Remember Arvind Kejriwal? Here’s how AAP lost the national plot

By Shivam Vij

(This article first appeared in ThePrint on 25 December 2018.)

It seems like a long time ago when the AAP occupied the national political mindspace.

Around this time five years ago, as the election heat eclipsed the winter chill in Delhi, national politics was witnessing a contest between the BJP and the AAP. Arvind Kejriwal was closing the gap between him and the chief minister’s chair, while also preparing to make a splash in the Lok Sabha elections.

Five years later, national politics is back to looking like a BJP vs Congress contest. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) comes across as someone who’s begging the Congress for a pre-poll alliance in Delhi, having given up its national ambitions for the moment.

Here’s how Arvind Kejriwal lost the national plot.

1. He couldn’t decide between Centre and states: State politics and national politics are two different things. They require a different approach. Arvind Kejriwal thought the route to Centre went through the states, but that’s not always true. The BJP went from two seats in 1984 to 85 seats in 1989 through a national campaign (Ram Janmabhoomi), without having a single CM. The same election saw an even greater surprise: V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal’s national campaign (Bofors) won the party 143 seats, making Singh a coalition Prime Minister.

Similarly, the Lokpal campaign had captured the national imagination, but Arvind Kejriwal took the less risky route of first fighting the Delhi assembly election as an experiment. The experiment succeeded, but Kejriwal resigned after 49 days with an unconvincing excuse and went to Varanasi to contest against Modi. Instead of fighting the incumbent Congress, he decided to challenge the challenger Modi.

So from the very beginning, the Aam Aadmi Party had been confused about fighting state and national elections. Unable to sail in two boats, it has now decided to sail in just one. Wisely so.

Perhaps he should have chosen the national path first, since the Lokpal movement and the AAP had national traction. Becoming a big national force would have made it easier to win states, rather than the other way round.

2. Trying to do both governance and agitation: Arvind Kejriwal wanted to retain his angry young agitationist image and at the same time become the face of transformative new governance. Once again, trying to sail in two boats. It hurt the AAP badly when Kejriwal started sleeping on the streets to protest against the central government while being the Delhi CM.

The chief ministership came in the way of Kejriwal the agitator. For a whole year, he and his cabinet gave up governance in Delhi to try and win the Punjab assembly election. They lost Punjab and, immediately thereafter, were humiliated in Delhi’s municipal elections.

If Kejriwal had to be the agitational challenger, fighting election after election, he should have made someone else the chief minister. He was trying to be Modi and Shah, Sonia and Manmohan at the same time. Having learnt the hard way, he has now chosen the governance path, preferring a slow process of building a Delhi model of governance before he goes national in a serious way again.

3. Negative campaigning: “Modi is a coward and a psychopath,” Kejriwal famously tweeted in December 2015. His party even ran a Twitter campaign targeting PM Modi over his estranged wife. The first thing Kejriwal would do in those days after waking up was to tweet against Modi. He even put out a video saying Modi can get him killed.

The viciousness wasn’t as surprising as the personal nature of these attacks. But after the AAP lost Punjab and the BJP won Uttar Pradesh, Kejriwal realised his mistakes. Calling Modi names wasn’t going to make Kejriwal the main anti-Modi force in the country. Voters like positive campaigning, just like the AAP had done in Delhi. Voters want to know what the AAP can do for them, not what the AAP thinks of Modi. Having learnt this lesson the hard way, it is now focusing on showing governance achievements.

4. Put all eggs in the Punjab basket: The AAP was so confident of winning Punjab with a 2/3rd majority that it didn’t prepare a plan B. It was so confident of winning Punjab that it forgot that it has to run Delhi. As the national capital was fighting mosquitoes and pollution, the AAP government was AWOL – absent without leave.

Having won 67 of the 70 seats in Delhi, the AAP thought it was going to sweep Punjab, and then who could prevent it from replacing the Congress and becoming the primary national opposition to the BJP in every other state and at the Centre? The party has now decided to go slow on its national ambitions so that it doesn’t lose Delhi in trying to win everything else.

5. Wants complete loyalty: Arvind Kejriwal is not only authoritarian and undemocratic like any other party boss, but he’s worse because he demands 100 per cent loyalty. Heady after winning 67 of the 70 seats in Delhi, he proceeded to get rid of anyone who had an independent mind and dared to disagree with him.

Not only Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav but others like Mayank Gandhi and Kumar Vishwas have had to pay the price. Kejriwal doesn’t seem to realise that he can have transactional relations with senior leaders in his own party without having their 100 per cent loyalty. In his book AAP and Down, Mayank Gandhi paints a bleak picture of how untrusting and undemocratic Arvind Kejriwal is. Makes Modi and the Gandhis look like saints.

6. Can’t let the party become bigger than himself: Arvind Kejriwal led from the front in Punjab, and that’s why the AAP lost that election. It became a Delhi vs Punjab battle within the AAP. Undermining local leaders and imposing ideas from the top had a purpose. Kejriwal himself wanted to be the Punjab CM. In the process, the AAP started losing the immense popularity it had acquired. In flirting with hardliners, it showed its immaturity.

After losing Punjab, Kejriwal did not take any responsibility for the loss. He deflected any potential questions about his leadership with his outlandish theories on election rigging. The idea was to fool the AAP volunteers more than anyone else. The AAP has now virtually collapsed in Punjab because Kejriwal selfishly apologised to Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia to settle his defamation case.

If winning 67 of the 70 seats in Delhi went to Kejriwal’s head, the defeat in Punjab brought him back to earth again. But the party’s expansion in other states and in national politics is still hostage to the strengths and limitations of one man, the supreme leader. The AAP was a collective national dream of volunteers and ordinary citizens across India. Arvind Kejriwal was only its face. But he hijacked the dream because he could not let it become bigger than his own persona.

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