Sreenivasan Jain explains how the Aam Aadmi Party excelled in the Delhi assembly polls
At the Aam Aadmi Party's headquarters on counting day, someone produced a guitar. Hot bread pakoras were handed out. A round of kachoris followed, and were just as quickly despatched by a chanting, dancing, dhol-playing, broom-waving crowd.
An observer may be forgiven for mistaking this swirling, vibrant chaos as the raw catalyst that drove the AAP's sensational political debut. But there was, as is often the case, an underlying method channelling the madness.
This involved, for all the AAP's aversion to the older parties, soliciting the support of those such as Ashish Talwar, an old Congress hand. Talwar told me he walked out of the Congress in 2007 because he wanted to be an organiser, not a back-room boy. A friendship with Arvind Kejriwal, who he met at an international fellowship, would see him becoming a key campaign manager for the AAP.
Talwar says the petri dish for their campaign was the New Delhi seat, which Kejriwal had decided to contest as far back as in June 2013, the result of what seemed at that time a foolhardy challenge to the Delhi chief minister.
The AAP decided to divide the constituency into about 11 zones, each headed by a zonal prabhari (in-charge). They rejected the traditional division based on municipal wards, usually three per seat, because he says it turns the ward in-charges into netas who see themselves as worthy candidates for the Assembly ticket. The zonal model, Talwar said, allowed them to spread out responsibilities, dilute rivalries and allow for a more intense focus.
The team to man these zones was drawn from the anti-corruption movement, an initial pool of 300 volunteers. They went door to door, gauging levels of interest on the basis of a series of escalating questions: Do you want to donate money to the AAP? Introduce us to your neighbours? Contribute time? They were struck by the high levels of enthusiasm.
The trial run in New Delhi seat convinced them that they had a shot, not just at the one seat, but at the city. The exercise also widened the AAP's pool of volunteers to about 3,000, who were used to seed similar models in all of Delhi's 70 Assembly constituencies.
It was by no means easy. Each assembly seat has roughly 150 voting booths (Delhi has over 11,000 booths), which form the basic nucleus of electoral management, and can make the difference between success and failure. With a modest average of three people per booth -- traditional political parties have 10 or more -- the AAP needed a minimum of 30,000 volunteers.
Talwar claims that by late August they had come close to that figure. What they lacked in numbers, they made up in sheer energy levels (and lack of sleep). By voting day, Talwar claims they had covered at least 2.5 million households citywide. In the last few weeks before the election, the booth managers were put through an intensive training course in the basics of election rules: how an electronic voting machine works, how to verify voter identity, how to report any wrongful activity.
The emphasis on volunteers helped plug the holes in what was the AAP's weakest link: its candidates. As Talwar put it, the "A-grade local elites" needed to win elections -- a prominent businessman, an influential village headman -- were "booked" by the older parties.
The AAP's final selection was a mix of rank newbies (a software engineer, a halwai shop owner), B-level local elites (a not-so-influential village pradhan, a prominent lawyer) minor celebrities (a commando wounded in the 26/11 attacks, a TV anchor), and about a dozen candidates drawn from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Reporting on the AAP campaign in late November, it wasn't unusual to find volunteers whispering instructions to their candidates, or speaking on their behalf to potential voters. Not many ordinary folks knew the name of their AAP candidate. But almost all had heard of Kejriwal, and of the AAP.
On voting day, as bastions crumbled, AAP volunteers, liberated from the drudgery of election work, could finally cut loose (as Talwar put it, the hardest part was to convince his charged-up volunteer army the importance of sitting in a booth or handing out pamphlets. "They wanted to storm government offices."). The job of analysing what played a greater role in tipping the scales - electoral micro-management or animal spirits - was left to studio pundits.
But the AAP's open-source model of membership posed new challenges.
The young team given the task of controlling access to the first floor of the party headquarters, where Kejriwal huddled with his core team, was having a tough time. Mini-fights broke out as a crush of people tried to climb the stairs, each claiming to be a volunteer. Not all claimants seemed credible, like a pair of burly middle-aged gentlemen who carried around them the air of potential ticket-seekers (at least that problem may be resolved for the future).
Wedged between them was the slender Abhinandan Sekhri, a long-time Kejriwal associate and occasional AAP spokesperson, who had come down for lunch and was struggling to get back in. "At least allow him through," I said, "he's an old AAP hand." "So am I," said one of the burly gents, refusing to budge an inch. That exchange said as much as there is to be said about the arrival, and future of an exciting political upstart.