Many “pundits” cackled with derision when some BJP leaders claimed in May 2014 that it would emerge as a formidable electoral force in Haryana, Assam and West Bengal. Their contention: the heady Lok Sabha victory, it seems, had prompted the BJP to make outlandish claims. Something similar can be seen today regarding the performance of Aam Aadmi Party in Gujarat and claims made by its leaders that the AAP has finally emerged as a national political force. The contention: its leaders are making outlandishly tall claims. No doubt, many AAP leaders are “guilty” of that. But look at data dispassionately and remove ideological blinkers, and one thing becomes clear: AAP indeed promises to emerge as a national political force. The road ahead may be long and arduous, and it is possible the AAP could lose steam midway, but data as of today makes it a very successful political start-up.
Out of nowhere, AAP secured a 13% vote share in Gujarat, plundered from traditional Congress vote banks. Remember, AAP is just a 10-year-old party that leveraged the anti-corruption movement launched by Anna Hazare to deliver a shock to the Congress in the 2013 Delhi assembly elections. AAP made its electoral debut by getting a 29.5% vote share. There was a marginal dip in the BJP vote share. Most voters who opted for AAP in 2013 were traditional Congress supporters.
When assembly elections in Delhi were held again in 2015, the AAP vote share soared to 54.3%. Most of it was cannibalised from the Congress. Even in the 2020 assembly elections, the party won a staggering 53.5% vote share. Now, look at Punjab, the other state where the AAP has a chief minister. In 2017, AAP secured a 23.7% vote share and won 20 out of 117 seats.
Many pundits proclaimed that the much tom-tommed AAP balloon had deflated. This perception was reinforced when its Lok Sabha tally dropped to just one in Punjab in 2019. But come the 2022 assembly elections, AAP was back in the game. Its vote share shot up to 42%, and AAP won a massive 92 seats.
Before anyone sniggers at the 13% vote share won by AAP in the just-concluded Gujarat assembly election, think about what happened in Delhi and Punjab. To be sure, it’s not as if the AAP will repeat Delhi and Punjab in 2027 when Gujarat goes to the polls again. The BJP is too formidable a party to meekly fold up and surrender like the Congress. But with the rate at which the AAP has demonstrated the ability to cannibalise Congress votes, it won’t be surprising if AAP becomes the main opposition party in Gujarat in 2027 as the Congress implodes. BJP leaders in Gujarat privately admit that the AAP will be able to leverage anti-incumbency against the BJP next time around.
Look at where the AAP vote bank comes from. It is urban in Delhi. It is significantly rural in Punjab. And in Gujarat, early and preliminary data suggest that AAP has done better in rural pockets than in urban centres. There is a real danger of the AAP gobbling up Congress votes in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. It did that early this year in Goa when it won 6.8% of the vote share, crumbling the Congress challenge to the BJP.
In states with strong regional parties like West Bengal, UP, Bihar, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the AAP may not find electoral space. But in states where the Congress is in bipolar contests with the BJP, the AAP can sense a golden opportunity to break through. It did become the main opposition party in the Surat municipal corporation. And surprisingly, in Assam, the AAP won one seat in Guwahati municipal elections this April, while the Congress drew a blank. Of course, the BJP swept the polls. These are straws in the wind, but they point to the AAP’s opportunities to expand its electoral footprint to become a possible alternative.It is not as if political alternatives available to voters have not existed in India.
The 1960s saw the short-lived Swatantra Party on the Right and the Communists on the Left break the Congress monopoly over power.
In addition, regional parties like the DMK and the Akali Dal emerged as credible alternatives to the Congress in Tamil Nadu and Punjab. By the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had emerged as a credible alternative at the national level, while the communist parties retained their relevance. In 2009, that voter support for the Left virtually collapsed, and Congress began suffering a similar fate from 2014. By 2019, it was clear that barring formidable regional parties in their own states, a credible alternative to the BJP at the national level simply did not exist. Politics hates vacuums. The attempt by the Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal needs to be seen in this historical context.
Going ahead, the AAP will need four things to expand its electoral footprint in India successfully. The first is resources. Governments in Delhi, Punjab and the municipal corporation of Delhi will help. The second is a clear positive message to voters on health, education, freebies, and the like. Supported by a propaganda apparatus and media support in Delhi, AAP is uniquely positioned to exploit this advantage. The third is ideology. Since AAP is completely bereft of any ideology, it could work both for and against the party. The fourth is a grassroots organisation. This is where the AAP could stumble and fall.
Shorn of rhetoric, the Gujarat results indicate that AAP has proven it is not an NGO-driven, Delhi-based party. Given its over-emphasis on propaganda, it can still flame out by the end of this decade. Yet, no serious and objective political analyst would shy away from watching this fascinating journey.
Executive Director, C Voter Foundation