By Riju Agrawal
The implosion of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) over the past several months is especially spectacular because of the lofty expectations that had accompanied its rise to power. The party that had once been heralded as the long-awaited solution, under the leadership of Robin Hood-esque Arvind Kejriwal, to decades of complacency, corruption, and incompetence in India’s governing ranks is on the verge of becoming another forgotten footnote in future history books.
The party’s origins lie in the wake of the anti-corruption campaign spear-headed by Gandhian activist Anna Hazare. Even before the end of the hunger strike in Delhi, which failed to usher in the desired Jan Lokpal bill, the campaign leadership had begun to factionalize because of disagreements between Kiran Bedi and Anna Hazare on one side and Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal on the other. Kejriwal, who decided that corruption needed to be battled from within the system, subsequently formed the AAP with much fanfare, while Anna Hazare decided that he would retire from a fight that had failed to produce the desired results. When the AAP decided to contest the Delhi legislative assembly elections in 2013 against the long-standing incumbency of Sheila Dikshit and the Congress party, many middle class Delhi residents rushed to either join the party leadership or pledge their support otherwise. However, after winning the Delhi election, the party subsequently failed to pass the Jan Lokpal in the Delhi Assembly, Kejriwal resigned from the post of Chief Minister, and the party returned a dismal performance in the 2014 general election. In 2015, the AAP was surprisingly resurgent and won 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi legislative assembly elections. However, since then, despite winning Delhi with a sweeping majority, the party has not had much real progress to show for all its pre-election showmanship and mudslinging.
Many would argue that the party was doomed to fail from the start. First of all, the infighting that started during the hunger strike campaign returned with a vengeance soon after the formation of the AAP and may now be tearing the party apart. Expulsions and defections of party leaders (for example, Shazia Ilmi joining the BJP) have brought more and more of the party’s internal abuses and governance failures into the public eye. Secondly, the party’s inexperience in governing and dealing with India’s dysfunctional systems has prevented it from pushing through any meaningful reforms despite the sweeping mandate with which it came to power. Inexperience became clear as early as the campaign for Delhi, during which the party adopted a worrisome populist strategy of promising cheaper water and electricity without realizing (or without heeding) that implementation would be near impossible. Lastly, Arvind’s pugilistic personality, as evidenced by his aggressive accusations of other BJP and Congress politicians and single-minded focus on the non-conciliatory “dharna” strategy has won him no friends in a parliamentary democracy that is predicated upon compromise. This strategy of abuse and temper tantrums that worked in the early stages because it made for good TV has now begun to fail. To the extent that today’s voters are impatient for change and progress, the window of opportunity is closing fast for the AAP.
The failure of the AAP yields an important lesson for the Indian electorate. We must realize that there are no silver bullets in a democracy. The public was yearning for an undefiled outsider (similar to the U.S. electorate’s support for outsiders such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson) who had the moral fortitude to wring some necks in a system that had been thoroughly adulterated by cronyism and corruption. The public anger at the slew of scandals during the Congress government’s leadership (2G, Commonwealth Games, “Coalgate”, etc.) provided the necessary catalyst for the momentum behind the anti-corruption protests in Delhi and the subsequent success of the AAP in the Delhi elections. However, it has become clear that India’s political and bureaucratic systems do not change very easily, and no small upstart party has the clout or the experience to change them singlehandedly. As the long-awaited outsider, try as he might to ignore the system and abuse those who currently lead it, Kejriwal will ultimately have to work within the framework of that same system to bring about change, and it will take abundant time.
However, to the extent that the machinery of Indian democracy is flawed or dysfunctional, is the electorate justified in resorting to alternative means? At the time of the anti-corruption protests in Delhi, the political elite argued that even peaceful civil disobedience represented a violation of democratic process. This argument is not without merit. In a speech to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949, B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, warned his countrymen against employing peaceful protest to hold democracy hostage to the whim of a single person or a small minority, even likening Satyagraha to anarchy. But this logic assumes that the systems of democracy are at least functional, and will enable redress if the government is not fulfilling its mandate of representing the will of the electorate. But it seems that in today’s India, elected leaders have forsaken the duty of representing the will of their constituents. As demonstrated by the corruption scandals, personal profit and empire-building has become paramount, exacerbated by the diplomatic and legal immunity seemingly afforded by elected office. And even when voters are demanding change, the old guard will go to great lengths to protect the status quo. This was demonstrated by the equivocation of the BJP and Congress in the face of the Jan Lokpal bill, which represented a threat to their unbridled omnipotence. Furthermore, for years, academics have questioned the efficacy and validity of Indian elections. If voters are illiterate, can easily be bought with gifts and cash, and in the worst of cases are not allowed to vote of their own free will, then the most fundamental tenet of representative democracy has been destroyed. In such a situation, a Robin Hood solution maybe the last resort for a helpless electorate.
The implosion of the AAP is undoubtedly disillusioning for voters who had pinned their hopes on the party, even more so than any failures of the BJP or Congress with whom voters have grown accustomed to being disappointed. Delhi voters will hesitate the next time an outsider has the gall to run for office, which undermines the potential for future reform. This is especially unfortunate considering that future bootstrapped parties will certainly be better positioned to achieve their goals given that they have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the AAP. Voters are now faced with the choice of either returning to the former status quo of complacency, or, as many have done, putting all their hopes in the nationally elected strongman of the BJP.
Riju Agrawal is an engineer, former policy analyst, and finance professional. He is currently on the Energy Private Equity team at The Blackstone Group, and was previously on the investment banking team of Morgan Stanley’s Global Energy Group. Riju graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University with a degree in Engineering Sciences, where he was co-founder of the Harvard U.S.-India Initiative and co-president of the Harvard College Global Energy Initiative. In 2011, Riju was selected to serve as a White House Intern, where he worked for the Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change.
In addition, Riju currently serves on the Board of Advisors of Spark Clean Energy, was selected as a Future Energy Leader by the World Energy Council, is a member of the Application Review Committee for South by Southwest Eco, is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, is a mentor for PowerBridge New York, is a Director for Suprex Learning, and serves as a Guide (mentor) for young entrepreneurs through The Resolution Project. Riju has also been accepted to Harvard Business School and is currently deferring his admission.