Arvind Kejriwal’s Resignation & the Road towards National Elections 2014

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s rise to power in December 2013 marked a dramatic change for India’s political scene. The party’s stunning debut prevented the BJP from a securing a majority in the Delhi Assembly and ended 15 years of Congress rule in the country’s capital. The AAP capitalized on widespread frustration over the prevalence of corruption at the national and state levels.  The AAP’s tenure in power, however, proved short-lived. Last week, party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal submitted his resignation.

The immediate reason for his resignation was the growing controversy over the AAP’s signature anti-corruption bill, the Jan Lokpal Bill (Public Ombudsman Bill). A number of BJP and Congress assemblymen blocked the bill’s introduction, arguing that it first had to be approved by the Center. Kejriwal responded by tendering his resignation from the post.  Delhi now finds itself under the rule of the President.

Kejriwal’s actions have led to widespread media frenzy. Alleging that Kejriwal is playing the “political martyr”, several analysts and experts claim that Kejriwal’s exit from Delhi was an intelligently executed strategy to allow the party to focus on the upcoming national elections.

Although Kejriwal emphatically denies that he used the anti-corruption legislation as an exit strategy, it is hard to resist the suspicion that his resignation was part of a broader agenda. Immediately following Kejriwal’s resignation, on February 16, the AAP published the first list of candidates who will contest the Lok Sabha elections from New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Odisha and Punjab, amongst others.

Was AAP only a flash in the pan?

The AAP government lasted only forty-nine days, a brief period punctuated by multiple controversies. The abrupt end to Kejriwal’s government marks the latest, and has prompted concerns about the AAP’s longevity as a political force. The party has drawn much flak – firstly, for its anti-establishment politics (which may not find favour at the national level) and secondly, for the lack of a clear economic agenda. Even during its brief tenure, the AAP’s economic policies – such as subsidies on water and electricity and withdrawing support for FDI in multi-brand retail – shook investor confidence at a critical juncture when New Delhi and the country need to be seen as an attractive investment hub.

Yet, it is too soon to write off the AAP phenomenon. The AAP has managed to win the confidence of very diverse social constituencies – which may well be its biggest strength and its greatest challenge. According to Niraja Jayal writing in The Indian Express, “[e]ach of [AAP’s] different supporters has imagined the AAP in their own way, imbuing it with their personal political wishlist. When spelt out, these wishlists may, and very likely will, pull the party in different and even conflicting directions. In principle, to have a broad coalition of social classes supporting a party is an advantage.”

Moreover, Kejriwal’s departure, rather than representing a collapse of the AAP, has in fact helped it make important strategic moves. In his resignation speech, Kejriwal vehemently accused the Congress and the BJP of jeopardizing his anti-corruption efforts, painting both parties with the same brush.

For the AAP to become a viable national player, however, it needs to start thinking about shifting focus from activism to governance. It cannot afford to be a single-issue party if it wants to win seats and needs to develop a broader vision that addresses other key policy challenges.

What lies ahead for AAP?

At the regional level: The Chief Minister’s resignation has put the Congress, which runs the Central government, in a tough spot. The Congress took a heavy beating in the Delhi assembly polls, where it won only eight seats out of seventy. By propping up the AAP government with outside support, the Congress hoped to avert a second state election in its current embattled state. The Congress may be in for a complete washout if Assembly polls are held again.

However, it is hard to say if AAP can repeat, or even outdo, its record performance, though AAP insiders are confident that they will be able to win a majority this time. On the one hand, the AAP’s support base amongst educated middle class has steadily eroded. On the other, it is likely to get huge support from the Sikh community after having ordered a Special Investigation Team probe into the 1984 Sikh riots. In either case, the AAP is likely to remain a major player at least at the regional level.

At the national level: For the AAP, the Delhi election was a significant opportunity to grow as a party. To put things in perspective, the trajectories of other parties that have succeeded to break into national politics have been long and arduous. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s first avatar was as an alliance of backward caste employees in 1973. The first election they contested was seven years later in New Delhi. In spite of a consolidated Dalit voter base, they won just two seats. It took another decade for them to emerge as an important political force.

Building on the momentum of its success in New Delhi, the AAP now plans to field hundreds of candidates in the general elections in May, posing a challenge to the country’s two biggest parties, the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet it is too soon to predict what impact the AAP can make in the national arena, which will be decided by elections for the 543-seat Lok Sabha in April-May 2014. The BJP is primed to take advantage of a strong anti-incumbency mood and it is widely expected that their candidate, Narendra Modi, will be the Prime Minister.  But the AAP could play a significant role as a strong opposition voice in parliament after elections. With so much volatility and uncertainty, it will be interesting to see how AAP’s face-off with the Congress and BJP pans out and if it will be able to become a sustained voice in the political realm or be limited to state politics.