(Aam Aadmi Party was formally declared a national party by the Election Commission on 10 April 2023. This article from December 2022 has been updated based on this development.)
The Aam Aadmi Party formally became eligible for national party status after its performance in the 2022 Gujarat Assembly elections. Gujarat became the fourth state where AAP can get the status of a state party. It needed to get a vote share of six percent and win two seats to attain become a state party.
It won 5 seats and secured a vote share of 12.92 percent in the Gujarat elections. AAP was already a state party in Punjab, Delhi and Goa and needed one more state to become a national party.
You can read more about the national party criteria here.
For a party that was formed only ten years ago and isn't the breakaway of any other party, this is no small achievement.
Beyond the technical qualification of national party, the bigger question is, can AAP become a national force?
This article will look at both these aspects - the importance of what AAP has achieved and also its scope for the future.
Why AAP's Performance is Important
There are two aspects to this: its importance in Gujarat and nationally.
This is the first time in 25 years that Gujarat has seen a genuine third force. The last such party was Shankarsinh Vaghela's Rashtriya Janata Party which got about 12 percent votes and four seats in the 1998 Assembly elections. But then it was still a breakaway faction of the BJP.
Since then the only non-BJP, non-Congress parties to make their presence felt were parties like the NCP and Janata Dal (United), mostly due to a handful of leaders having influence in their own areas. Keshubhai Patel's Gujarat Parivartan Party was also a failed experiment at an alternative in the 2012 elections as it secured just about 3.6 percent votes and won two seats.
AAP therefore has made a significant entry into Gujarat's political sphere with a vote share of almost 13 percent.
It is still not a pan-Gujarat alternative as it has fared poorly in North and Central Gujarat. But to be fair, even in its first few elections in Punjab, AAP was restricted mainly to the Malwa region. Eventually it did grow across the state.
The important part about AAP becoming a national party is that unlike the last few parties to get that status - NCP, NPP and Trinamool Congress - AAP isn't a breakaway of any other party. It is more in the lines of BSP, which emerged organically, though from a very different strand of politics.
From a national point of view, AAP's breakthrough in Gujarat is in some ways more politically significant than its win in Punjab.
This is not to belittle the importance of what it achieved in Punjab. But from a national perspective, Punjab is an outlier state. It has more often than not gone in an electorally opposite direction from much of Northern India.
It is also a Sikh majority state has a unique political narrative. Winning Punjab doesn't directly influence any other state, as has become evident in AAP's dismal showing in neighbouring Himachal.
But Gujarat is not like Punjab. It is an overwhelmingly Hindu majority state. It was integral to all the BJP's national victories and, to some extent the Congress' 2009 victory.
Like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, it has mostly been a 'BJP vs Congress' state. Unlike Punjab, Gujarat hardly had a space for alternative politics.
If AAP can break into Gujarat's political scene, it can very well try to do the same in other states where the BJP and Congress have been engaged in a two-way contest.
What Space Can AAP Occupy?
Despite its claim of being an alternative to both the Congress and BJP, AAP's rise is has mostly been at the expense of the Congress.
Be it the 2013, 2015 and 2020 Assembly elections in Delhi, AAP's vote share has risen at the expense of the Congress and the BSP. It didn't harm the BJP much. In fact the BJP's vote share increased between the 2015 and 2020 Assembly polls and also between the 2017 and 2022 MCD polls.
The same can be said about the Gujarat Assembly elections.
AAP's rise came with a direct fall or collapse of Congress' vote share. It doesn't seem to have eaten into the BJP's vote share at all.
This means that outside of Punjab (where AAP harmed the Akalis even more than the Congress), AAP is mainly an alternative to the Congress.
It's failure to rise in Himachal Pradesh is mainly because the Congress didn't cede space there at all.
AAP is still not a party that can win over BJP's voters.
Yes many voters who vote for the BJP at the Centre, vote for AAP at the Delhi state level. But these are floating voters who vote based on personalities rather than party loyalty. From the 2015 Assembly election to 2020 polls and the 2017 MCD election to 2022, AAP's rise has brought about no losses to the BJP. BJP has in fact gained in terms of vote share.
What seems to have happened in this MCD election and to some extent the Gujarat election is that disgruntled BJP voters have chosen not to turn up rather than vote for AAP or Congress.
In contrast in Himachal Pradesh, a fall in BJP's vote share led to a direct increase in that of the Congress, indicating a clear shift of voters.
AAP's inability to inflict losses on BJP's vote bank is despite the fact that it has been trying to woo that section by playing the Hindu card, remaining silent on minority issues or even making its minister resign for participating in a Buddhist mass conversion.
Clearly, AAP's efforts to woo pro-Hindutva voters isn't yielding anything as the BJP's vote share remains untouched in both Delhi and Gujarat, despite AAP's rise.
So AAP is ending up eating into the Congress' space without taking some of the political positions the Congress does.
If AAP has been unable to reduce the BJP's vote share at the MCD or Assembly level, there isn't much hope that it would be able to do so at the national level where PM Narendra Modi is directly on the ballot.
Unless it changes its approach, all it can hope for is to eat into the Congress' space in more places.