Leader in jail, party in crisis

Leader in jail, party in crisis

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), in office in Delhi and Punjab, is facing the worst crisis of its short life. Since the alleged Delhi liquor scam broke out in 2021, the party has been under siege with the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on the heels of its senior leadership. ED’s first picks were senior Delhi ministers, Manish Sisodia and Satyendra Jain (the latter in a case not related to liquor), and the hunt climaxed with the arrest of Delhi chief minister (CM) and the party’s founder-chief Arvind Kejriwal in late March. Its reputation under a cloud, the party is now staring at a potential implosion: Rumours are afoot about an exodus of leaders, including ministers, legislators and Rajya Sabha MPs (the process has already begun with some high-profile exits in Punjab and Delhi and ther is speculation of more to come). It doesn’t help that senior party leaders themselves are talking about threats and inducements extended to wean away their colleagues even as many of the party’s high-profile leaders, including MPs and legislators, are adding grist to the rumour mills by their eloquent silence/absence at a time the party is mobilising opinion against the arrest of Kejriwal. The optics could hurt the party’s electoral prospects.

AAP leaders Sanjay Singh, Gopal Rai, Sandeep Pathak and Pankaj Gupta during a Press conference in New Delhi on Monday (PTI)

Just as the party gave the impression that it could defend the arrest of Kejriwal on corruption charges and even turn it to its advantage — the Opposition’s Ramlila Maidan rally was also a solidarity meeting for Kejriwal — the resignation of Delhi minister Raaj Kumar Anand has threatened to unravel its narrative. Anand, who was raided by ED, quit the party earlier this week after alleging that it was enmeshed in corruption. Two weeks earlier, the party’s lone MP in Punjab had resigned to join the BJP. The scandals, allegations, and resignations suggest a party uncertain of its course amidst multiple adversities.

At the moment, the AAP is in danger of losing its core agenda and cadres. The party grew out of the 2012 anti-corruption movement and made corruption-free governance its raison d’etre. The party’s welfare politics — focussed on providing subsidised public goods including electricity and water, education and health care — grew out of the anti-corruption agenda, which it publicised as the Delhi model of governance. But the party’s run-ins with the Delhi lieutenant governor and bureaucracy have slowed down the administration and hurt its governance claims. Having embraced a personality cult built around its leader, the party now appears adrift in his absence. Kejriwal, a senior party leader once said, was not just a person but an idea. However, this idea may be losing sheen following his arrest; his refusal to leave office despite his incarceration — the only CM in the history of independent India to do so — also raises questions about propriety (it is no reflection on the merit of the case though) even if courts have refused to weigh in on the topic.

The AAP was an unusual party to begin with. Its claim to be a post-ideological phenomenon that has more in common with business start-ups than a political party has been tested severely. Some of its founding leaders left the party over differences of opinion with Kejriwal in the party’s early days. The strategy to turn a movement-oriented group into an extension of a political persona may now test its resilience as a political party. The party’s challenge in the coming days will be to keep its flock together and protect its brand from being tainted by the very same charge that it once hurled at the political mainstream to declare its distinct identity.

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