How an IITian won over Delhi in a year: 5 secrets to success of Arvind Kejriwal and AAP


Love them or hate them, you can no longer ignore the Aam Aadmi Party. Much to the dismay of both Congress and BJP, the mammoths of Indian politics, Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP has transformed itself from a mere fringe player to the giant killer in a spectacular electoral debut in the Indian capital. What makes this victory sweeter is that it took this mechanical engineer from IIT Kharagpur, who quit the Indian Revenue Service to become a social activist, just a year to build his party from scratch, make his presence felt and eventually, upset the status quo in Delhi.

The Delhi Assembly election results – BJP won 32 seats; close on its heels is AAP with 28 seats, reducing the ruling Congress to a third position with 8 seats – has forced the established political parties to relook their strategies, and even ape the newbie. In fact, Rahul Gandhi admitted on Sunday (December 8) that AAP succeeded by being different from other political parties. "I think the AAP involved a lot of people who the traditional political parties did not involve. We are going to learn from that and do a better job than anybody in the country and involve people in ways you cannot even imagine now," Rahul said.

Startups, especially those gunning to be a disruptor in their sector, have much to learn from the AAP. Right from the start, AAP banked on being a differentiator. They discarded time-tested theories, and stuck to their guns. They gave the people a much-needed alternative. They did it their way and won.

Let us analyse the success of AAP from the point of view of strategy. Here are five lessons from their success:

1. The different pitch

Since its inception, AAP has had a different pitch from that of the major parties. While Congress banked on consumer politics and BJP on majoritarian politics with a Modi-fuelled performance pitch, AAP reached out to all the people – rich and poor – by focussing on the basics. Issues of citizenship, governance and accountability were AAP’s focus. They steered clear of the usual identity politics, caste-based vote banks and so on. Instead, issues that affect the aam aadmi like corruption, price rise, water scarcity, cost of electricity, inadequate public health facilities, poor state of government schools and women's security were AAP’s planks. While big parties also use these as populist slogans, they were never the main pitch. The AAP was the differentiator here. They promised a clean break from politics of the past.

2. A clean new identity

The 70 candidates of AAP were handpicked by Kejriwal keeping in mind their clean image. In fact, they announced that not a single tainted candidate would be allowed to contest with an AAP ticket, and made details about them available online for public scrutiny. They invited people to give feedback on a helpline and promised to remove candidates if any credible evidence of wrongdoing came up. True to his word, when allegations surfaced about some of their main candidates, Arvind Kejriwal removed them. The candidates were restored only after the evidence submitted against them was proved to be false. This stood out in contrast to both Congress and BJP, who fielded several tainted candidates. According to the AAP website, in the last Delhi Assembly elections, Congress and BJP gave tickets to 19 tainted candidates each.

3. Market was ripe

Delhi was ripe for disruption because of several reasons. The state had been under Congress rule for 15 years. Though Sheila Dikshit had a strong image as someone who had done good work, the people were bored, if not tired, of the Congress. Scams and scandals that had plagued the party didn’t help either. Also, protests and demonstrations over various issues ranging from the Jan Lokpal Bill – which first catapulted Kejriwal to fame – to the Delhi rape case, were held in the capital city. This had a direct impact on the government. The market was ripe for a change.

4. Offer an alternative

Usually, in a scenario crying out for charge, it is the main opposition party that stands to gain. But in Delhi, the BJP wasn't able to fully capitalise on this as they were no different from the Congress. It was evident to all that the BJP suffers from the same problems that plague the Congress. The 32 seats they won came from their majority vote-bank. Liberal-minded people were not comfortable with BJP’s communal image. Even the performance pitch didn’t work much magic because many people saw it as rhetoric. So there was a clear gap, which the AAP had the guts to occupy even though it meant disregarding the tried and tested recipes parties had always used. AAP gave the people an alternative and they grabbed it.

5. Thinking big

Almost every political pundit had sworn that AAP would be just an also-ran. At best, AAP would win 22 % of the votes, ie 10 seats, they said, especially after the initial Anna Hazare brigade split, and Anna refused to back Kejriwal. Remember what happened to former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyruppa? His breakaway party KJP did worse than anyone had expected. Even in the US elections, where some billionaire usually shows up at the hustings, he is no more than a nuisance factor and makes no big dents into the major players' votes. But here, Kejriwal managed a feat similar in scale to that of NT Rama Rao, who took his new party Telugu Desam to power within nine months of its formation in Andhra Pradesh in 1983.

When everybody else dismissed them as a fringe player, AAP looked at themselves differently. They believed in themselves. They thought big. They saw themselves as a differentiator who would emerge as a major force, and worked towards it. When Kejriwal dared to take on Sheila Dikshit in her constituency in New Delhi, everyone thought it was political suicide. But he usurped the throne by a thumping majority -- 25,864 votes more than Sheila Dikshit -- and created a larger profile for himself and his party.

By refusing to dilute their stand and persevering, they have transformed themselves from a fringe player to the giant slayer.


Updates from around the world