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History matters | February 2015: The Rise of the Muffler Man

Amid scepticism, Kejriwal had created an army of loyal voters every political analyst and pundit failed to see.

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(This article was originally published on 24 February and is being reupped on the occasion of Kejriwal's arrest by ED in the liquor policy case.)

Arguably, it would rank as one of the greatest Houdini-like displays in modern Indian politics. Having tasted unexpected success in 2013, the man went berserk in 2014, declaring himself a candidate for the post of prime minister, contested Lok Sabha elections from Varanasi, and fielded about 500 candidates from his fledgling party.

Barring some shock wins in Punjab, he was humbled and humiliated, his national ambitions clipped the wings. Many thought and said the man had committed political suicide by going overboard and taking on Narendra Modi who was the flavour of the day.

Commentators described him as a "Bhagoda”. Was he destined to be that political meteor that flashed across Indian politics resplendently for some fleeting moments?
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The Staggering Rise of AAP in Delhi Politics

Amidst this scepticism and nasty jibes, the muffler man had created an army of loyal voters that virtually every political analyst and pundit failed to see.

No wonder, shockwaves reverberated in Indian polity when the results of the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections were announced in February. Arvind Kejriwal had led his new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to a historic and monumental victory, crushing everything that came his way. A few months before this, he had been humbled by the new PM Narendra Modi not only in Varanasi but also in Delhi where the BJP swept all seven Lok Sabha seats with the smallest victory margin being well above 100,000.

But this time, Arvind Kejriwal got his revenge.

AAP decimated the BJP and obliterated the Congress by winning 67 out of the 70 seats on offer. The BJP somehow managed to win three seats while the Congress failed to open its account.

In fact, all the 70 Congress candidates together failed to win even one million votes. The AAP vote share was about 55% while that of the BJP remained around its traditional one-third mark.

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AAP’s Successful Political Positioning

The BJP was humiliated indeed, but the election sent a clear signal that AAP had the capacity to gobble up the entire Congress vote bank and pose an existential threat to the Grand Old Party in places where it could find opportunities to grow its voter base.

The significance of this message was visible in the 2022 Assembly Elections in Punjab. AAP swept the state winning 92 out of 117 seats. The Congress crashed to 18 seats. The AAP vote share went up by about 18% and the Congress vote share went down by a shade less than 16%.

The story was repeated in Gujarat later in the year when the BJP swept the state winning 156 of the 182 seats. The Congress crashed by 60 seats to 17. AAP won only five seats but fatally wounded the Congress. It gained a 14% vote share while the Congress vote share dropped by 13%.

In such a scenario, it seems surreal how AAP and Congress could be discussing seat-sharing arrangements as INDIA Alliance partners.
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But leave that aside. Since this is about Arvind Kejriwal and AAP, what lies ahead?

On the plus side, AAP has proven to be an enormously successful political startup. In less than 12 years since birth, it has won two massive mandates in Delhi and an equally big one in Punjab.

It has also won sufficient vote shares in Goa and Gujarat to be officially recognised by the Election Commission of India as a national party. It is now eyeing Haryana as a ripe fruit to be plucked and also many urban centres across India where voters are seemingly fed up with the traditional parties and politics as usual.

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An Uncontested Voter Base

On the flipside are credible corruption charges that have the potential to destroy the core message of AAP that it is an "anti-corruption crusader".

Don’t forget voters don’t punish leaders who are even convicted of corruption. The unwavering support base for Lalu Yadav in Bihar shows that.

Why do voters, even liberals in India hail Lalu as a hero despite being convicted multiple times and sent to jail? So Arvind Kejriwal can breathe a sigh of relief. So what if one of the top leaders Satyendra Jain is behind bars on money laundering charges for about two years? So what if the second-most important AAP leader and former deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia is behind bars facing allegations of corruption in the infamous Delhi Excise Policy scam and has been denied bail even by the Supreme Court. So what is yet another top leader Sanjay Singh too faces music inside Tihar jail.

Admirers of Kejriwal in the media and elsewhere are convinced that the core supporters of AAP will not waver as they genuinely think all this is a conspiracy of the Modi regime to prevent Kejriwal from rising as a rival to Modi at the national level. Admirers and die-hard supporters have the freedom to enjoy their delusions.
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But the vote base of Kejriwal is a world apart from the vote base of Lalu Yadav in Bihar.

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Corruption and AAP: A Complex Affair

AAP is a direct byproduct of the India Against Corruption movement launched by Anna Hazare of which Arvind Kejriwal was an integral member.

In the early days of AAP, Kejriwal and his fellow leaders would use public platforms to passionately promise that they will send the corrupt to jail if they get the opportunity. So when the AAP was formed in late 2012, the overwhelming majority of voters it attracted were not bothered by caste or other considerations.

They were enchanted by the vision of a party that runs a clean, corruption-free government that genuinely takes care of ordinary citizens. To this cohort were added beneficiaries of generous freebies provided by AAP in Delhi.

The question is: when even High Court and Supreme Court judges tacitly agree with the serious corruption charges against top AAP leaders and deny them regular bail, how would voters who wanted an end to corruption react? Of course, Kejriwal has built such a personality that his die-hard fans will remain loyal voters.
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But what about the much-maligned "silent majority" that detests corruption and feels helpless? Some argue that thanks to Mohalla clinics, improved government schools, loads of freebies, and a personality cult, AAP and Kejriwal will comfortably win a third consecutive mandate in Delhi when Assembly Elections come around in early 2025.

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Precautions AAP Must Take as a Political Startup

It's possible. But the authors would conclude by pointing out one thing: AAP and Byjus started around the same time and became enormously successful startups.

The peak for Byjus came in 2021 when it "spent” USD 1 billion to buy the offline coaching institute Aakash. For AAP, the unprecedented mandate in Punjab in early 2022 was definitely a peak. For Byjus, the journey from the peak to near oblivion has been swift.

When it acquired Aakash, Byjus was valued at USD 22 billion. But soon after that, a can of worms opened up in the company revealing serious governance phases. The commercial marketplace is cruel and doesn’t take long to punish those who fail to keep promises made to stakeholders. As of now, Byjus is valued at USD 200 million, a 99% drop from its peak.

The authors are by no means suggesting a similar fate awaits AAP. The political marketplace is vastly different from the commercial marketplace. Yet, the authors think Kejriwal could draw some lessons from the Byju's saga.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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