By Swapan Dasgupta
“Body language” is a term that is recklessly over-used by the media when it seeks to impose a conclusion without too much supporting evidence. At the risk of being guilty of the same offence, I would like to suggest that the “body language” of the Aam Aadmi Party leaders and supporters last Friday evening suggested a monumental sense of relief.
It is doubtful whether too many people will contest this assessment. Ever since he was sworn in at a state-funded political rally in the Ramlila Maidan some 48 or 49 days ago, Arvind Kejriwal has been looking for the most dramatic exit route—one that would yield him the maximum political advantage. Governance was never a priority for Kejriwal when he assumed the Chief Ministership, thanks to an injudicious Congress diktat from the bachelor boy. He merely wanted to milk a brief tenure for all its grandstanding potential and then move on to newer pastures.
Judged by the standards he set for himself, Kejriwal has been more successful than he initially calculated. First, he has managed to secure all-India recognition and even a measure of goodwill from the 48-day experiment thanks in no small measure to the oxygen of publicity provided by the media. In a country where popularising the election symbol is a hugely challenging project, the AAP has achieved in three months what others take years to manage. Today, AAP is a national reality, even if it takes longer for the brand recognition to translate into active electoral endorsement.
Equally, Kejriwal’s grandstanding was focussed. He carefully targeted the AAP’s supporters in the poorer sections of Delhi and provided them the hope that he was best suited to take on the “vested interests” and “money bags” which had captured the Congress and BJP. The FIR against Mukesh Ambani may not get too far but its intention was purely symbolic: to impress upon the disadvantaged that only AAP had the guts to take on the high and mighty.
True, this grandstanding and over-reliance on symbolism may have exasperated a section of the middle classes who were gullible enough to vote for a supposed vision of “alternative politics”. But Kejriwal appears to have calculated that it is more rewarding to lose the middle class vote and gain additional support of the poorer citizens. In crafting a vote bank of the urban poor in Delhi with seemingly radical politics, Kejriwal appears to have succeeded where the Communists failed for 60 years.
Last week, I spoke to a prominent CPI(M) leader and he frankly admitted that AAP has successfully decimated the party in its pockets of influence outside West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura and Tamil Nadu. The Comrades who had been struggling for long without making any breakthrough have, it would seem, deserted the red flag for the jharu because it promises more immediate returns. The same is the case with the BSP support in urban pockets of North India.
The greatest loser, however, is undoubtedly the Congress. All opinion polls suggest that AAP has hit the Congress the hardest, depriving it of the potential of taking on the BJP in a triangular contest. In a situation where the Congress is staring at certain defeat in the general election, AAP offers the demoralised Congress voters a glimmer of hope. In states such as Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat, where AAP has had a limited impact, the consequences are likely to be felt by the Congress. The unintended consequence is that the AAP electoral intervention will ensure a clean BJP sweep.
The extent to which the AAP effect will be felt in the general election will, of course, depend almost entirely on the media. More than any other party, AAP is disproportionately dependant on the media for producing a multiplier effect. This may explain the party’s intense anger at the media when, after the vigilantism against the African residents of Khirkee village, the coverage turned more critical. Intemperate AAP spokespersons showed a measure of fascist intolerance, that included vilification of all those in the media who dared to be critical of it.
The AAP will be hoping that this will change now that it is no longer answerable for the administration of Delhi. Certainly on Friday night, the closet supporters of AAP were jubilant and were flattering the smooth-talking Yogendra Yadav into thinking that the jump from the Delhi Secretariat to the South Block would be logical. With the Congress demonstrating an astonishing ineptitude in confronting the formidable Narendra Modi challenge, the only hope of those threatened by imminent marginalisation seems to be AAP. The media is much more divided today than it was 49 days ago when it was ready to embrace Kejriwal as the new messiah. However, there is enough AAP influence in the media to give the party and its over-exuberant supporters a leg up.
Kejriwal abandoned his mission to cut water rates and electricity rates in Delhi because he saw the city-state as a mere launching pad for his national ambitions. These ambitions will now come into full play and there is no question that AAP will become an alternative point of attraction for disgruntled Congress, BSP and Communist voters in North India, particularly in the National Capital Region. Its appeal will be based on two factors. First, it will always be a party of protest and disruption. These themes will resonate among a section of the urban poor, particularly that section which is insufficiently rooted in a new environment. Secondly, it will invoke fear—a theme that will appeal to disoriented liberals (too small a number to count electorally) and to those Muslims who no longer have faith in the Congress’ ability to stop Modi.
Where AAP will be most vulnerable will be its inability to move from protest to change. Expressed over-simplistically, the coming fight could be one between anger and aspiration. My vote is unequivocally for the latter.