January 27, 2021
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AAP’s Convulsions

What are the implications of the ouster of the two founding members?

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AAP’s Convulsions
AAP’s Convulsions
Capital Conquest: How The AAP’s Incredible Victory Has Redefined Indian Elections
By Saba Naqvi
Publisher: Hachette India | Pages: 202 | Price: Rs. 499

When I interviewed him for this book, Prashant Bhushan went on record to say, ‘I had not come to set up just another party with a high-command culture like the BSP. I had come to change the nature of politics.’

Bhushan also said that if they were pushed out of the AAP, then some people associated with people’s movements who had joined AAP would also leave. Sure enough, within hours of him and Yogendra Yadav being expelled from the AAP’s national executive, Medha Patkar, the leader of the movement against the construction of the Narmada dam, resigned from the party. ‘They (Prashant Bhushan and Yadav) convinced so many good people from across the country to join the party. How can they be accused of sabotage?’ she said after her resignation.

Sources close to Kejriwal say they were prepared for this. They say that a certain class of activists and intellectuals believed that the party should be taking guidance from them, although many of them would not actually descend to work for a party built on a volunteer model. ‘They took tickets during the Lok Sabha campaign, asked Arvind to come and campaign for them, but gave nothing in return,’ says an insider. The truth is that after the massive mandate in Delhi, there is great impatience with anything that smacks of intellectual arrogance or of one set of people presuming to advise and show others the path. The AAP as a party seeks to work more on the model of volunteerism described in the preceding chapter.

An episode in 2014, when Kejriwal snubbed Yadav in a small meeting, illustrates this point. Kejriwal said that day that there were some people who kept analysing politics and insisted the party ‘take this direction, take that ideological position’. ‘They say Arvind does not understand any of this. Sirji, you may be right that I don’t understand all that (sarcasm), but I do understand people and know how to touch their hearts.’

There is no denying that a certain section of intellectuals who have seen the party as a vehicle for their ideas are very disappointed with the ouster of the two veterans. Volunteers and leaders from other people’s movements, such as Medha Patkar’s, are doing a rethink as Prashant Bhushan did bring some of them into the party. Similarly, Yadav brought in many socialists. The aftershocks from the main quake will therefore continue for some time. Activists and socialists can, after all, be hellishly fractious. They have big egos because each one believes he is more righteous than the other, they all think they know what needs to be done, and they do not want the world of their ideas to be narrowed by something as unholy as pragmatism. They are all idealists or they would not have been in the AAP at all. Hence, it is difficult to paint villains in this slugfest; instead, it is useful to understand the human condition of those who have been fighting it out within the AAP. It is also important to remember that this was a movement that has become a successful political party.

One of the fundamental reasons for the conflict with Yadav is that after the Lok Sabha defeat he wanted to contest the Haryana Assembly elections in 2014, but was stopped from doing so. Kejriwal believed then, as he does now, that the party should first be in a position to plunge in as state units had given them an inaccurate representation of their potential in the hurry to fight the 2014 general elections. This is where the differences began. In January 2014, a few days after he was sworn in as Delhi’s chief minister for the first time, Kejriwal publicly stated at a meeting in Delhi’s Constitution Club that he was opposed to fighting the Lok Sabha polls across India. Shanti Bhushan (who along with his son Prashant had given Rs 1 crore as seed money when the AAP was formed) had told Kejriwal that he could not take the decision unilaterally as the party’s state units felt this was the right time to contest. Many state-level presentations were made, predicting a great outcome for the party. A close aide of Kejriwal told me sarcastically that ‘the states where people were the most positive and predicted great things was where the party crashed the hardest.’

A fault line already existed in Haryana. From the beginning of its short history, Yogendra Yadav, the Haryana in-charge of the party, had serious differences with Naveen Jaihind, another Haryana-based AAP leader. Yadav expected Kejriwal to act strongly against Jaihind, but Kejriwal knew Jaihind from his days as an RTI activist and did not want to weigh in in favour of one or the other. The party pulled along with the existing differences and went on to fight the Lok Sabha elections, where they fared very badly; both Yadav and Jaihind lost from their respective seats in Haryana. The silver lining for the AAP came from a surprise show in Punjab, where they won four seats; the party will now contest the Punjab Assembly elections in 2017.

Matters reached a head after the Lok Sabha defeat and before a meeting of the AAP national executive. A letter written by Yogendra Yadav was circulated among its members and eventually found its way to the media. In the letter, Yadav had raised many issues, including the need to reconstitute the PAC and the NE, the absence of a mechanism to consult volunteers, and what he called a ‘policy deficit’ in the party. But what hit hardest were two paragraphs in the letter. The first dealt with neglect in the states:

“The relationship between central leadership and the states leaves much to be desired. The national leadership has not been able to focus its attention beyond some areas, leaving much of the organization in a state of chaos. There is no clear chain of command and the state leadership is often confused about how to get in touch with the centre and take crucial decisions. Central leadership is not in touch with colleagues who regularly deal with states on their behalf. As and when the centre intervenes, it exhibits ‘high command’ culture prevalent in other organizations. Occasional intervention by the centre is seen to be ill-equipped in terms of their knowledge, aptitude and experience to handle the complex issues of the state units. Unless this is resolved, we cannot go ahead with organization-building at the state level.”

And then, listed as point number seven in Yadav’s letter is the question, ‘Leader or supremo?’:

“There is a widespread perception among the workers and sympathizers as well as external observers that the party is falling prey to the disease of a personality cult that afflicts all the political parties in the country. There is no one who doubts that Arvind bhai is the undisputed leader within the party. He has richly earned this stature and we would not be where we are without his leadership. But there is a difference between a leader and a supremo. Love and affection for a leader often turns into a personality cult that can damage an organization and the leader himself. This is what appears to be happening to our party. Major decisions of the party appear to, and indeed do, reflect the wishes of one person; when he changes his mind, the party changes its course of action; proximity to the leader comes to substitute for organizational roles and responsibilities. Since all the decisions and successes are credited to one person, all the blame also begins to accumulate at the doors of one person. Let me reiterate that Arvind bhai is no ordinary leader and there are no two opinions about his continuing as the national convenor; nor have I ever doubted his status as first among equals within the party’s leadership. The real question is whether there are limits to personal discretion of the leader.”

This section was interpreted as an open challenge to Kejriwal at a time when he was down and out. It must be pointed out that many of those such as Manish Sisodia who have spent years with Kejriwal are fiercely loyal and protective about an individual whom they believe pushes himself to the limit in spite of his diabetes and health issues that often reach worrying levels. Sisodia immediately shot off a letter to Yadav.

After that episode the trust was gone between the top leaders, and things would never be the same again. Yadav kept up appearances and continued his engagement with Haryana. He was also the chief spokesperson for the party during the 2015 campaign, and he attended Kejriwal’s swearing-in on 14 February 2015, where I met and congratulated him. Prashant and Shanti Bhushan, however, started to function as borderline dissidents who were just about holding their peace. But every now and then a salvo would be fired. Prashant Bhushan openly voiced his disenchantment to volunteers and other members of the party. He told me, ‘I was told to hold my horses till the Delhi election was over. I did so.’ But then more letters found their way into the media after the 2015 win. Prashant Bhushan says that he never leaked anything but that he had sent his letter on email to about 60 people, any of whom could have sent it to the media.

For everyone within the AAP and outside it watching the events unfold so speedily one question arose above all: Why was Prashant Bhushan rocking the boat at a time when the AAP should have been celebrating? Those who worked for the Delhi victory were furious that Prashant Bhushan should be undermining their efforts, especially as they felt he had lost the right to critique as he had not been part of the elections. I had gone to meet Sanjay Singh on 2 March 2015 at 149 North Avenue when Prashant Bhushan’s letter became public. Soon Dilip Pandey and Durgesh Pathak joined him. They were working on a counter strategy, and the mood was aggressive. As I was leaving, Ashutosh came in. He had just put out a tweet against Prashant Bhushan saying, ‘There is decisive churning in AAP. It’s (a) clash of ideas between ultra left who demand referendum in Kashmir and pragmatic politics of welfarism.’ On my way out, I heard Singh tell Ashutosh that he should not have phrased the tweet like that.

There were people who were stunned that an old crusader like Prashant Bhushan should be attacked on Twitter by latecomers to AAP like Ashutosh and Ashish Khetan (the latter did, however, apologize and withdraw the tweets that were personally directed against Prashant Bhushan). Ironically I would later learn that Kejriwal had asked Bhushan for his views on Khetan when he joined the party before the national elections and stood from the New Delhi seat, which included the Assembly constituency that Kejriwal had won in 2013. As Khetan had done some of the most impressive stings and exposés in Tehelka magazine besides being the independent journalist who brought forth the ‘Saheb tapes’, there was little hesitation in taking him on. I would later hear the other side of the story about why the Delhi group believed that Prashant Bhushan was out to sabotage them during the Assembly elections. They also believed he was acting in concert with Yadav to remove Kejriwal as convenor of the party. And even if they had less of a history in AAP, both Ashutosh and Khetan had been key figures who worked for the victory in Delhi. What is undeniable is that the Bhushans repeatedly showed their displeasure with the way the AAP was evolving. Shanti Bhushan publicly praised Kiran Bedi in the midst of the Delhi 2015 campaign; earlier, in August 2014, he said, ‘He [Kejriwal] is a great campaigner, but in my opinion he lacks organizational ability. He does not have that kind of competence which can spread the message of the party all over India, which can quickly create all elected structures of the party that nobody will be able to blame.’

To top it all, Prashant’s sister Shalini Gupta, who was coordinating fund collection for the AAP overseas, wrote some emails discouraging potential donors. There is in fact enough evidence to suggest that the Bhushans were prepared for a defeat in Delhi and perhaps privately thought it would be better if Kejriwal was shown his place. What is clear after going through the letters and exchanges within the party is that it has set standards for itself that it cannot always meet. There is nothing wrong in having utopian ideals, but when realpolitick comes into the picture then the failure to create procedures for certain promised processes will continue to be used to attack the party, by those within the party who are perhaps getting marginalized, by political rivals and by the system against which the AAP has so effectively ranged itself. The party must be vigilant about that and needs to put up more elaborate details of expenditure on its websites along with the statements of chartered accountants that are already posted there.

The AAP’s inner battles have undoubtedly been sensational, involving as they do leaked letters, private conversations passed off as revealing stings (such as the one where Kejriwal uses abusive words), heartfelt blog postings, and rude and dramatic Twitter messages. Having covered political parties for years, this is not the first political battle I’ve witnessed. But there is a difference: since everyone in the AAP claims to be there for a higher purpose, the self-righteousness is all too visible. The idea of breaching a line in criticism that makes for indiscipline has not been internalized, but that is how other parties have survived the pulls and pushes of human ambition and nature. This is also the first political rift I have chronicled that involves a serious use of Twitter and Facebook. In that too the AAP is very new-age.

What is clear to anyone tracking the party is that emotions run high in the AAP. Some within it have got very charged up about Kejriwal becoming dictatorial, and he must indeed try to be more democratic when it comes to decision-making. But politics in this country fundamentally centres around a charismatic leader. And let’s be clear: Kejriwal very clearly is the person around whom everything has happened. When we start looking at national outcomes for the AAP, the first question that arises is: Can an Arvind Kejriwal be replicated elsewhere?

Excerpted with permission from Hachette India.

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