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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

On Punjab elections, and why what should be a victory for AAP feels like a defeat

We live in times of instant gratification.

Just look around us.

T20 is the flavor of cricket today. Test cricket is “too slow” for these busy times.
(Typical conversation:
 This goes on for the WHOLE day?
No, not one. Five.
 Five? Five full days?
Yes. And even after that, it could be a draw. No winner or loser.
You want to kill me? Kill me NOW.)

News too has imbibed this supreme sense of urgency, an outcome of this instant gratification urge. Every outlet, in its rush to be “the first” to break the story, is happy to just push it out there, not fact-checked, unedited. As long as it is “the first”.  People’s attention span probably ensures  they’ll just skim through it anyway – assuming they go past the headline first. And news comes at them at such a rapid pace anyway, they’ll forget this piece the moment the next one appears in their inbox, or is delivered on social media.

That’s the world we live in today. And that’s ok – these are fast-paced times.

Patience isn’t a virtue anymore. In fact, it is probably scorned upon.  (See cricket discussion above).

But this also means we sometimes miss the essence of something significant because we are too caught up in our instant gratification trip. It’s not happening fast enough for our minds to appreciate any movement at all. So we conclude, nothing is happening . But it’s happening in ITS time, not ours. Something we will appreciate only if we give it ITS time.

Ok, let me stop talking in this Deepak Chopra-esque lingo and come straight to the point.

I am referring to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its evolution.

When the results of the Punjab Assembly elections were announced today, there was a huge sense of  disappointment amongst AAP supporters. Many of them had worked incredibly hard for the party, giving it their everything. They'd even guarded EVMs, fearing they might be manipulated during the 5-week waiting period between voting and counting. 

AAP came in with "just" 20 seats out of 117. This, when at one time, a few months ago, they were talking of 80+ seats, even 100 seats!

That’s quite a comedown!

The incumbent, the Akalis, did even worse. Expectations from them were very low anyway, so they probably matched, or even surpassed, these low expectations.

The runaway winner was the old hand, the Congress Party. Thanks to a leader the electorate largely trusted, Capt Amarinder Singh. And of course, the organization at ground level that this grand old party has.

So AAP ended up a very distant second. But, even so, having come in second, it is the main opposition party in the Punjab Assembly.

This made me think.

Was I expecting AAP to sweep Punjab? Not really. I certainly expected them to do much better than they did, but I never once underestimated the other two big parties.

 Both Congress and the Akalis are entrenched parties, with cadres loyal to them. They’ve both fought many elections before and are surely aware of the tricks of the trade, especially how to woo the electorate. Both are deep-pocketed and can comfortably call upon resources from outside Punjab whenever required.

Compare this with AAP. It’s a 4-and-a-little-something year old party, with very little experience of contesting elections. Although it did contest general elections in Punjab in 2014, this was the first time it was seeking votes from Punjab voters to govern them in their own state.

AAP’s footprint, at least that which could have been relevant to the Punjab voter, was almost entirely in Delhi. It might claim to have a good report card to show for its two years in Delhi – but it was still a relatively unknown commodity for  the Punjab voter.  Many of the AAP candidates must have been new names for the voters.

Compare this with the Congress and SAD. In 2012, Congress got about 40% of the voteshare, even more than SAD's 35%, though SAD won the elections. So this time even if there was huge anti-incumbency in Punjab, wouldn't it be natural to expect these anti-incumbency votes to go to a party that is already extremely well-entrenched in the state? That has a very strong local leader in Capt Amarinder? 

Why would a voter pick an untested name from an untested party over a familiar, trusted, one?

On what basis then were the predictions of 80-100 seats for AAP based? 

Based purely on euphoria from seeing crowds at campaigns held well before election date?

At least if these crowds had assembled just a few days before election date, one could have made a case for AAP having a realistic chance of winning.

There were probably many reasons for AAP’s less-than-expected performance. I don’t want to dwell on them here.

 I do want to however dwell on the expectation itself. That's because I strongly believe the disappointment stems from this expectation.

Otherwise, getting 20 seats in a state you're contesting for the first time, against two formidable opponents would normally be considered a victory for a new party.
I think it all started with the Delhi landslide.

67/70 is mind-blowingly phenomenal by any standards.

But it is also ripe for the creation of illusions.

Had AAP won Delhi with a more modest 40/70, nobody would've been throwing numbers like 100/117 in Punjab. That is an obscene domination, but when you’ve seen 67/70, a 100/117 looks, well,  doable.

Which, for the party itself, is just fine. You contest to win. And to win every seat you contest.

But when the “new normal” being talked about becomes 80/117 or even more, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.

After all, Delhi is history, Punjab is a fresh election. You need to start from scratch to win over every single voter all over again. One vote at a time, building up to one seat at a time, building up to a majority. It is a painstaking process, requiring huge amount of investment of time and money.  Unlike other deep-pocketed parties, AAP largely depends on volunteers for both their time and money.  It was going to be a real tough ask to harness these resources for 117 constituencies.

Seen this way, AAP should have been an underdog to start with. That it wasn’t, is down entirely to unrealistic expectations, whether created by the party itself or by others.

Also seen from this bottom-up angle, that AAP has managed to get 20 seats, contesting for the first time in Punjab state elections, should be  seen as positive by the neutral observer. Until now, Punjab had seen mostly a bi-party contest. This time, a third party entered the fray – and ended up being the main opposition party in the Assembly.

This might serve as a good experience for AAP in Punjab. By the time the next state elections come along, AAP might have settled in better in the state, and  broadened its base. This is part of the evolution process of a political party.

Which brings me to the evolution of AAP, as whole.

And brings me back to the point I started this piece with. On these fast-paced times and the concomitant lack of patience to allow things to evolve.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that AAP is not even 5 years old. Compare this with entrenched parties, who’ve been around for decades, with strong organization structure and cadres around the country. AAP is nowhere close to this at the moment.

Yet, the buzz is all about where AAP is going to contest next, and how it is going to “shake” the biggies in that state. Gujarat next? Then what?

Much as I appreciate the excitement that seems to follow any AAP indication, or even speculation, of contesting elections,  I think we need to temper our electoral expectations on AAP. Enough of this hype.  It’s not like other parties are sleeping and are just going to let AAP walk all over them.

Yes, by all means, AAP should contest every election it wishes to, if it has the resources to do so. Even if it wins one seat (or, as in the case of Goa, not even that one), it might be a first step to making its presence known in that state. It might have a small vote share which might not translate to seats, but is an encouraging vote of confidence from those few voters.

But, for heaven’s sake, keep the hype down. Put in all the effort to win – but don’t go about making statements like “we’re going to sweep it”. Your volunteers might need pumping up, but there are better ways of motivating them.

Otherwise you set yourself up for situations like today. 

What should be seen as a victory of sorts in Punjab – becoming the second largest party, and therefore the main opposition party – now feels like a defeat.

All because of hype and unrealistic expectations.

AAP is still evolving. It’s still very early days for it – we don’t know how its footprint will be 5 years from today, 10 years from today. It might have a significant presence in many states by then. It might be in government in a few, maybe the main opposition party in others. Especially given the state of the Congress party at the moment, AAP might become the biggest national party after the BJP.

Or it might not. Already, based on just today’s results, some have written the obituary of the party. Somewhat reminiscent of what happened after the LS elections of 2014.

All of this is, of course, in the realm of speculation.

What AAP can do is keep doing its job, and building credibility as a party. This might not win it elections  in the short run, since it is still very much an outsider, fighting for mind space against entrenched parties with established cadres and networks.

But as it gains credibility, as its work gets talked about more, as it builds more institutional strength and capability, it has every reason to hope for more electoral gains too.  This might take time but if it is on the right track, it should eventually see results for all its good work.

In between, there will, of course, be electoral hits and misses. These just need to be taken in its stride, without getting carried away - or agitated - about a hit or a miss. After all, an electoral result is not an absolute reflection of one party, it is relative to how voters perceive others in the fray.

So my advice to AAP would be, just be grounded. And patient. It might be frustrating at times, but play it like a Test match. Build the capabilities that enable you to be that “lambe race ka ghoda”. 

Where you’re in government, let your work speak for you. Where you’re in opposition, be a tough opposition, demanding performance from the government. Either way, the winner will be the people of that state or constituency.

This is what is in your hands.

The rest should just follow. And will, in due course.


Vishal said...

Great piece. I agree mostly but I think one of the reasons to make these tall claims is to convince the electorate that you are capable of forming the government. One of the biggest hesitations people have in voting for a new party is that they will not form the government so it will be a wasted vote.

So that's why it becomes important for a new party to project itself as a viable alternative.

Atul Sinha said...


Unknown said...

Its OK to temper down expectations but it is indeed surprising that vote share hasn't increased substantially since LS2014. Also, ground support just before election seemed disproportionate to the vote share that AAP eventually got. https://t.co/uR9PEfNjh3