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On November 24, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will complete seven years of turbulent political existence. In a political landscape that has a 134-year-old Congress staring at an existential crisis and a BJP celebrating its near total dominance over the Union, it may seem a trifle unfair to assess AAP’s brief history.
But then, AAP’s trajectory as a party and Kejriwal as its leader from that winter day of 2012 when they emerged out of Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal movement, promising an alternative politics that would cleanse the system, is fascinating.
AAP was branded by many as an anarchist outfit with little future. Within a year, it made a surprise electoral debut in the 2013 Delhi assembly polls, winning 28 seats. Within 49 days, Kejriwal sacrificed the hard-earned victory; only to return to power in early 2015 with a clean sweep (67 out of 70 seats). Now, a month away from seeking a renewed mandate, do AAP and Kejriwal retain their aura of being harbingers of an “alternative politics”?
The jury is still out, with opinion sharply divided. While Kejriwal has enough admiring supporters, detractors too are in plenty, and they say that Kejriwal’s evolution as a full-time politician has left them disappointed.
“Compared to its original ideals and promises of an alternative politics free of corruption, nepotism, opportunism etc, the AAP today is unrecognisable. The party’s real failure, in fact, is that it has strengthened the belief that there is no space for alternative politics in India,” says political analyst Badri Narayan.
AAP had come into existence as a political party on the electorally emotive plank of establishing a Jan Lokpal who could investigate corruption in high offices. “No compromise with corruption” was the resounding theme of Kejriwal’s political debut in 2013. His most acerbic jabs were reserved for the Congress—then in power at the Centre and in Delhi.
Yet, the first compromise came within days. Kejriwal accepted outside support of eight Congress MLAs, to be sworn in as chief minister in December 2013. It was by raising the bogey of non-cooperation from Congress and BJP on passing the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Delhi assembly that he sacrificed his first government. It projected him as a rare leader who would rather spurn high office than compromise on his promise to the aam aadmi. In the 2015 polls, AAP was back in power. Five years on, despite a brute majority, the Jan Lokpal is an abandoned promise. Ironically, 50 AAP MLAs refused to furnish details of their assets with the Delhi Lokayukta (instituted as per provisions of a central law) last January.
By 2015, the Congress was decimated nationally; Kejriwal now took aim at the Narendra Modi government. His new grouse: AAP’s elected government had no real power and the Centre, through the lieutenant governor, was a meddlesome menace.
The Centre, too, supplied AAP with justifiable reasons for complaint. Central agencies like the CBI, enforcement directorate and the income tax department began probing some AAP leaders for financial irregularities. Several AAP MLAs were arrested by Delhi Police; more than a score were taken into custody on various charges, most of which did not stand up to legal scrutiny. AAP’s donors were reportedly targeted, forcing it to take their names off its website. Most of all, the Centre repeatedly stalled the Delhi cabinet’s decisions.
The move backfired for BJP, with AAP moving the Supreme Court for clarity on separation of powers between the LG and the Delhi government. After a bruising battle, LG Anil Baijal was ordered to work on the “aid and advice of the council of ministers”. The victory enhanced Kejriwal’s political capital—despite his predecessors complaining about Delhi’s complex power arithmetic, it was AAP that had the issue resolved.
“After 2015 there was a sense that Kejriwal could emerge as a leader whom non-NDA and non-UPA parties would be willing to prop up as Modi’s challenger,” says Alka Lamba, who was elected as the party’s MLA for Chandni Chowk but returned to Congress after “efforts to be heard within the party failed.” However, the period during which she served as an AAP MLA made her believe that “the only driving force for Kejriwal is to retain power”.
“In the initial years, he criticised Modi for every problem faced by Delhi… after the recent Lok Sabha polls when AAP performed poorly, it was felt that criticising Modi was hurting AAP’s interests and Kejriwal stopped attacking him,” Lamba tells Outlook.
Sources within AAP agree that the party decided against any direct confrontation with Modi or the BJP after their Lok Sabha debacle, but offer a different rationale. “A direct confrontation with Modi doesn’t help his opponents because the BJP quickly gives the fight a nationalist vs. anti-national spin. So we decided to focus on promoting our achievements in education, lower power tariff, mohalla clinics, and doorstep delivery of services,” a key AAP functionary tells Outlook. He explains that the party’s decisions to support a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and the abrogation of Article 370 was “taken after due consideration because opposing them would have made us look like anti-nationals in the BJP’s narrative before the Delhi polls.”
Many of Kejriwal’s former comrades from the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, who helped found AAP, quit the party later. “The only voice we were told to follow without raising any question was Kejriwal’s; our views didn’t matter,” says AAP co-founder Mayank Gandhi. He quit AAP in November 2015 and went on to write a book, AAP and Down, an insider’s account of a litany of compromises that the party made to stay in power. Like Gandhi, other co-founders who later left AAP include Yogendra Yadav, Prashant Bhushan, Medha Patkar, Anjali Damania, Anand Kumar, Admiral Ramdas, Ashish Khetan, Kumar Vishwas, Kiran Bedi, H.S. Phoolka and Ashutosh.
Some of its leaders were in trouble too—Somnath Bharti, a former minister in the Kejriwal government, was first accused of vigilantism against African nationals in Khirkee village and later of domestic violence. Jitender Tomar, another former cabinet colleague of Kejriwal, was embroiled in a fake college degree case. The skirmishes between AAP legislators and the bureaucracy were a recurring affair that ended with chief secretary Anshu Prakash being allegedly manhandled by MLAs in the presence of the CM. Through all these controversies, AAP and Kejriwal’s initial response—like any other party—was to brazen out the storm through denials.
Vishwas, who quit the party after an ugly rebellion against Kejriwal, says the party privileged opaque realpolitik over idealism and transparency after tasting power. “A classic example was the Rajya Sabha nomination of N.D. Gupta and Sushil Gupta, who had no contribution to the Anna andolan or founding of AAP but got awarded,” Vishwas tells Outlook. Claiming that party MLAs were in favour of RS nominations for Vishwas and Ashutosh, Lamba says, “When these names were suggested to Kejriwal, he said the party needs money to survive…we pointed out this is tantamount to selling RS tickets, but Kejriwal did not budge.”
Narayan believes that while many of the allegations of compromise may be true, there is one redeeming factor—“as a party it is still mindful of what people on the grassroots want and Kejriwal’s emphasis on better school infrastructure, cheaper electricity and regular water supply shows it is alive to ground realities.” Gandhi, however, disagrees. “Unlike other politicians, Kejriwal has developed a political savvy to disguise populism with righteousness.” This political skill, even Kejriwal’s most strident critics agree, could hold him in good stead when Delhi goes to polls early next year. It shows that a party and leader that were dismissed seven years ago as a band of utopian anarchists have learnt to survive in the political minefield, mindful of its cynical rules, yet flexible enough to harmonise that with their founding ideals.