Counter-factual history — the perennial what-if question — holds out a strong attraction to many people, especially those who are disappointed at how events actually unfold. The post-mortem of an election, especially by parties and individuals who fail to make the grade, invariably results in an overdose of the counter-factual narrative.
Curiously, the temptation to lament missed opportunities has been the most pronounced in the Bharatiya Janata Party, which scored three famous assembly election victories on December 8 last year. Many of its activists believe that the BJP missed out on government formation owing to its failure to garner an additional 6,500 votes spread across four constituencies where it lost narrowly to the Aam Aadmi Party.
The lamentation in the BJP is understandable. Under ordinary circumstances, the narrow miss in Delhi would have been the least of the party’s problems. However, it is not what emerged from the electronic voting machines last month that is the source of concern but what transpired subsequently.
It is no exaggeration to say that the ability of Arvind Kejriwal to form a government with the unlikely support of the demoralized Congress altered ground realities. The exuberance of AAP supporters and its breathless media coverage have resulted in an AAP epidemic all over India, but particularly in urban and semi-urban parts of northern and western India. Egged on by a media that cheered the entry of every notable with a glamour quotient, the AAP undertook a national recruitment drive using innovative methods such as text messages, online endorsements and missed calls. Media reports suggest that the AAP has recruited some four lakh new members. In the social media, energetic AAP supporters have now begun occupying a patch that had become the near-monopoly of the NaMo brigade.
Encouraged by this staggering response, the AAP leadership has started aiming high. It has targeted Haryana, a state where the ripples from Delhi are easily felt, as its next big catch; and it has announced that it may field candidates in as many as 400 Lok Sabha constituencies. Earlier, Yogendra Yadav, one of its principal ideologues, used to quote Kanshi Ram as saying that the first election was for losing, the second one for making others lose and the third one for winning. Now, it has collapsed all three stages into an audacious bid to be the most spectacular game-changer in post-Independence history.
The AAP euphoria has even led to otherwise staid academics viewing it with great seriousness. At a seminar in the Observer Research Foundation, one of the more prominent think-tanks in Delhi, Professor Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University felt that the AAP had definitely stopped Narendra Modi’s march on Delhi. According to him, what was being witnessed was an “AAP wave” across India which had the potential to make all existing electoral calculations irrelevant. To be fair, he also added that the wave by its very definition could also prove woefully short-lived.
That the AAP phenomenon has to be taken seriously is undeniable. In the only credible opinion poll conducted by ABP News-Nielsen in the National Capital Region and in Greater Mumbai, it would seem that the AAP has certainly made a grand entry into politics. According to the poll, the popular support for the AAP in Mumbai and Thane stands at 17 per cent, a staggering 57 per cent in Delhi, an impressive 21 per cent in Haryana’s Gurgaon and Faridabad and a high 33 per cent in Ghaziabad and Gautam Budh Nagar in Uttar Pradesh. Translated into seats, this support would imply AAP victories in eight of the 21 seats polled, six of these being from Delhi.
Two further conclusions from this poll are in order. First, the inability of the AAP to translate its popular vote into seats, except in Delhi, is primarily the consequence of the fact that in both Greater Mumbai and the non-Delhi parts of NCR the BJP (and in Mumbai the Shiv Sena) vote seems to be holding. This is almost entirely a result of the enormous popularity of Modi, even in Delhi. Modi is the preferred choice as prime minister of 51 per cent in Greater Mumbai and 45 per cent in Delhi-NCR; Kejriwal follows with 18 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively; Rahul Gandhi lags behind with 22 per cent and 11 per cent endorsements.
Indeed, it would seem that only Modi stands between the AAP making a grand sweep of India’s two foremost metros.
Secondly, contrary to the media narrative that suggests that the AAP has stolen the thunder from the BJP’s middle-class support base, the poll suggests that the Congress is the foremost casualty of the AAP surge. In Mumbai and Thane, for example, the Congress, which won eight of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, could see its popular vote dwindle to 21 per cent, a fall of 16 per cent. In Delhi, where the party won all the seven seats in 2009, the Congress vote could fall from 57 per cent to a paltry 15 per cent. Likewise in Gurgaon and Faridabad, both won by the Congress in 2009, its vote could fall by 26 per cent to a mere 12 per cent; and in the NCR seats of Uttar Pradesh, the Congress would decline from 24 per cent to just eight per cent.
What is equally significant is the poll finding that much of the AAP support is also derived from erstwhile Bahujan Samaj Party supporters. In the Haryana-NCR, BSP support is calculated to fall from 17 per cent to 11 per cent; and in the two NCR seats of Uttar Pradesh from 27 per cent to 14 per cent.
For the moment, the AAP is an uneasy coalition between the visible, vocal middle class and the plebeian. There is a mismatch between its leadership drawn from people who are either professional agitators or members of the middle class newly drawn into politics. This is an uneasy and unlikely social coalition which has come into being on the strength of a shared resentment of corruption. The middle class has reacted to mega-corruption in high places and the plebeian antipathy is to petty corruption, particularly in government-related services. Ideally, the middle class seeks to fight corruption with less government, and the plebeians with efficient delivery of welfare schemes. The two objectives are contradictory and irreconcilable.
The AAP derives its greatest strength from its culture of protest. Its biggest threat lies in having to spell out an agenda of governance. It is hoping to circumvent the difficulties by focussing on short-term symbolism in the hope that its government won’t last till the general elections. This is reminiscent of the first United Front government in West Bengal which lasted less than a year in 1967 but unleashed a social upheaval that was to engulf the state for many decades subsequently.
This T-20 approach to politics will undoubtedly pay some dividends. But in a general election, the AAP will be subjected to the same measure of critical scrutiny as the media adulation it is presently basking in. There is very little hope that it will be able to conceal the ultra-radicalism of the rag-tag body of activists who perceive it as a vehicle for a quasi-revolution in India. It is more than likely that the AAP intervention in national politics and the prospect of it contributing to the formation of a mandate-less government at the Centre will introduce a new element into the political discourse: the quest for stability.
The AAP is an idea that combines protest with recklessness. It can only be countered by even bigger ideas of hope for the future.
The Telegraph, January 18, 2014