By Tahir Mehdi

What the PTI can learn from the AAP defeatThe rise of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Indian politics was stunning. It upstaged both the ruling Congress and its arch rival BJP in Delhi’s local elections just months after its formation. The elections were local and Delhi does not even enjoy the status of a state (province).

Yet, its success kindled hope among Indians. Finally, the much-awaited third option has arrived.

Just as in Pakistan, Tehreek-i-Insaf had become an emblem of hope for the desperate voters stuck between ‘the devil and the deep sea’, namely Pakistan People’s Party and Muslim League Nawaz.

Hope turned into hype in India as the euphoria of the campaign for general elections hit the streets and TV screens weeks after AAP’s first victory.

The AAP supporters were enthusiastic, motivated and sincerely believed in the party’s ‘ideology’ that ending corruption is all that India needs and that this dream will only come true when the ‘sadiq and amin’ candidates will be elected by the people. This, not a tad bit different from the workers and supporters of PTI, who also think that raising the moral baseline for politicians is the solution to all of this country’s ailments.

Can you: Spot the difference?

I compared the two parties last January in an article published in this space, when AAP was into around the 20th day of its rule of the Dehli area. Its performance, even though a minority government, was making headlines every day. Going one step further up on its high moral ladder, the party took a ‘principled stand’ when its proposed anti-corruption bill was blocked by others. It then resigned from the government after remaining in power for just 49 days.

AAP front man, Arvind Kejriwal.
AAP front man, Arvind Kejriwal.
Its resignation was timed too close to the campaign for general elections that started in early April. The party probably thought it had already hit all the right chords with the Indian voters and that it was now well-positioned to storm into the central corridors of power, or that at least its performance in Delhi, including its ‘great act of sacrificing power’, would give it a much stronger footing in the coming elections.

As it turned out, the AAP were completely wrong.

Its display of political chivalry is now considered the biggest blunder that a populist party could ever commit. It shot itself in the foot and its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, was slapped in the face, literally. The auto-rickshaw driver who did that during an election rally thought that Kejriwal had betrayed his community, which had supported the AAP only to have their votes wilfully trashed by the party.

“I committed a huge mistake. He is god for me. I did it because he left the government after some days,” the frustrated driver said later. The AAP did forward a conspiracy theory to cover up the incident but admitted days later that it made a mistake by resigning from the Delhi government.

The bigger slap for the AAP, however, came on May 16 when election results were announced. The party failed miserably and did not come up to even the bleakest of the projections of its electoral performance. Only four of its 400 clean candidates won and the party got fewer votes than even the None of the Above (NOTA option) in most of the provinces.

Video: Analysing the AAP’s performance

I was in India on a four-week visit to cover the general elections for Dawn in April-May this year and met many AAP workers and voters, besides of course others, across this vast country’s five cities.

The AAP dominated every discussion, be it with the Punjabis fed up of their ruling Sikh party (Shiromani Akali Dal), the ghettoised Muslims of Ahamadabad, the easy going businessmen of Bangalore or the arm chair intellectuals of Delhi; every discussion swung between two extremes.

An AAP rally in Ahamadabad. -Photo by AP
An AAP rally in Ahamadabad. -Photo by AP
While everyone sung praises for the new party for its ability to have mainstreamed their anger against corrupt bureaucracy and polity into the political discourse, they would curse it in the same breath saying the party was a non-starter.

“They are not practical.”
“They are good in street protests only and not in governance.”
“They are too immature and emotional.”
“They are unreliable adventurers.”

These were the kind of comments that I heard repeatedly. The most sympathetic commentators gave the party some leeway by saying “it did commit a blunder but then they are still too young for such decisions.”

Find out: Why the PTI could not do what the AAP has

The lesson to bring home was clear: chanting slogans of change can be good for your political health but you also need to demonstrate the resolve and the capacity to deliver on promises. Your performance in the streets can serve as a ‘warm up’ but if you start considering that as the actual game, you are seriously mistaken.

The prevalent conditions in the country are what they are. You have to start your work from within these limits and if you tend to blame the conditions, that you have promised to change, as an excuse for your inability to deliver, your incapability will lie exposed.

Imran Khan has made known that his party can dissolve the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly and resign from the National Assembly as its ‘principled’ demands on correcting the wrongs of the May 2013 elections are not being met.

Where would this ‘manly’ politics take his party?

The PTI lost a good number of supporters, when in 2013 it backtracked on its main promise of never allowing corrupt politicians into its ranks. It is now brimming with old stalwarts known for their opportunist politics. (The AAP, however, stayed true to their word and did not accept any known corrupt politician in its ranks, howsoever electable he/she might have seemed to be.)

The PTI’s performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa can only be judged by the electors come next elections. It’s no use fighting over whether a development indicator has moved up or down a few decimal points as numbers are cooked by master chefs among the politicised bureaucracy and a little garnish is all it takes to change the looks of a course. So, it’s better to stay neutral on that count and wait for the people’s judgment.

But there is one glaring deficiency in the PTI’s performance in KP that remains undeniable: its reluctance, and practical refusal, to hold local government elections in its province. The PTI has not only missed a great opportunity to dig its roots deep into the province, it has also proved that the party is no bigger a ‘democrat’ than the parties ruling elsewhere in the country.

Explore: The reluctant democrats

It could have trumped others by taking a lead in organising local elections that were all within its powers. The party, however, prefers to see the glass as half empty, while conveniently ignoring the other half.

Meanwhile, after the massive drubbing, the AAP has decided to start again from the point where it had erred – the local government elections of Delhi. It lost all of the seven national assembly seats of Delhi to the BJP. But the AAP is in court now, not to challenge those elections but to force the government to not drag its feet over the local elections and guess who is hesitant, if not afraid, of the emergence of a new grass root level verdict – the super powerful BJP.