If AAP Hits a Fork In The Road
Will equidistance work?
As India’s 2019 parliamentary elections near and a fractured verdict looks a distinct possibility, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, the country’s two largest parties, both hopeful of nucleating viable coalitions, have begun wooing potential partners.
However, there is enough uncertainty in the environment for other parties to contemplate their own paths and not just restrict themselves to rallying behind the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Mamata Banerjee has sensed space for - and is pursuing - a federal front, perhaps with lesser traction so far than she would have liked. Sharad Pawar and Mayawati, both keeping their distance from the NDA at the moment, are working towards mini-coalitions that could afford added bargaining power in both pre- and post-poll scenarios.
And others like the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) are either feeling secure enough to await coalition terms or are inclined to go to polls alone and make their choices after the verdict is in. Naveen Patnaik may even be expecting his non-aligned status to help his case as a consensus prime minister.
In this season of friend-making and post-poll scenario-building, one man who is not being courted or even being kept on the radar for the future by the two largest national parties – and, on his part, not engaging them either - is Arvind Kejriwal. And exploring the ‘why’ of this offers insights into how the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has evolved and where it stands.
At one level, any understanding with the AAP makes little sense for either the BJP or the Congress. The AAP will not bring much to the table – with its Haryana and Punjab units in churn, a few seats in Delhi at best - and joining hands with it would only undermine their credibility as Delhi’s principal opposition parties, a damaging thing to happen as neither the BJP nor the Congress have given up hope of wresting the national capital back in the next assembly election.
Importantly, an overture towards the AAP would mark a deference of sorts to Kejriwal, a man who has been consistent and unsparing in his criticism of the two principal parties and their top brass and has been dubbed an anarchist and worse in response.
Prime facie, there is no compelling reason for the AAP to work with the BJP or the Congress either. Its entire promise is predicated on ushering a new kind of politics, one that is markedly different from the kind the two established parties have come to be associated with. This is the promise that fuels AAP cadres, the women and men who have kept the party’s spirits afloat despite the palpable lack of finances and muscle power and a string of high-profile exits, and any truck with conventional power players risks cadre disappointment and a slide into irrelevance.
Kejriwal then would be happiest in a situation where he is not required to choose between the NDA and UPA. But politics is unpredictable and he will find himself tested should a post-poll scenario requiring him to make a choice emerge.
The choice will test Kejriwal more than any other politician because of the absolutism and lack of nuance that has come to characterize the AAP. Since its inception, the AAP has occupied a high, blinkered horse and blindly charged at the established order. This has undoubtedly had an energizing effect on the troops, but it also means the party is tactically and emotionally unprepared for a situation when the ‘enemy’ arrays itself in two separate flanks and a strategic call has to be taken on which flank to focus.
Others sitting on planks of regional pride or identity politics can make and conveniently rationalize their choices with special financial packages and bland homilies about national unity, stability, social justice, and law and order, but a Kejriwal whose career is built on contempt for give-and-take politics risks losing his USP the moment he leans one way or the other.
Further, others have positions of power to dole out and underhand ways of managing internal dissonance. Kejriwal does not, at least not in the same measure, and therefore risks disappointing sizeable sections of the party whichever way he leans and will end up earning pro-this or anti-that labels difficult to wash away.
This is not a case for AAP emulating alliance hoppers like Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar or opportunistically moderating its positions vis-à-vis corruption, communalism, and authoritarianism but recognizing that its energies are better harnessed by focusing on imminent and serious threats to democracy, polity, and society, even while making its legitimate displeasures on other issues known.
The Left did a commendable job of this during UPA-I (2004-09) when it managed to keep the BJP out of power, the Congress on leash, and its own independence uncompromised and identity undiluted.
For the APP to fulfill a similar role, it is important for it to take a considered view of the present socio-political situation, identify where it stands vis-à-vis the burning issues of the day, prepare its cadres for hard choices, and take a position consistent with these when it comes to a crunch.
All this may have added relevance at a time when the alliances are being configured and reconfigured but is fundamentally important for another reason: any political party needs to locate its politics in a given set of circumstances over which it may not have entire control and recognize that change may begin with thunderous sermons delivered from pulpits but ultimately needs to be seeded and nurtured on the most fertile piece of territory available. In present circumstances, equidistance will only abet a toxicity from which no growth would be possible.