The AAP Audit: Can ‘Alternative Politics’ Work?

The Aam Aadmi Party was founded on the belief that Indian politics could be transformed. This reading list examines if this political project has been a success, or if the party's idealism is incompatible with the way politics in India functions.

The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been unprecedented. Just two years after breaking away from Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, Arvind Kejriwal formed AAP, intending to change the way politics was conducted in the country. He was sworn in as the Delhi Chief Minister for the first time in 2014. Since then, the Kejriwal-led party has walked out of the Delhi government, before returning to power with a sweeping mandate in the 2015 assembly elections, winning 67 of 70 seats. 

AAP came to power promising change. They wanted to bring “truth” into politics by being different from other corrupt parties, by improving governance and getting rid of its “exploitative character,” and by invoking the idea of swaraj they wanted to make the Indian democratic system more participatory by holding referendums in the legislative process, and providing people with the ability to “recall” elected representatives if they failed to perform their duties. 
Has AAP succeeded in ushering a new brand of alternative politics in India, or has their rhetoric largely consisted of pure propaganda? This reading list discusses AAP’s approach to politics, their appeal, and their achievements.

1) What Is AAP’s ‘Ideology’?

AAP’s politics, writes Anand Teltumbde, promotes a neo-liberal ethos and incorporates “welfarism”—socialism, democracy and secularism—which broadens its appeal among the middle class. While this allows AAP to be “solution-driven,” Teltumbde argues that the refusal to subscribe to an ideology makes for superficial and shallow policies. 

Its vision document talks about destroying the centres of authority and handing over power directly to the people. But beyond this rhetorical declaration, it does not provide any clue as to what this would mean or how it would be accomplished, beyond, of course, the Gandhian metaphor of swaraj, which anyway would be violently rejected, at least, by dalits. 

However, Teltumbde argues that while AAP may or may not cleanse the country of corruption, they can make great strides in eliminating the feudal culture prevalent in politics, by removing the “VIP–VVIP” syndrome that assigns more value to political leaders than to common citizens, a failure of Indian democracy.

How is the life of a political leader more valuable than that of a scavenger or a farm-labourer? Anything that breaks this high-handed feudal culture should be upheld in this country as revolutionary … The people of Delhi have reposed faith in AAP and tomorrow the people of India are going to do the same just because AAP has shown itself to be different from the degenerate political class. AAP should not betray the people’s trust as the other parties have done all through the postIndependence period. 

2) Can Welfarism and Capitalism be Balanced?

For the rich to remain rich, the poor must remain where they are, writes Ravi Kumar. AAP wants to regulate private capital, but how far is this possible? Kumar argues that AAP’s idea of a “democratised” rule of capital will run contrary to welfare initiatives due to its innate nature to maximise accumulation.  

In the area of electricity supply, private capital replaced state-owned enterprise on the grounds of offering “better” and “efficient” service. In this neo-liberal world “efficiency” and “quality” come for a price. Hence, AAP will have to either keep paying subsidies to private companies so that their profiteering continues through the state exchequer or all of them need to be thrown out and power distribution taken over by the state.

3) What Is the AAP Appeal?

Jyoti Punwani writes that AAP’s allure to the Muslim youth stems from the “secular” parties looking at the Muslim community as an unthinking vote bank, failing to notice the change in the community, especially among the educated section. Punwani argues that Muslims are tired of the “mirage of protection” offered for years by the Congress, and would rather associate themselves with a party that does not see them as “separate.”

For long, Muslims have chafed at the way the Congress has treated them, not allowing any genuine grassroots leadership to emerge, promoting only a certain kind of politician who is incapable of a vision for the community and constantly raising the spectre of “communal forces” while doing nothing to contain them. Maharashtra has seen a series of riots in the last 15 years that the Congress has been in power. Muslims have seen the party announce special measures for them but also retreating at the first cry of “appeasement” raised by the BJP.

4) How Does AAP Connect with the Populace?

After AAP walked of the Delhi Assembly post the 2013 elections, Anand Teltumbde writes that AAP’s return to power in the capital lies in its ability to reinvent itself as a “start-up,” by reorganising itself and tendering apologies to its “customers,” the people of Delhi. Teltumbde argues that the AAP business model—to brand itself as an anti-politics political enterprise—appeals to the neo-liberal generation in metros, who are idealist and see India’s potential encumbered by corrupt and incompetent politicians.

The most doable idea to scale up without AAP losing its brand equity would be to create a new democratic paradigm for the people. Some of the ideas such as eradication of VIP culture and decentralisation of power to mohalla committees have already been on AAP’s agenda. They only need to be stretched beyond neo-liberal pragmatism to their radical essence. The essence of democracy lies in negation of differential valorisation of people, be it president or prime minister or anyone else. Their lives are no more important than that of a scavenger or a village schoolteacher.

5) Have Promises Been Implemented?

Ananya Basu and Susana Barria write that AAP has stuck to its manifesto by initiating large-scale health reforms in Delhi. Basu and Barria assess the impact of mohalla clinics in Delhi, arguing that these reforms have made healthcare accessible to vulnerable sections of society. While acknowledging impediments by the lieutenant governor in setting up the clinics, the authors criticise AAP for privatising healthcare by outsourcing these clinics to private practitioners, who hastily check patients to earn extra commission.

There have been complaints received by the vigilance department of the Delhi government of doctors “fudging” the number of patients they see every day, besides “unnecessarily” calling the patients repeatedly to “inflate” the numbers (Dutt 2018). These are indications that the urge of time, the logic of income depending on volumes and the quality of attention given might compromise the quality of service.

6) Has AAP Succeeded?

In 2012, Anna Hazare opposed the formation of AAP, stating that “elections require huge funds, which will be tough for activists to organise without compromising on their values and it would be difficult to ensure that candidates are not corrupted once elected.” Praveen Rai accuses Arvind Kejriwal of failing to change the “self-serving system of politics,” arguing that Kejriwal is to blame for the party straying away from its political ideals by unilaterally capturing power within the party, making ad-hoc decisions and fielding tainted candidates.

The party seemed to have faked the values of high morality and probity in public life to create a false perception among the people for political traction and electoral victory. The authoritarian and centralising tendencies of Kejriwal unveiled during this incident not only made him the supreme leader of AAP but also crushed inner-party democracy and dissenting voices in the party citadel …  In the words of Yadav (2016), “the problem is not that AAP has abandoned the path of alternative politics; the real problem is that it has tainted the idea of alternative politics.”   

7) What Should the Foundations of a ‘New Politics’ Be?

If AAP is indeed recreating Indian politics, then it needs to rise above using traditional resources like caste to consolidate its position, writes Gopal Guru. A “new politics,” argues Guru, needs to focus on  social justice, stability and equality, and good governance. If AAP can elect Dalit candidates from general constituencies, one could argue that it has succeeded in separating caste from politics, and thus substantiate its claim of “doing a new politics.” 

There are three levels that can help us understand the moral foundation of the new politics. First, the need for a new politics is based on the capacity to be a part of the political force that can fashion out a new democratic politics, without using traditionally privileged social resources. Second, the conception of new politics needs to be based on the moral commitment to follow the radical rotational principle in order to deepen democracy. Finally, new politics needs to be based on moral stamina to refrain from using the delicate details (objectionable acts committed by political parties in the past) of each other. Political actors should not create an archive of delicate details. 

Read More:

AAP, Left and Their Cultural Tools: Reflections on the Delhi 2015 Campaign | Goirick Brahmachari, Feb 2017

The AAP Effect:Decoding the Delhi Assembly Elections | Chitranshu Mansur, 2014

AAP in Punjab | Surinder Singh, 2014

Myopia, Distortions and Blind Spots in the Vision Document of AAP | S P Shukla, 2013

Mediatised Labour and AAP: Multitude, Living Labour and Dead Labour | Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha et al, 2014

Can an Election be Tweeted to Victory? | Pamela Philipose, 2015

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