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Aiming to defy gravity – the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2014 Indian Elections

The 2014 Indian election sees the arrival in national politics of a new political party – the Aaam Aadmi Party (AAP, or Party of the Common Man).  The AAP emerged from the mass anti-corruption movement, which mobilized huge demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 against the ineffectiveness of governance and the political scandals that have rocked the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. As a new entrant for Parliamentary elections, campaigning as an anti-system party and targeting corruption in business and the media as well as the political system, the AAP faces formidable challenges.  This is recognized by AAP strategist and candidate for the Gurgaon constituency in Haryana, Yogendra Yadav: ‘Launching a party is like rocket launching. Either you defy gravity or you collapse, there is no third way’. The AAP is contesting under the the symbol of the broom, claiming that: ‘With the Broom which symbolizes dignity of labour, the party hopes to clean the filth which has permeated our government and our legislature. The country needs a clean sweep of its corrupted main stream political parties.’ The programme of the party has emphasized institutional reforms to enhance transparency and accountability across government, with an economic policy seeking to limit price rises for key commodities.  The party has linked these issues through a focus on the way that privatization and contracting out of government services to big business houses has been associated with corruption and rising prices. Following an impressive performance in the Delhi Assembly Elections in December 2013, where the AAP won 29 per cent of the vote and a decisive tally of 28 out of the 70 seats, the party is seeking to build on that political momentum.  Contesting across India (to date the AAP has announced 339 candidates to contest the 385 seats up for election to the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament)) the party has attempted to challenge the existing parties with a popular campaign which builds on the widespread resentment about party corruption and government graft.  Under the leadership of Arvind Kejriwal, formerly a bureaucrat with the Indian Revenue Service who resigned to join the campaign for freedom of information and rose to prominence in the anti-corruption movement, the AAP has sought to define itself as a populist party with no ideological agenda. Does the Aam Aadmi Party have a chance of breaking the mould of Indian politics in the 2014 election?  It faces four formidable challenges.

  • The first is to expand its organizational reach whilst maintaining the party’s reputation for probity and claims to be the party of good governance.  The party has embarked on a major process to select candidates and raise finances for the campaign.  Without an established party machine, and with much of its appeal based on the need to cleanse the existing political system, the AAP has held itself to higher standards of transparency and accountability.  This in turn leaves the party reliant on an activist base which is inexperienced and with a limited hold on the existing levers of political patronage and power.  As a populist party, it seeks to draw on the spirit of the anti-corruption mobilization, with local public agitations and protests, but this can leave it looking somewhat chaotic and lacking a clear campaigning focus.
  • The second challenge is the need to broaden out the popular support base of the party.  Whilst the anti-corruption movement showed the broad appeal of the Aam Aadmi programme, and the electoral success in the Delhi Assembly poll was based on an appeal across social groups, support for the Aam Aadmi party seems weak in the rural constituencies which will determine the outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha election.  In States where politics is polarized between caste-community groups, such as Uttar Pradesh, it may be difficult for the AAP’s broad appeal across groups to find traction.
  • The third challenge is the broader resistance from established interests across the economic and political landscape.  Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign has highlighted the corrupt influence of government, media, and business, but this is likely to lead to a defensive response from those whose interests might be threatened.  During his brief tenure as Chief Minister of Delhi, Kejriwal claimed bureaucratic obstruction prevented him from implementing his radical agenda for government.  Running as an anti-system party is certain to provoke strong, but not necessarily public, opposition from those with an interest in maintaining the current system.
  • The fourth challenge is the difficulty of reaching the threshold for electoral success in a first-past-the-post system.  As Katharine Adeney pointed out in an earlier blog in this series the outcome of the 2014 election is likely to be largely determined by parties’ ability to construct effective alliances across the States of India.  For both major parties, the BJP and Congress, their core support is insufficient to win a majority of seats, and electoral victory is based on a complex network of seat-sharing agreements and alliance building with State and regional parties.  Representing a new approach to politics, the Aam Aadmi Party is precluded from linking with any of the established parties contesting the election.  As such, it is deprived of a key strategic tool for converting vote share into victories in constituencies.

Recent opinion polls show the AAP registering limited support.  The NDTV poll published on March 13 predicted that the AAP would win four seats in Delhi, but have little impact beyond the capital. An earlier poll carried out in February by ABP News-Nielsen suggested that the AAP was on course to win 10 seats.  However, the campaign is still at an early stage, and public opinion is certain to shift between now and the period when polling takes place across India in April and May. Gauging the success of a new party is difficult, and the AAP will be seeking to manage expectations about what it can realistically achieve.  In an interview with The Hindu, Yogendra Yadav suggested the AAP could win seats in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab, and had strength in urban pockets of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka.  Beyond these areas the party could gain enough votes to influence the results, if not win seats, which would raise the profile of the party and have an effect on the political agenda. There is a chance that the Aam Aadmi Party could exceed these expectations.  The Congress Party is in a shambolic state, hampered by its dynastic leadership structure, tainted through association with corruption scandals, and with its reputation for economic competence undermined by the slowing rate of growth.  The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) campaign is dominated by Narendra Modi, a divisive figure seen by many to threaten India’s future as a secular and inclusive country.  In such a context, the AAP provides an opportunity for voters who are disillusioned with the state of mainstream politics.  Whilst there are formidable challenges for the AAP, there is the possibility that the 2014 election could see a new breakthrough in Indian politics.


Dr Alistair McMillan is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is a regular contributor to Economic and Political Weekly and author of Standing at the Margins: Representation and Electoral Reservation in India.

Published inIndia Votes 2014

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