In a piece on the Aam Aadmi Party written before last weekís Delhi elections, I speculated that the AAPís recent course corrections ó mislaying Anna Hazare, sidelining Kiran Bedi, off-loading godmen, addressing the special difficulties faced by marginal communities (Dalits, Muslims) ó were signs that it was becoming a self-consciously pluralist political party. In a rhetorical flourish, I suggested that the AAP, like the pre-dynastic Congress of sacred memory, was trying to be all things to all men.
Well, the results are in and they make my speculation seem tame. The news is that in the nationís capital, the AAP has swallowed the Congress, whole. In passing, it has thwarted the Bharatiya Janata Partyís bid to form a state government in Delhi by robbing it of a majority in the legislature. To replace the ruling party and stymie the principal Opposition in one stroke is the kind of ju-jitsu that political pundits, used to the attritional, bare-knuckle brawling of normal parties, donít have the vocabulary to explain.
A good place to begin to understand the scope of the AAPís success is the results and what they tell us about the AAPís bid to stand out as an inclusive, pluralist party. This is, clearly, the political ground it has to occupy because the majoritarian space is firmly taken by the BJP led by Narendra Modi. The BJP won the largest number of seats in Delhi (31) and though its vote share declined by two percentage points, the AAPís gains were made overwhelmingly at the expense of the Congress.
The party won nine of the 12 reserved seats in the city. This in itself isnít a reliable guide to the scope of its support amongst Dalits because reserved constituencies still have general electorates but it does indicate a political shift, given that the Congress had won nine out of these 12 reserved seats in the previous election. Anecdotal evidence suggests that large sections of the Valmiki community voted for the AAP. M.L. Tomar, the man in charge of the Bahujan Samaj Partyís campaign in Delhi, cited the AAP as the principal reason for the the BSPís failure to sweep the Valmiki vote. The AAP, therefore, has some reason to believe that those who would typecast it as a party of savarna self-righteousness are wrong.
The verdict on its outreach to Muslims is still out. The AAPís six Muslim candidates lost. There were just five successful Muslim candidates in the Delhi elections, of whom four belonged to the Congress and one to the Janata Dal (United). These Muslim members of the legislative assembly were elected from constituencies with substantial Muslim populations and it ought to be a cause for concern with the AAP that Muslim voters chose the Congress over the AAP in every constituency. There are, however, plausible grounds for optimism on this front.
Prashant Bhushan, one of Arvind Kejriwalís two principal lieutenants (the other being Yogendra Yadav) argued that many potential AAP voters, people sympathetic to its reforming mission, didnít vote for it because they were afraid that they might be wasting their vote on a fledgling party, yet to prove itself in an election. Now that the AAP had enjoyed such spectacular electoral success, Bhushan argued, the next time round those same voters might have the courage of their convictions and actually vote for the party.
You would, of course, expect the AAPís principal spokespersons to make that argument, but everyone in Delhi knows of friends and acquaintances who voted for the Congress because they were worried that the AAP was a spoiler that would divide the anti-BJP vote and let Modiís minions in. So there is reason for Prashant Bhushanís speculative optimism. Given an electorateís propensity to line up behind a winner, the AAPís dramatic debut might reasonably be expected to help its support snowball in the next election, specially if itís held in the near future. And another election seems likely given that the BJP doesnít have a majority nor any way of constructing one and the AAP is categorical that it wonít accept the support of Congressís rump to form a government.
The general anxiety about wasting a vote has a special resonance in constituencies with large numbers of Muslim voters worried about the majoritarian threat of a Modi-led BJP. Itís no coincidence that fully half of the Congressís successful candidates in Delhiís election were Muslims: the reluctance to waste a vote on an untried party would have been even stronger amongst Muslim voters given the recent riots in nearby Muzaffarnagar and the BJPís role in stoking and exploiting the violence there. By the same token, given the AAPís recent success, the temptation to back a rising pluralist party instead of a declining one, and one, moreover, with no realistic chance of forming the government in Delhi, might see a strategic large-scale shift of Muslim support from the Congress to the AAP.
While that remains in the realm of speculation, the AAPís talking heads have been categorical in their attempt to distance the party from the BJP and its enablers. The sharpest and most explicit example of this was Yogendra Yadavís public repudiation of Kiran Bediís suggestion that the AAP ought to come to an understanding with the BJP given that both parties were, in Bediís view, committed to the same goals: good governance and a corruption-free political establishment.
Kiran Bediís tendre for the BJP has been an open secret since Anna Hazareís Ram Lila Maidan fast. She had, even then, given fulsome thanks to the BJPís support for India Against Corruptionís jan lok pal bill. Now she was back in business trying to encourage a BJP-AAP union. Yogendra Yadavís reply was at once elaborately courteous and masterfully rude. He pointed out that Kiran Bedi hadnít joined the AAP precisely because of her disagreement with its policy of equidistance from the Congress and the BJP and he saw no reason to revisit one of AAPís foundational principles merely because she was still riding that hobby horse.
One of the most visible improvements in the ideological make-up of Kejriwal and Co in their AAP avatar, is the absence of Kiran Bedi and it was good to see that exclusion underlined. Similarly, when Prashant Bhushan was quoted as saying that the AAP might supply Ďissue-basedí support to the BJP, Kejriwal contradicted him in the most public way possible, on Twitter. ďThere is no question of supporting BJP,Ē tweeted Kejriwal. ďWhat Prashant said yesterday was his personal opinion.Ē Bhushan, the most politically correct of the AAPís leaders, backed off immediately, leaving his supporters wondering why he had ventured that indiscretion in the first place.
While the attempt to keep the BJP at an armís length is reassuring from the point of view of the partyís pluralist future, what is even more interesting is the AAPís willingness to run Shazia Ilmi from R.K. Puram, a constituency dominated by a salaried middle-class demographic that offers no particular advantage to a Muslim candidate. Shazia Ilmi started out as one of the most visible spokespersons for the IAC and her strong showing in R.K. Puram (she lost narrowly, by barely 300 votes) seemed to publicly make the point that she was running as a young professional, not as a professional Muslim.
Just as it is liberating to see a Hindi movie like Iqbal where the protagonist just happens to be Muslim (and not a benevolent chacha or a noble Pathan or both at once), it is bracing, in a good way, to have a nominally Muslim candidate not having to perform her identity. If, in its political career, the AAP helps make the Ilmi precedent an unremarkable event, it will have fulfilled the promise of its startlingly successful debut.