed everyone by refusing to appropriate a dogma. Their ‘whatever is good for the aam aadmi works for us’ stance took the wind out of their critics’ sails and positioned themselves as a pragmatic organisation open to ideas from the left, right and center.
Innovation # 3: Targeting the bottom of the pyramid. One of the biggest criticisms of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement was that it was an uprising backed by the educated urban middle class. Famously known for not queuing up to vote, the urban middle class has never been credited with the creation of a political party. Given this history, the AAP, expertly steered by Yogendra Yadav, consciously took a call to walk, talk and think like the common man. Ergo everything from the choice of the ‘Gandhi topi’, the name ‘Aam Aadmi Party’ to the election symbol (broom) signalled the new thinking. The goal was to emerge as the voice of the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, and the utterly disgusted. BSP and Congress had traditionally been the go-to parties for these groups. AAP decided, the time was ripe to offer them a more compelling option.
Innovation # 4: Putting all eggs in the Delhi basket. Perhaps the sanest decision of AAP was to avoid the oft-repeated mistake of ‘spreading the resources too thin’. So instead of fighting elections in 5 states, AAP stuck its neck out only in Delhi. Many criticised them for turning a national movement into a ‘municipal circus’. Kejriwal was castigated for focusing on electricity meters in Delhi rather than larger issues plaguing India. But the gamble appears to have worked as AAP has used the time and money on their hands to systematically raise an organisation in a record time of less than four months. Even cynical Delhiwalahs have been zapped out of their wits to suddenly see a party that can match the Congress and the BJP, man to man, in booth after booth, in mohalla after mohalla. Maybe that’s why AAP is being taken seriously and not seen as one more island of excellence like ‘Lok Satta’.
Innovation # 5: Actually practicing democracy in a democracy. The Achilles heel of most of our parties is inner party democracy. A self-appointed high command makes all the policy decisions whether it’s DMK, Shiv Sena, NCP, Trinamool Congress, INC, BJP or CPM. In stark contrast, it is indeed quite smart of the AAP to have made a virtue out of participative democracy. The first step towards it was the crowdsourcing of the name. The next step was to make it easy for anyone to become a party member by using the internet. The third and most significant move was to inject total transparency into funding of the party. A fourth initiative that needs special mention is the creation of a robust candidate selection process, accessible to all citizens. And the final kicker is the decision to draft separate manifestoes for every constituency in Delhi. No mainstream party has ever bothered to take such initiatives. Which is probably why, the AAP is liked most by the first time voter.
Innovation # 6: Thinking beyond trolling and tweeting. While BJP and Congress employ hordes of people online to tweet and troll on issues dear to them, the volunteers at AAP have sewn together an entire organisation using online technologies. India Against Corruption (technically Anna Hazare’s but the organisation shares the same thoughts as AAP) has 1.2 million likes on its FB page. Final War Against Corruption and Aam Aadmi Party collectively have another 0.5 million likes. Which means close to 1.7 million individuals receive regular news feeds on AAP. One more noteworthy usage of the social media is in fund raising. Nearly 47,000 donors have raised 12 crores of rupees in a matter of a few months using AAP’s payment gateway. AAP sends e-mailers explaining the stand of the party to every donor on a daily basis. Twitter is used intelligently to recruit volunteers, publicise campaigns and to direct them to different programs of the party. Webcasting is deployed for press conferences. And Youtube is leveraged for populating the web with Kejriwal speeches. One can’t think of any other Indian organisation using these many tricks in the book.
AAP’s relentless attempts to innovate has brought it this far. In the next two months, we’ll know if their initiatives to out-think and out-smart the BJP and the Congress will actually pay off. If the broom does a clean sweep, expect more innovations. And more interesting times.