The case of Aam Aadmi Party is a little different. Despite edging out seasoned pros like DMK, Shiv Sena, Biju Janata Dal, NCP, RJD, JDU, CPI, JD(S), Shiromani Akali Dal, DMDK, PMK, MDMK, JMM, and Forward Bloc, in the vote derby, the 18-month-old AAP is being subjected to brickbats, ridicule, derision, and truckloads of scorn.
Perhaps the rookie deserves better. Because polling 1.13 crore votes is never too easy in a debut performance. That too in a wave election where the mass media played the role of pall bearers for the front runner.
The interesting question to ask is: how did the underdog end up facing all the flak when conventional wisdom predicates otherwise? The answer lies in the strategic blunder made by Arvind Kejriwal in hyping up the political underdog as a potential top dog.
No one would have crucified AAP had it contested just 50 seats in 5 states. No one would have mocked at the party had they not projected themselves as a serious claimant for the throne - 49 days of debatable governance when pitted against 4906 days of proven track record does look underwhelming in any universe!
So why were Kejriwal & Co in a tearing hurry to spread nationally when they were fully aware of the pitfalls of their call? Did they misjudge the mood of India? Did they misinterpret the silence of the silent majority? Did they mistake volunteer enthusiasm for voter endorsement? One can find many excuses with the benefit of hindsight. But given the meagre organisational resources before him why did the politically savvy Kejriwal commit a wilful boo-boo? That’s the poser to pose.
I would attribute it a series of miscalculations. When Kejriwal abdicated his responsibilities as the Delhi CM, he had assumed that the UPA government would nudge the Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung to hold the Delhi Assembly Polls along with the Lok Sabha elections. Simultaneous polls would have given a sliver of an advantage to AAP as national issues would have got drowned out by local issues. The gamble obviously didn’t work as the Congress party refused to play ball. The result: a 7-0 wipe out in Delhi.
Foreseeing an impending whitewash, Kejriwal tried to shift the goal posts by entering the national arena. The only trouble was Narendra Modi and the BJP had already squatted on the anti-Congress space across the country. Plus they had a 34-year head start. There was just no elbow room left.
The territory that remained vacant was the absence of any credible opposition to the NaMo juggernaut. Hence the sudden change in focus to ‘stopping Narendra Modi at all costs’. It was a difficult pill to swallow for many AAP supporters who had seen the dynasty as the fount of corruption. The abrupt discovery of a new Ravana didn’t go down too well with their middle class base.
Kejriwal could sense the undercurrent. Which is why he consciously restrained himself from attacking the BJP on communalism and Modi on Godhra. Instead he took it upon himself to challenge the Gujarat Model of Governance. Ergo, the much publicised study tour to Gandhinagar. As later events would bear out, the eleventh hour attempts to pick holes on the development narrative came a cropper.
Another huge worry for the AAP leadership was the possible irrelevance of everything that they fought for, if the Congress were voted out. 2G, Coalgate, CWG, Adarsh, Tatra and even Jan Lok Pal would all be forgotten the moment the electorate punishes the UPA. All the momentum built up to combat corruption would vaporise in one stroke, the moment a new government is sworn in. To be honest, it was a blind-alley kind of a situation. The AAP had reached a dead-end. It had to find a quick escape route to encash its hard earned equity. Making a U-turn and going national seemed the honourable way out.
But how to create a perception of being a serious alternative to BJP and Congress without the manpower, money power or muscle power of these organisations? Team Kejriwal somehow naively wagered that they could appropriate the aura of ‘the third alternative’ by contesting 434 seats! Social activist databases were hurriedly scanned in search of good candidates. The lack of electoral experience was glossed over. The plan was to contest on the strength of clean résumés. Hope, prayer, optimism and idealism were to be the key driving forces of the election. What was forgotten was the need for a compelling case to vote AAP to power. Naturally, candidate after candidate faced the same vexing question: How can we trust you with power when your own Chief Minister chose to squander it in 49 days?
As a result, Kejriwal spent a good amount of precious campaign time on defending his decision to ‘sacrifice the throne’. Understandably, the morality nuances of his argument were lost on a restless audience in search of black and white answers.
Kejriwal’s obsession with Ambani-Adani met a similar fate. The Congress-BJP-Bhai-Bhai tirade also didn’t cut much ice with the masses as they couldn’t relate to it. To sum up, the crony capitalism issue was as remote as Cherrapunji to the aam aadmi on every chowk.
The inability of the twin campaign themes of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘crony capitalism’ to set the Ganges and Yamuna on fire, was possible why the AAP roadshows evoked a lukewarm response in most states.
In Punjab, however, the pent up anger against the establishment powered the AAP chariot. The announcement of the probe against the 1984 riots and the clear anti-drug stance of its local leaders gave the AAP something tangible to talk about.
In every other state, the AAP had nothing new to offer. The voter was not willing to waste his vote on the nebulous charms of idealism. Half way during the campaign, this realisation dawned on the leadership.
To revive the flagging spirits, Arvind Kejriwal audaciously decided to take on Narendra Modi in Varanasi. The move had its fair share of critics. ‘Why wage a losing battle when he could campaign for others?’ was the criticism. I personally think, he didn’t have too much of a choice. He had to do something to excite the voter especially when the corporate media had turned totally against him. Challenging NaMo was his trademark way of drawing attention to his party. For all his flaws, the Varanasi campaign brought out the best in him. When opinion polls were assigning him a poor third place, he soldiered valiantly to make it a 2-horse race.
The huge defeats faced by Yogendra Yadav, Shazia Ilmi, Medha Patkar, Mayank Gandhi and Kumar Vishwas only underline their inability to offer a viable alternative to the Kerjiwal School of Guerrilla Politics.
In the final analysis, what is really striking is how AAP didn’t have a blue print to act as a guide during the polls. Everything that the Aam Aadmi Party did during LS2014 looked kneejerk. What started out as a 7-seat Delhi battle became a 434-seat all-out war midway and ended up as a 2-seat symbolic fight in Amethi and Varanasi!
Kejriwal and his team have to reflect on how badly they let down a budding movement. The absence of an overarching plan to steer the party during elections really hurt the cause.
It’s not too late even now. Forget the internal turmoil and the resignations. Give up the theatrics on bail and jail. Just go back to the beauty of the original proposition that kindled the hopes of the nation: Can we set India free from the clutches of the creaky old system by infusing new ideas?