The AAP in Kerala is hoping to piggyback on a fledgling Twenty20, but in the absence of a strategy for growth or a popular face the party is on a sticky wicket.

AAP chief Arvind KejriwalPC/Youtube
news Politics Sunday, May 22, 2022 - 11:42

In 2014 when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) made its foray into Kerala, there were some quick inductions that turned heads. Among the prize catch were some well-known public figures – journalist Anita Pratap and Malayalam writer Sara Joseph. It seemed like the AAP had become a political alternative for those seeking a change from the predictable flips between the two fronts led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress. It also gave an impression that the party will soon make its mark in the state. But instead, it faded away from the scene slowly becoming a mere spectator in the years that followed. Now the party is in a comeback mode in the state with an unusual ally, but the road ahead is not a smooth one.

The AAP's return was marked by its supremo Arvind Kejriwal's speech at Kizhakkambalam in Ernakulam a week ago where he declared his party’s alliance with Twenty20, the CSR wing of Kitex Garments. The People’s Welfare Alliance (PWA) announced by Kejriwal and Twenty20 Chief Coordinator Sabu M Jacob is now officially considered the fourth front in Kerala after the Left Democratic Front (LDF), the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Twenty20, considered a corporate political outfit, now rules four panchayats in Ernakulam district—Mazhuvannoor, Kunnathunad, Aikkaranadu and Kizhakkambalam. Kejriwal addressed a huge crowd at Kizhakkambalam, where Kitex Garments is headquartered. Kejriwal, who delivered the speech in Hindi, highlighted his party’s achievements in Delhi and the recent electoral victory in Punjab, reminded the audience of their credentials as party fighting corruption, raising both the hands skyward and thanking God Almighty for the growth of AAP every few minutes. 

"Ten years ago no one knew AAP or Arvind Kejriwal. But within a year of us launching a political party we could form a government in Delhi. Not just once but three times. Now we have a government in Punjab. This shows that AAP can form a government in Kerala," Kejriwal said.

He even went on to say that he doesn’t understand politics, but merely did his job based on 'dharma'. He praised Sabu for having a similar temperament and said this was the reason AAP was forming an alliance with Twenty20.  Both the outfits also share a bond when it comes to populism. Twenty20 became hugely popular and indispensable for the electorate in Kizhakkambalam because of the ‘Food security market’ they operate in the panchayat and various other subsidies. The freebies provided by AAP - huge subsidies in power and water - helped it come close to people. 

A questionable choice

Sabu Jacob floated Twenty20 in 2013 after the Anna-Kitex group faced allegations of polluting water bodies in Kizhakkambalam, situated 25 kilometres from Kochi, through effluent discharge. This prompted many people in the panchayath to turn against the company and form an action council against the group.

Read: Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20: How a corporate group has entered the Kerala Assembly polls

Twenty20 started many welfare schemes in the panchayath by utilising CSR funds of the company. The group also opened a 'Bhakshya Suraksha Market (food security market), which allowed residents of the panchayat, who are also members of Twenty 20, to purchase goods at subsidised rates. They also distributed poultry and milch animals to the needy and laptops for students at subsidised prices. 

In July 2021, the labour department served a notice on Kitex Garments alleging 73 violations it noticed during a surprise inspection. Soon, Sabu announced that he was pulling out of a proposed Rs 3,500 crore investment in Kerala due to harassment from authorities. Sabu alleged that the state government not being investment friendly garnered national media attention. In September 2021, he announced investments to the tune of Rs 2,400 crore in Telangana. 

The gains it made during the local body polls in 2020 had emboldened Sabu to make bigger electoral bets when Assembly elections were held in April 2021. Twenty20 fielded candidates in eight Assembly constituencies in Ernakulam district but when the results were announced the party drew a blank. In Kunnathunad constituency, the home turf of Kizhakkambalam, the party came third. Its prospects were similar in Kothamangalam and Kochi but the performance was dismal in constituencies like Perumbavoor, Thrikkakara, Ernakulam, Muvattupuzha and Vypeen. The results showed that Sabu's ‘famed’ Kizhakkambalam model development had failed to make any impact in the assembly elections. This model of cultivating a captive voter base by offering freebies and welfare measures without any ideological backbone did not seem palatable to the electorate. Kejriwal's choice of Sabu as key partner to make inroads in Kerala politics seems dicey in this context as AAP remained a non-starter in Kerala politics despite the sparks it generated in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It did not contest the 2016 Assembly elections and instead announced a list of candidates from the UDF and LDF to be defeated. In 2019, it suspended the party’s state convenor CR Neelakandan for announcing support to UDF candidates without informing the state leadership. While both AAP and Twenty20 display similar characteristics of populism and welfare politics, the former has added a layer of religion by indulging in soft Hindutva discourse. 

Can AAP be called secular

"This is the day of Lord Hanuman, who has blessed the people of Delhi," Kejriwal had stated after AAP won Delhi consecutively for the second time, thanking Lord Hanuman for the victory. In his speech in Kochi, he asked the crowd whether they all believed in God and attributed every success of AAP to 'ooperwala', the almighty. Kejriwal, who has been accused of appeasing the Hindu community through electoral promises however stopped short of explicit religious messaging in his speech made in Kerala. The AAP supremo has also been criticised previously for being muted in his criticism of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The anti-CAA protesters in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh had alleged that the AAP showed no empathy towards them. The Kerala electorate, a bulk of which has been voting to keep out the BJP is unlikely to be enthused by subtle or overt religious messaging. If Kejriwal is targeting the Hindu votes in Kerala, the non-secular share of that, it would have to wean them from BJP and outfits like the RSS, which had been building a meticulous and long-term plan. It would also need to rightly identify the space that it is targeting, split between the Left, the Congress and the BJP and then diligently work on a route map to get there.

Read: RSS has a long-term plan in Kerala — it's building local economic communities

AAP’s Delhi model unattractive for Kerala

Kejriwal dedicated his entire speech in Kochi to elaborate on how AAP strengthened the public education system, government-run hospitals etc in Delhi. The developmental indices that Kerala achieved long back, thanks to the huge investment on public health and education by successive governments, stands in the way of this rhetoric. In his enthusiasm to hardsell achievements in Delhi, which might be remarkable,  Kejriwal seems to have forgotten that Kerala retained the top rank in Niti Aayog's Sustainable Development Goals) India Index 2020-21. If crisis management and welfare measures are yardsticks of electoral politics, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s coming back to power has been attributed to these as well.

AAP lacks a recognisable face

Kejriwal, while speaking in Kochi, seemed to be full of confidence. He chose not to have an interpreter for the speech made in Hindi and urged people in the crowd who understands the language to translate it to others. Kejriwal also seems to have forgotten the fact that the party has no recognisable face in Kerala. People like Anita Pratap and Sarah Joseph no longer associate with the party. The only saving grace is the presence of PC Cyriac, a former bureaucrat, who is the state coordinator of the AAP in Kerala. From identifying a popular face with whom people can identify with to creating a space for it and then charting growth, the journey at the moment seems quite arduous for the AAP in Kerala.

The party needs another selling point in the state. Many experts TNM spoke to believe that targeting the political fatigue that has set in amongst a section of the population and the introduction of fresh faces could give the AAP and Twenty20 some advantage. But if the new front is unwilling to adapt locally and carries forward it's Delhi baggage, then it could become just another washout.

Watch TNM video on Twenty 20 

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