Is the AAP ready to replace the Congress as India’s national opposition?

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A landslide victory in Punjab propelled the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from ruling a “glorified municipality” to becoming the fifth Indian party to successfully expand beyond its home state and gain another state. The AAP now governs two states, as many as Congress.

As Congress grapples with an existential crisis after the dismal electoral record of winning just five of 50 state assemblies up for grabs since 2014 and being routed in two consecutive national elections, the success of the AAP to sweep another state has raised whispers that the AAP is the possible “national and natural replacement for Congress”.

As the AAP takes the heels of Congress in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and beyond, here are five reasons why the party could well replace Congress as India’s national opposition.

‘Alternative governance’ agenda captures voters’ hopes

The Indian state, despite its stability, has lagged behind in creating economic growth and jobs, reducing hunger, malnutrition and poverty and has seemingly given up on providing health care and food. education, ensuring urban governance, gender parity and reduced social stratification, etc.

Such failures provide extraordinary leeway for reforms that address these critical issues and thereby create new electoral bases for a party.

Yet existing parties, particularly Congress, have failed to offer an alternative paradigm. As such, we the people have been content with the familiar trope of being “too populous to be well governed”. A sense of hopeless status quo and a lack of imagination have permeated our approach to most public policy issues.

A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is barely distinguishable from a Congress government, especially in the states, as the famous Arun Shourie so aptly put it. “The BJP is Congress plus the cow,” he said.

Congress has become a prisoner of its own heritage, upholding archaic structures and laws, unable to free itself from outdated approaches to governance. He remains convinced of his sense of right and seems content to wait his turn as an opposition, to be elected to power because of a possible anti-incumbent. This right and convenience is why Congress does not have a marketable governance model for states, unlike the AAP model in Delhi and the BJP model in Gujarat.

In such a vacuum, the PAA offers an alternative form of governance that lowers the cost of living and increases the disposable incomes of ordinary people through innovations in welfarism; improves opportunities for the upliftment and dignified existence of the poor through reformed public health and education systems; improves service delivery through the use of technology and updated delivery structures, such as door-to-door service delivery and provisions for universal water supply and sewerage access.

Through these steps, the party has thoughtfully identified unmet voter needs, challenged itself to meet them, and thereby created a sustainable voter base that transcends former voting blocs. It is this enduring base that explains why the AAP, after gaining a foothold in one state, sweeps it and thus can defeat Congress in other states as well.

Solves the riddle of the BJP’s ‘Hindu’ and nationalist appeal

The BJP’s success under Modi against the Congress was underscored by the party’s success in defining the Congress as “anti-Hindu” and “anti-national”, thus making the Congress a pariah for a significant portion of voters. The BJP keeps these voters consolidated by constantly stirring the cultural and social pot and appropriating the mantle of “protector of the national and Hindu interest”. Due to the emotive appeal of Hindutva and nationalism, the BJP has created a bond with voters that has grown immune to governance failures.

The AAP has managed to navigate this minefield with innocuous symbolism, such as temple visits, one-crore fees for martyrs, tiranga yatras, and the Teerth Yatra yojana. He has also carefully avoided becoming entangled in cultural and religious debates that keep the body politic’s focus on cultural differences rather than governance issues.

While the AAP has received much criticism for pandering to the emotional needs of the people through the type of religious and nationalist symbolism that the BJP also uses, such criticism overlooks how a fractured political regime, where society is polarized on such conflicting issues, is not able to settle such debates. On the contrary, such challenges only distract us from focusing on the things that unite us and alienate the Liberals from a significant portion of voters.

Thus, the AAP has struck a balance where Hindus who feel alienated are brought back into the liberal fold by having their feelings publicly acknowledged and respected, neutralizing the sense of victimization that the BJP has carefully nurtured among Hindus and thus allowing elections to be fought over issues of governance.

A charismatic and competent leader

The AAP gains another point against Congress by comparing the attractiveness of its leaders; Arvind Kejriwal versus Rahul Gandhi.

Gandhi has held no governance post and is unable to inspire voters’ confidence in his ability to govern, while Kejriwal served as chief minister three times and was re-elected based on his governance record.

Kejriwal is also a much more powerful organization builder and a more persuasive public speaker. Moreover, Gandhi was systematically demonized and as a result is widely seen as the incompetent representative of a corrupt dynasty in decline responsible for the corruption and nepotism that frustrated the aspirations of the common man, creating sentiment among the voters of a lack of alternatives to Modi.

By contrast, Kejriwal is seen as a self-made man who passed both the IIT and civil service entrance exams; won a Magsaysay Award for Social Services; and is a renowned anti-corruption crusader. This makes him better placed to emerge as a face of opposition behind whom the public can unite and credibly challenge Modi.

Mastery of the “new-age electoral campaign”

In the competition for national opposition space, the AAP has another ace up its sleeve: its mastery of new-age election campaigning.

The AAP has a dominating presence on various social media platforms; ostensibly has a better understanding of search algorithms; has more passionate online volunteers; and has innovative multimedia messaging that allows it to disproportionately define the narrative online – and subsequently, offline; a task with which Congress often finds itself confronted.

In fact, Congress, the original “godfather” of welfare policy and the party behind India’s 1991 reforms, is unable to claim ownership of either over the BJP due to the construction superior narrative of the latter.

A combat-ready group with a mission

The Congress is run by leaders and volunteers who are demoralized, uninspired and out of step with the expectations of the people. The party has become impoverished despite the enrichment of its leaders. It has failed to attract new talent as its own leaders abandon it to launch their own parties or join its rivals.

In contrast, the AAP has an army of loyal and dedicated young volunteers, with unwavering faith in the party’s mission. It helps her create a buzz and win the perception battle.

The rise of the AAP has not been without its share of failures. He was left for dead after the Lok Sabha debacle in 2014, then again after the disappointing results of the 2017 Assembly elections in Punjab and finally, after the Lok Sabha washout in 2019 where he won only only one seat. Yet, due to an indomitable fighting spirit, the PAA has risen like a Phoenix from its ashes after each defeat.

Pushed against the wall, she reinvents herself, appeals to a new electoral base, launches with all her might and outflanks her better-off rivals in battles of perception, without being intimidated or shouting.

This fighting spirit is ultimately what can help the AAP unseat the bickering, exhausted, worn-out, decaying Congress that often dies in states where it is pushed into third place. And it is this fighting spirit that may make the BJP wary of the AAP’s emergence as its main rival, ending its dream streak of easy victories over Congress.

With the strong AAP at the forefront, the opposition could finally find its voice, a proposition that should only appeal to the AAP even more with opposition voters.

Praneet Pathak studied marketing at IMT and is a keen observer of Indian democracy.

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