The big political story of last week was the election results in three states that had the same incumbent but different outcomes. The Aam Aadmi Party won the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), the Congress wrested Himachal Pradesh, and the BJP swept Gujarat like never before. Though a seventh straight term with 156 seats out of 182 and 52.5% vote share for the BJP in Gujarat overshadowed the AAP’s MCD win and Congress’s comfortable victory in Himachal, in many ways, this election cycle was about AAP: its success in the MCD, impressive inroads into Gujarat, and its utter failure to make an impact in Himachal.
While its narrow win in the MCD is significant, given that for the very first time it has wrested power from the BJP which had won the Delhi municipal elections for three successive terms in the past 15 years, AAP’s impressive debut in Gujarat is even more significant. Getting into a big state for the first time and securing 13% vote share is quite a feat. Equally striking is the fact that AAP has secured nearly a fourth of the Opposition vote — 12.92% out of 47.5%.
While the BJP was clearly seen as the front-runner and the Congress was expected to underperform in terms of both seats and vote share, political observers were keenly interested in how well AAP does in Gujarat. Though its remarkable success in terms of vote share has not translated into a good number of seats — AAP won only 5 against 17 by the Congress — as more than half the voters preferred the ruling BJP, the skewed electoral outcome in the first-past-the-post electoral system robbed AAP of the glamour that is associated with seats.
But more than seats, most serious observers of Gujarat politics were interested in the vote share that AAP would garner in the election, which is going to be crucial for its long-term impact on the state’s politics. Considering that there was discontent and dissatisfaction, particularly in rural Gujarat, for an Opposition party to tap into and the Congress, plagued by big-ticket defections and a listless campaign, was not in the best position to do that, the ground was fertile for the rise of a third force to achieve a breakthrough. As the Congress struggled, AAP successfully channelled the anti-incumbency into votes for itself.
Though the performance is poor in terms of seats, as a new entrant in Gujarat, AAP was not expected to get more than 10 seats. Given the BJP’s unexpected landslide victory and decimation of the Congress, AAP has not done badly. It is also true that zero in Himachal and single digits in Gujarat don’t stack up for the claims AAP made. But they work in the larger plan of Arvind Kejriwal’s party, as its vote share in Gujarat is enough for AAP to get national party status. For a party that was formed just 10 years ago and isn’t a breakaway of any other party, this is no small achievement.
Beyond the technical qualification of national party status, the bigger question is: can AAP become a national force? This is a difficult question to answer at this stage, but AAP’s feat in Gujarat will have state and national implications. The significance of AAP’s performance also lies in the fact that this is the first time in 25 years that Gujarat has seen a genuine third force. It is true that it is still not a pan-Gujarat alternative, considering that it has done poorly in North and Central Gujarat. But this is only the beginning and having garnered 13% votes, it can spread its influence across the state.
The Gujarat outcome is crucial for AAP because it will now prepare the party to go to other states where there is a bi-polar contest between the BJP and the Congress. It is important to mention here that much of AAP’s vote share in Gujarat has come from the Congress space, while it has been unable to reduce the BJP’s vote share. This means AAP’s effort to woo pro-Hindutva voters isn’t paying off, considering that the BJP’s vote share has remained untouched in Delhi and Gujarat. This is cause for concern for its national ambitions.
The Gujarat feat, along with its spectacular success in Punjab and in the MCD, reflects AAP’s growing influence outside Delhi and its acceptance by voters. With governments in Delhi and Punjab and MLAs in Goa and Gujarat, it has reason to rejoice for becoming eligible for national party status. However, this is more symbolic than real, given that to become a genuine national party like the BJP or the Congress, AAP has a very long way to go and many battles to win. It will need a long-term plan and lots of efforts to build a strong organisation and support base across states.
Despite its claim of being an alternative to the Congress and the BJP, AAP’s recent success has been at the expense of the Congress. Therefore, its efforts to spread its organisational network will find its first victim in Congress. If AAP could achieve a breakthrough in Gujarat, it can possibly do the same, or at least will try to, in other states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand where the BJP and the Congress are traditional rivals and which have a space for alternative politics. But whether the Congress cedes space to AAP in these states remains to be seen.
AAP’s success in Gujarat was largely because the Congress seemed to have given up the fight. Reports suggest that its failure in Himachal was mainly because the Congress did not cede the Opposition space. Since AAP is still not a party that can win over BJP voters, all it can hope for is to eat into the Congress space in more states, despite its ideological ambivalence and without taking some of the political positions the Congress does.
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule
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