Five years on, Aam Aadmi Party looks to expand its base across India

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New Delhi: On 26 November 2012, activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal officially launched the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). A unique political experiment and the product of a high-profile anti-corruption campaign, the party shot to limelight with a promise of ‘alternative politics’.

Five years after its launch, AAP under Delhi chief minister Kejriwal has seen it all—a strong volunteer base, a stunning victory in the 2015 Delhi polls, contesting its first Lok Sabha elections within 18 months of being launched, and internal organizational troubles leading to a split.

Inching closer to becoming a national party, AAP is now all set to expand its organizational base across the country.

On Sunday, the party will celebrate its fifth anniversary at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi—the same ground which became the epicentre of the anti-corruption movement led by social activist Anna Hazare.

In the last five years, AAP’s top leadership has attempted to take the party beyond Delhi. It has contested assembly elections in Delhi twice along with polls in Punjab, where it is the second largest party in the assembly, Goa and is preparing for Gujarat.

Leaders say the biggest challenge for the party is to expand beyond the national capital. In the next five years, the party plans to build its state-level organizations and local leadership. The party will begin its campaign with the states going to poll next year, including Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

“The biggest challenge in front of the party today is that Delhi doesn’t become a shackle. There has been good work by the government in the fields of education and health here. While Delhi will always be a focus, it is now important for the party to grow beyond and take its ideology to other parts of the country,” said an AAP leader, requesting anonymity.

The party is also working to expand its organizational base in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. To be sure, no official announcement has been made by the party on contesting elections in these states.

Currently, the party has 66 members in the Delhi legislative assembly, four members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha from Punjab and it is the leader of the opposition in Punjab.

“The first five years were challenging especially to form a party from a movement. These five years have helped establish that the party can govern. The task is to take that forward in the next five years. Building a strong organization will also be our strength for upcoming elections in the state,” said another AAP leader, who did not wish to be named.

“We have representation in almost all districts in the country. Our plan is to now expand to each assembly level where local leaders will be put forward. We have successfully managed that in the states of Goa, Punjab and Karnataka. For this, the next one year will be crucial as the leadership will hold rallies and political campaigns in various states,” the AAP leader added.

The national convention, the first since the party was formed, will act as a forum for party members to take stock of its successes and failures along with discussions on other national issues.

The underclass has always been a priority and a strong voter base for the AAP—they have been central to the policy decisions taken by the government. In 2013, Kejriwal launched his bijli-paani (water, power) agitation to begin the process of preparing the party’s crowd-sourced election manifesto. The decision to give free water and electricity to residents of Delhi was also one of the first taken by the AAP government.

Campaigns of crowdsourcing the manifesto for youth, farmers, women and health were used in subsequent elections in Delhi, Punjab and Goa.

“The biggest achievement of the party in five years has been to bring about an alternative in Indian politics. The AAP has been successful in changing the way people looked at elections. In just five years, it has also seen electoral success in Delhi and outside. The party managed to give the common people a forum to enter politics and also forced veteran parties to change their strategies for election,” said Deepak Bajpai, a senior leader and treasurer of the AAP.

However, the anniversary comes at a time when the AAP is once again facing an internal crisis. The party faced a similar crisis soon after assembly elections in Delhi which led to the ouster of founding members Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav. This time the cause of the tussle is upcoming elections to the Rajya Sabha in January, when the party gets a chance to send three members to the upper house.

Former leaders say that the party needs to focus on the underclass for its growth.

“Biggest impact of the AAP is that if they are being discussed after five years it signifies that new forces can emerge in politics. The first Delhi assembly election was a changing point for the party. But after the Lok Sabha elections, a split, with internal issues not very well-known, began to come out. The party’s decision (in 2013) to form a government with Congress (support) was a blow to the idea of alternative politics,” Ajit Jha, a former member of the AAP, said.

Jha, who was expelled from the party in 2015, is now the general secretary of Swaraj India.

He added, “Even as AAP’s national significance could have been diminished, in Delhi it became a party of the underclass and that is very important. That space is still available to AAP and if it sustains that, it will survive.”