The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has not had a great few months.
If you were to believe the mainstream media and the multitude of pre-election opinion polls, they were heavy favourites to win the Punjab Assembly election held in February, 2017. In fact, some of the opinion polls went so far as to predict around 100 seats for the AAP in Punjab. Instead, they ended up winning only around 20 out of the 117 Assembly constituencies.
If you were to believe the national media again, they were expected to put up a spirited show in Goa, presenting a strong alternative to both the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Instead, they ended up not winning a single seat, getting only around 6% of the vote share and forfeiting their deposits in 39 out of 40 constituencies.
Now in the recently held by-polls to the Rajouri Garden Assembly segment in Delhi, a seat that AAP had won comfortably in the 2015 Assembly election, the AAP candidate came third, finishing behind both the BJP and the INC candidate, winning just 13% of the vote share and forfeiting his deposit. It is a humiliating loss for a party in its home turf, a reminder of the vagaries of electoral politics served by the voters of the same territory that had given it victory in 67 out of 70 seats in 2015.
This begets another important question – should we stop taking AAP so seriously?
If you are remotely interested in the politics of India, you will find AAP everywhere. In every so-called prime time debate held in every news channel, you will observe an AAP spokesperson seated, vociferously countering the views of the representative of the ruling party of India. At times, you may end up listening to two representatives of AAP, one each from either faction (yes, the party also had a faction which did not agree with Arvind Kejriwal and was promptly expelled).
If you happen to read the daily news, you will find some or the other antic of Arvind Kejriwal, the supreme leader of AAP, dominating the headlines. On some day, the party leaders turn up en masse at the Delhi University office, asking for proofs of Narendra Modi’s graduation. On some other day, they are engaged in some or the other verbal skirmishes with the Delhi Lieutenant General. Kejriwal often makes appearances in the media, making apocalyptic prophesies about the dangers of the Modi government, and registering shrill complaints about fantastic conspiracies to derail the Delhi Government and even murder him.
When they lose elections, instead of sulking silently in the corner, AAP leaders raise a hue and cry questioning the validity of electronic voting machines.
Along with an ability to generate endless bouts of controversies, the Aam Aadmi Party also have a penchant for carrying out incessant promotional activities. Even if you happen to read a Malayali daily, sitting thousands of kilometres away from Delhi, chances are you may stumble upon a front page advertisement extolling the virtues of the Delhi Government, paid of course by the tax payers’ money. No matter where you live in India (or in Canada), news as basic as Kejriwal inaugurating a school in Delhi is sure to reach you, either through the never ending marketing campaigns of AAP, through the obsession of the mainstream media with AAP or through its hyper active social media activists eager to spread around the party’s message, far and wide.
This ability of AAP to hog headlines and drive news cycle is also reflected in the relative searches of AAP, BJP and INC in Google Trends. The number of Google searches related to AAP ends up beating not only Congress, but also BJP, the party which through alliances that controls the Central Government of India as well as the state Governments of as much as two-third of India’s population.
So what explains this media obsession with Aam Aadmi Party? The number one reason is AAP itself. The party is, without a doubt, very good at promoting itself, even though it is not so good at translating this support into votes outside its core area of Delhi and parts of Punjab. This is reflected in the way AAP dominates online searches among Indians. Also, in both Twitter and Facebook, the number of followers of AAP easily dwarfs the number of followers of other comparable regional parties. For example, on Twitter, the official page of AAP has around 3.15 Million followers, close to the 4.8 Million followers of the official BJP account. INC, on the other hand, has around 1.8 million followers on Twitter, while all the regional parties have less than 0.1 Million followers. Similarly, on Facebook, the number of followers of AAP (around 3 Million), while less than those of BJP (around 12 Million) and INC (roughly 4 Million), are still much higher than those of any regional party.
AAP is also adept at grabbing eyeballs and manipulating the news cycle. To an extent like Donald Trump (and this is meant entirely as a compliment), the party somehow manages to be in the news, day in and day out. The proximity to the studios in Delhi, of course, helps. It is far easier for an average media person to report on the activities of the Delhi Government, or seek the opinions of the top party officials of AAP than do the same with the states and parties located thousands of kilometres away from the national capital region.
There is also the fact that the only other non-BJP parties whose ideologies are non-regional in nature – the Indian National Congress, the Left Front and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are in various stages of decline. INC still continues to be the main opposition party to the BJP, in vast swathes of the country, but it has been battered and bruised by a string of successive electoral debacles and appears completely bereft of vision or leadership to stem the rot in its system. The Left has completely ceded its erstwhile bastion of West Bengal to the Trinamool Congress and is now restricted to the smaller states of Kerala and Tripura. The BSP’s fall from grace, if anything, has even been worse; a decade ago, it was ruling the largest state in India and was increasing looking to increase its support level, especially among the scheduled caste voters, across India. Currently, it has no representation in Lok Sabha and is struggling to keep the party afloat in Uttar Pradesh.
AAP, on the other hand, offers vigorous anti-BJP opposition. Its party workers are well trained to spread its message through the social media. Its leaders are telegenic and can speak well on camera. It runs the Government in Delhi which allows it ready access to journalists, especially the TV journalists who are mostly based out of the National Capital Region (NCR). It knows how to stay in the news, by generating one controversy or the other. It knows how to fully exploit the myopic Delhi centric view of our television studios, which almost refuses to acknowledge the problems and concerns of the world outside NCR. And finally, in the anti-BJP political segment, it is up against competition that is moribund, listless or completely uninterested in appearing in the Delhi studios, for they know their voters rarely watch national news.
This makes AAP the undisputed opposition party in the eyes of our national media, and explains its ubiquitous presence whenever you switch on the news channels.
In fact, if you were somehow completely unaware of the reality of electoral politics in India, based solely on the media coverage of AAP, you may even be mistaken to believe that AAP is the main opposition party in India, snapping at the heels of the Bharatiya Janata Party, ready to throw it off its perch any time soon.
The reality, however, could not be any more different.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, AAP contested in as many as 432 Lok Sabha constituencies, four more than even the BJP. Whatever the theoretical logic was behind the move, it did not translate that well into practice with the party ending up winning just 4 seats, all in the state of Punjab. In terms of vote share, it obtained just 2.05% of the total votes, putting it at the tenth position, placed between YSR Congress Party and Shiv Sena, two regional parties with limited appeal outside their respective states.
When it comes to the number of seats won, AAP did no better. Its performance placed it in the 14th position, tied with Rashtriya Janata Dal and Shiromani Akali Dal, again two regional parties that barely find any mention in the national media, except when elections are being held in Bihar and Punjab respectively.
Perhaps a better measure to assess the relative strength of the respective parties is to look at the number of seats these parties came in at the first or the second position. This helps in identifying segments where these parties are currently strong as well as are in a position to pose a strong challenge in the near future. Here also, Aam Aadmi Party falls short, finishing fifteenth, tied with Telengana Rashtra Samithi.
In other words, AAP is just like another regional party, except that a lot of regional parties have much bigger areas of influence. Quite clearly, the attention bestowed upon AAP is disproportionate to the size of the party.
As time and again proved in a number of elections, AAP has hardly any presence outside Delhi and Punjab. It is true that the scale of its victory in the Delhi elections was stunning, but the margin of its victory was amplified by the peculiarities of the first past the post system. Further, Delhi is actually a very small territory. Had it been a state, it would have been eighteenth largest state, behind the likes of Assam, Jharkhand, Haryana and Chhattisgarh. Do you hear a hullabaloo being raised every time the leaders of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha or the Indian National Lok Dal had a run in with the authorities?
It is true that in theory, AAP does not have an ideology or agenda that is focused on any particular state. Its governing philosophy, with slight tweaking, can be applied in almost any part of India. But that does not make it unique. There are other non-regional parties, most prominently the Left parties, which share the same space ideologically as AAP, and have much larger presence in India. Nor is Mr. Arvind Kejriwal a trailblazer among chief ministers. The likes of Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh have been elected multiple times on the back of their performance as Chief Ministers. Among smaller states, Pawan Chamling has been the Chief Minister of Sikkim since 1994 while Manik Sarkar has governed Tripura since 1998. I bet you are barely cognizant of their names.
The novelty factor of AAP is also not an excuse for the heightened coverage given to them. In the chaotic and noisy democracy of India, political parties are formed and disbanded at the drop of a hat. It is true that not many of them become as successful as AAP. But in the 2014 general election, YSR Congress, a newly floated party ended up getting higher vote share as well as more number of seats compared to AAP. But in the skewed coverage of the national media, YSR Congress is accorded not even a fraction of the attention showered on AAP.
The recent Assembly election results have shown that the base of AAP, even in the region of Delhi and Punjab has become shaky. The various irregularities as highlighted in the Shunglu Commission report have put a serious question mark on its claims of being a different political party. And its many attempts at widening its support level outside Delhi and Punjab have met with bruising failures, repeatedly.
With the Delhi MCD elections coming up, there may be renewed attempts on the part of the national media to either frame the results as a phoenix like regeneration of AAP or to write obituaries of the party. Either way, chances are that it would not matter. Remember the shock and awe with which the results of the Delhi Assembly election were treated by the media, how far reaching that election was supposed in the electoral history of the country. Now two years later, the effect that election has had on the political fortunes of India has been minimal.
It may be the right time for us to take AAP a little less seriously and give it the respect that it deserves – that of a midrange regional party. May be, in due course of time, AAP will gradually become large enough to govern India on its own. After all, the BJP was also restricted to just two seats in 1984. But clearly, now is not that time. Giving such disproportionate attention to AAP is an insult to the voters who live outside Delhi and Punjab. It is time we tone it down.