The ‘middle class’ is a fair-weather friend: lessons from AAP’s journey

Arvind Kejriwal’s is a remarkable story. When the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won the Delhi assembly elections in 2015, expectations were sky-high. The thumping majority was unprecedented. Kejriwal, with his promise of change, and of taking on any rival, no matter how big, was, and continues to be both an exciting and exasperating politician to follow. The journey that AAP has charted since its genesis is also a reflection on the middle class’ attitude towards politics.

On 2nd October 2012, Arvind Kejriwal announced his decision to launch a political party. It was a controversial decision, but it enabled him to get away from the grandstanding of Anna Hazare. Arvind Kejriwal, the politician, conveyed idealism and change. He laid out an agenda in favour of poor urban neighbourhoods. His brand of politics was also one that idealistic members of the middle-class could get behind. On issues such as corruption and conflict of interest in public life, delivery of basic public services, and developing a participatory policymaking process, Kejriwal made the right noises.

A strong performance in the Delhi assembly elections of December 2013 showed that a coalition that cut across socio-economic classes, not based on an attempt to consolidate any kind of religious or caste identity, could be viable politics in India. As a new party, there were a few serious missteps. The midnight dharna at India Gate demanding powers over the Delhi Police come to mind, as does the unfortunate incident involving the mob harassment of Nigerian and Ugandan women in Malviya Nagar. These capped AAP’s 49 day-long first stint in power. The decision to seek a way out resulted in a severe backlash, but did not erode Kejriwal’s political cache.

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections were crucial in Kejriwal’s journey. The AAP government had stepped down from Delhi, and re-elections had not yet been announced. At this time, Kejriwal decided to contest the Lok Sabha elections, not just in Delhi, but beyond. AAP swung into battle-mode, trying to position themselves as challengers, nation-wide. Going head on against the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi was one matter; but trying to do so on over 400 Lok Sabha seats was simply too big an ask. As one would expect, this backfired. Several observers felt AAP would have been better off focusing on a handful of seats in and around Delhi, and saw this misadventure as evidence of Arvind Kejriwal’s insatiable ambition.

In what should have generated greater outrage at the sheer constitutional impropriety of it all, the then Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung pursued an agenda of disruption, aimed at thwarting every policy decision of the AAP government. National parties, who had all the while promised full statehood to Delhi, stood by and watched. Their satisfaction stemmed from the fact that Kejriwal and AAP were failing to fulfil their promises, and at least in public perception were being painted as agitators who were unwilling to work within the established framework of governance. Kejriwal too launched himself into several public confrontations with first the campaigner and then Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who chose to retaliate by crippling the Delhi government through every means possible. It was not a battle Kejriwal could win.

Having decimated all opposition in 2014 and in subsequent state assembly polls, Narendra Modi dominates the airwaves. The rest of the political spectrum is now labelled on the basis of their positions vis-à-vis Modi. As the Congress party was reduced to a historic low of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha and continued to grapple with its leadership crisis, the Opposition seemed to be in disarray. In this context, AAP’s political strategies have attracted criticism, much of it unfairly. It is not the AAP’s job to strengthen the hands of the Congress party. Also, Kejriwal stands for several things to several people, as a good politician should. He is a humble, but charismatic leader. He is also an insecure authoritarian political party chief. None of these are unusual traits in senior political figures in India.

Over the last year or so, AAP seems to have shunned its confrontational stances and focused on service delivery in Delhi. Innovative pilots in health and education have borne fruits. But has this influenced how the middle class perceives him? The middle class disenchantment with politicians is nothing new, but even by those standards, the swings in perception when it came to Arvind Kejriwal have been quite extraordinary. In many ways, these swings reflect our fickle attitudes towards the dirt and grime of serious politics. AAP have expelled stalwarts, and have seen some high profile defections – all part of the game. The middle class reactions to these events have at times reflected a mind-set easily influenced by propaganda and conspiracy theories. The recent outrage over the Delhi smog and pollution are a case in point – a government that is barely allowed to run a mohalla clinic is accused of failing to broker inter-state coordination to tackle problems.

As any political observer should have expected, Arvind Kejriwal has shed supporters along the way on its five year journey. The Aam Aadmi party today is neither a social movement; nor a moral compass for disenchanted voters. Settling into conventional politics has taken the sheen off Arvind Kejriwal. But can it be a viable political party for the future? In a country starved of political alternatives, I certainly hope the answer is a ‘yes’.

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This first appeared on DailyO

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