Watching Arvind Kejriwal’s speech at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan shortly after he was sworn in as chief minister, I was glad he tempered the overenthusiasm and too-keen ambition of some of his Aam Aadmi Party colleagues. Running a government in Delhi was his priority, he said. He cautioned against any “arrogant” attempt to expand the party’s footprint and contest elections in several other states.
The following weeks have seen the debate and discussion in the party go in quite unexpected directions. Kejriwal and his rivals in the AAP have fought a very public battle. While this is entirely their business and I have no desire to intervene, in many ways it has reflected the evolution and the waking up of a clubby social movement into the hard reality of politics and managing public expectations.
Winning an election is an exhilarating moment. It can also be very scary. The weight of the mandate can make the winner apprehensive. After winning 67 seats in a 70-member assembly, Kejriwal realised the time for loud thinking and television debates was over. The voter had given him a huge mandate, but expected results. The voter wanted him to govern Delhi, and govern it well. That was the first and last message of that mandate. I think Kejriwal realised this before some others in his party did, and some of the problems flow from there.
If one considers the long-term trends in Indian politics, May 2014 was an aberration caused by the Modi team’s ultra-expensive, ultra-macho publicity campaign and by public anger with the UPA government. The Delhi victory by the AAP has brought back focus on regional parties. The AAP is a strong regional party in Delhi. Regional forces that are hostile to the Congress and the BJP are beginning to regroup in Bihar as well. Elections are due there in a few months.
Taking a regional party national and building an all-India constituency is not just difficult, but near impossible. Modi’s achievement in May 2014 was a freak, and normality is being restored. The AAP is not going to find it easy to expand its base. Politics in different states and regions varies. Political and social conditions, language and culture and modes of mobilisation, all vary. When the AAP contested four Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal in 2014, it won a grand total of 12,000 votes.
It is the same with other parties. Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad are powerful in Bihar but have failed to make an impact in other states, from Bengal to Delhi and Uttar Pradesh to Gujarat. The Trinamool Congress has been in existence since 1998. Despite attempting to tap into the Bengali-speaking population in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and other neighbouring states, we have not succeeded. We had an MLA in Arunachal Pradesh but he joined us from another party. It was only in Manipur that we managed to grow organically and are today the leading opposition party in the state assembly.
Having thrown in those caveats, I hope the AAP succeeds in government. I so want it to. This will give the people of Delhi a chance to compare the BJP’s empty promises with the delivery of a grassroots party, embedded in the gullies and mohallas of the city.
In time, regional parties―representing the aspirations, interests and genuine popular sentiment of their states, free of the arrogance of the Congress and the BJP and the smugness of the drawing-room ideologues of the Communists― will need to band together and give India a genuine alternative to the current ruling order. That coalition, so representative of the coalition nature of Indian society itself, will truly be what India needs.