The game changer

Print edition : January 24, 2014

Arvind Kejriwal assumes charge as Delhi's Chief Minister on December 28. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung (left) administering the oath of office to Arvind Kejriwal and his Cabinet Ministers Manish Sisodia, Somnath Bharti, Satyendra Jain, Rakhi Birla, Girish Soni and Saurabh Bhardwaj, during the swearing-in ceremony at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on December 28. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

AAP supporters at the Ramlila Maidan on December 28. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat/pti

The Aam Aadmi Party has managed to capture the people’s imagination and make electoral gains by conjoining idealistic political presentations with practical schemes. Now the question is how far it will succeed in replicating its achievements in Delhi at the national level.

QUTUB MINAR, Lal Qila, Purana Qila, India Gate. These are the landmarks that described Delhi until the other day. Now, all of a sudden, a new address is grabbing much attention and tremendous footfall—41 Hanuman Mandir Lane, located in the back alley of the famous Hanuman temple in the Connaught Place area of the national capital. This is the address of the latest sensation in India’s politics: the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose performance in the Delhi Assembly elections held in December shocked political bigwigs and compelled the defeated Congress to extend it outside support to form the government.

The AAP office has been drawing such huge crowds that the Delhi Police and the Delhi Traffic Police have a harrowing time managing them. People are flocking from all over the country to enrol themselves as members of the AAP or to seek the party ticket to contest the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. Volunteers are having a tough time keeping pace with the demand for membership forms and AAP leaders are finding it difficult to cope with people wanting to explain why they want to join the party or why they should be considered for the Lok Sabha ticket.

During the run-up to the Assembly elections and immediately after the announcement of the results on December 8, the AAP announced its plan to contest only 100-odd Lok Sabha seats, in view of its limited resources and organisational constraints at the time. However, considering the tremendous response it has been receiving post-Assembly elections, there is talk of the AAP contesting 300 seats. “There is so much enthusiasm for the party across the country that we have been left wondering how many seats the AAP should contest,” Sanjay Singh, who is in charge of strategising the party’s Lok Sabha campaign, said. Although the leaders have had very little time since the Delhi elections to sit together and fine-tune the strategy for the larger contest, one thing is clear: the people’s response is so massive that the party appears to have won half the battle.

“The scene in the office is hectic. We handle a continuous stream of people who want to enrol themselves,” Harsh Kalra, a young volunteer who is assisting Sanjay Singh, said.

“Our network across India is quite active. We have 309 district committees in place as on January 1, 2014. Our outreach programme has been continuing amidst all the hurly-burly of the election results, and the drive to form new units has evoked an overwhelming response,” another volunteer said. Looking at the AAP’s journey so far and the way it has been catapulted into mainstream politics, it is quite possible that the nascent party might be toying with the idea of approaching the Lok Sabha elections in a big way.

But then, as indicated by many AAP leaders and strategists, including Yogendra Yadav, a prominent political analyst from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), and Kumar Viswas, Hindi poet, the party’s strength is that it does not get carried away by the emotive appeal it generates but follows up and channels the mass fervour through well-thought-out programmes and action plans. The decision to concentrate on Delhi during the 2013 Assembly elections was taken mainly on account of this insistence on comprehensive strategising. “Of course, we did not have the same kind of traction in other States at that point of time, but even if we had we would not have rushed in,” said Pankaj Pushkar, a senior AAP activist.

So, the big question is in how many Lok Sabha seats can the emotive appeal be converted into with specific programmes highlighting people’s concerns and issues that are of particular relevance to each constituency. That study is apparently on and the AAP leadership hopes to complete the exercise by early February. Several senior leaders and activists also added that the study would address realpolitik issues of each region and each constituency with no tinge of cynicism before a decision on contesting was taken. “Only then will one get a real idea about the number,” said a senior AAP activist.

Grasp of realpolitik

Several political observers, including the Patna-based analyst Surendra Kishore, have pointed out that a thorough grasp of realpolitik has been the strength of the AAP even in its confabulations after the Delhi results came out. “Both the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP], which emerged as the single largest party in the Assembly, and the Congress, which got ousted from power after 15 years, seemed to be banking on the fledgling outfit’s perceived lack of understanding of realpolitik when they tried to throw the irresponsibility charge at the AAP. The Congress had even thought that it had come up with a great ploy to push the AAP into a corner when Rahul Gandhi announced unconditional support to the new party to form the government.

“The calculation in the more-than-a-century-old party was that the new outfit would get flabbergasted by the offer of support from the discredited and defeated former ruling dispensation. There was also the calculation that this confusion could be used to highlight the limitations of the AAP leadership. But nothing of that sort happened. Kejriwal and his team played realpolitik tactics so well that they outsmarted the two mainstream parties at their own game. Clearly, this shows that the AAP leadership is capable of weighing immediate pros and cons and taking quick and appropriate decisions. The larger question, however, is whether they have the acumen and human resource to do this on a large scale across the country. Of course, the Delhi experience shows that theoretically they have the capability to replicate it in other parts of the country. However, the time left for the party before the Lok Sabha elections is too little, even compared with the short time in which it prepared for the Delhi elections,” Surendra Kishore told Frontline.

The journey so far

When the journey of the AAP started over a year ago, in August 2012 to be precise, there was no hint that civil society players who were part of Team Anna and who had formed the core of the new political organisation would display such mastery over the political processes that make up the polity. On the contrary, when Team Anna parted ways with the yoga guru Baba Ramdev and he organised a spectacular rally in Delhi with the slogan “Congress hatao, desh bachao” on August 13, 2012, a section of the political class predicted that Team Anna would fade out.

The projection acquired greater credibility because the Team had to unceremoniously call off its indefinite hunger strike on the Jan Lokpal Bill issue after 10 days of fasting from July 25, as the government paid no heed to its demand for action against tainted Ministers and lawmakers. The face-saver then was a letter by 23 eminent citizens who called upon them not to waste their energy on a non-responsive and indifferent political establishment and instead focus on “creating an alternative political force that is democratic, accountable, ethical and non-violent and capable of leading an electoral revolution to democratise and decentralise power and make the power structure of the country more accountable to the people”.

The signatories, who included Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, retired Supreme Court judge; Admiral (retd) Ram Tahiliani, former Navy chief; Gen. (retd) V.K. Singh, former Army chief; J.M. Lyngdoh, former Chief Election Commissioner; Kuldip Nayar, journalist; EAS Sarma, retired Secretary, Government of India; P.V. Rajgopal, founder Ekta Parishad; and Yogendra Yadav, urged Team Anna to call off the agitation because Indian democracy, they said, was at the crossroads and needed new wind and energy to actualise the dream of swaraj, which was nurtured by the freedom struggle. “These brave and selfless volunteers must not sacrifice their health and risk their lives at the altar of an insensitive political establishment,” they said, adding that “their energies are needed for reforming our political system to make it participatory, responsive and decentralised and forging a new instrument for re-invigorating Indian democracy.”

At the crossroads

After this flop show, Kejriwal admitted many times to being “at the crossroads” because the movement was losing its verve, the government had turned unresponsive, and the people had started losing interest. And then the idea of the political party was born, and on October 2, 2012, a formal announcement was made at a rousing programme at the Constitution Club in New Delhi. “Our politics is not for power, we want power to change the politics. We did not give up the Jan Lokpal movement to gain political power, but we have taken the movement forward through the political route now because change can only come through politics,” Kejriwal declared. He conceded that how to transcend the barriers of caste, religion, money and muscle was a matter of great concern. “But we will show that politics can be done honestly, that it need not be the cesspool that it has become, that it need not be always dirty.” (See interview on page 10.)

His colleague Prashant Bhushan had declared then: Paise se satta, phir satta se paisa, akhir kab tak chalega? (using money power to gain political power, and then use political power to make money, for how long will this vicious circle continue?). And the Team, which had by now become bereft of Anna and some other key members such as Kiran Bedi and Santosh Hegde, launched itself on breaking this vicious circle.

Shortly afterwards, after a series of stunning exposes on Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, former BJP president Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister Salman Khurshid and the Ambanis, Kejriwal told Frontline: “It is the adulterous relationship between money, power, politics, in which the common man has been totally marginalised that we are trying to break. And for doing this we have to prove that all parties are together in this, we have to expose all.” He was absolutely confident that he would be able to unite disparate elements along the common issue of corruption. “Corruption is the most secular concept. It hits across caste, class or religion so it should appeal to people irrespective of existing barriers. Going the political way is not an end for us, it is the means to an end. Fighting elections is not the end of our movement against corruption but is part of our movement itself, which is to change the system.”

Defining moment

Yogendra Yadav, who was still outside the party then, had said: “If they can articulate the issues properly and maintain their focus, they can succeed because there is a massive scope outside the mainstream political domain even now.” He said the time had come when real issues such as corruption had become topics of political discourse and in this discourse money, for once, would not be able to play a role. “For every generation there comes a defining moment. For the younger generation today, which finds itself totally sidelined in a corruption-riddled system, this is the defining moment when swaraj can actually become a reality.”

Yogendra Yadav’s delineation had underlined the emergence of a young political generation that sought to go beyond the parameters of identity politics, the single most important socio-political driving force in the country since the mid-1980s. Throughout this period, identity politics in one form or the other had dominated the country. The efforts of the Hindutva-oriented Sangh Parivar to create a pan-Hindu political identity as well as the Dalit assertive politics of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) along with the Other Backward Classes (OBC) identity politics advanced by a clutch of organisations such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal (United) had held sway over north India and large parts of western India. South India and the eastern regions such as West Bengal witnessed the emergence and establishment of a number of caste- and region-based political outfits such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Telugu Desam Party and the Trinamool Congress. However, the politics that the AAP practised and sought to advance was beyond these identity assertions and addressed general and non-sectarian concerns such as livelihood issues, basic amenities and corruption.

In a nuanced manner, the AAP also stayed away from aggressive exposition of any particular ideological stream in terms of economic affairs and politics. As an AAP leader stated without wanting to be named, “the party was ideologically fuzzy by design so that it could attract from all streams well-meaning people committed to the larger well-being of society”.

Future plans

The general assessment among AAP activists and observers is that the party has been able to show that it remains true to this intent and conviction outlined forcefully by Yogendra Yadav. And this, according to a significant number of activists and observers, provides enough reason to believe that the Delhi experiment can be successfully replicated at the all-India level.

In the process, the AAP leadership has also been working on the area of policy formulation on a number of national and international issues, the absence of which had been highlighted by many like-minded organisations, groups and individuals as a major chink in the AAP armour. According to Atishi Marlena, independent social educator and AAP activist, the party leadership and several intellectuals associated with them have worked on 23 policy framework documents on issues ranging from foreign policy to economic issues to social empowerment. These documents, Atishi Marlena added, would be released in the near future for discussion among the public.

Several AAP leaders and activists, including Prashant Bhushan, are of the view that while these policy formulations will ultimately dictate the kind of political partners that the party will have in the future, the primary paradigm for any alliance will be commitment to probity in public life and administration. “There is little doubt that in a pluralistic society like India we have to relate, mingle and coexist with different streams of socio-political thinking. The AAP structure already embodies such association and coexistence. But our primary paradigm would be steadfastly that of probity and relentless struggle against all forms of corruption,” he told Frontline.

Amidst all this, one major limitation that has become apparent after the government formation is that key leaders of the AAP, such as Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia and Yogendra Yadav, have become utterly pre-occupied with the nitty-gritty of administration and the party and hardly have the time to ponder and plan. And there are not many second-rung leaders in the party who can articulate the party’s viewpoint to a larger audience. These limitations are expressed by AAP leaders themselves. And it is in this context that several mainstream parties think that the AAP will flounder and fall.

“India will be more than just bijli [electricity] and paani [water] as it was in the State of Delhi. Let them get their hands dirty with governance and then they will be exposed. Making promises is easy, fulfilling them is difficult, and they will realise that very soon. Just wait and watch. They will prove to be the proverbial flash in the pan,” said a senior Congress leader in an assessment of the limitations expressed by AAP activists themselves.

“They could make an impact in Delhi because people there had no other alternative. In places where non-Congress, non-BJP forces are strong, they will have no chance. They will not be able to make an impact in Uttar Pradesh,” S.P. supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav said.

But there are others who differ with these mainstream perceptions. EAS Sarma is of the opinion that it is possible to take the anti-corruption movement forward nationally through the political route by articulating the issues properly, without any jingoism. “Any jingoist fervour has the danger of diluting the focus. The fight against corruption has to be carried forward with a rational debate on issues, not with emotive jingoism,” he said.

Shanti Bhushan, a key member of the AAP and the only leader who has the unique distinction of having associated with the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement of the 1970s, as well, is of the opinion that the task is doable provided the team can manage to have 100 per cent clean, tested, motivated, educated, incorruptible, and inspired people working for it. “If we can have this section, and there are many in this category, we will be successful, otherwise we will fail. Our aim is not to change the government only, but to change the system, and for that we need people with vision, the younger generation which has a dream, those who are passionate about bringing about change,” he said. But in this journey, he warned, personal ambitions would have to be set aside. “None of us is in this for any personal gains and this is the way it will have to be. We have to work selflessly for the people,” he said.

On how the team would go about finding such people, he said the search would begin at the gram sabha level and even if one lakh youth from the six lakh gram sabhas who share the team’s vision could be mobilised, the purpose would be served. Asked whether only educated, middle-class professionals can bring about a revolution in this country where 80 per cent of the population lives in villages, he said this was the section that drove change. “Don’t underestimate the power of educated youth and professionals. They are the ones who can lead a revolution. It was the case with our freedom struggle, too.” He made it clear that they were not asking the youth to give up their education or profession. “If they can give their time only during weekends, that will be enough. We don’t want them to give up doing what they are presently doing,” he said.

But where is the system to ensure that only 100 per cent clean and incorruptible people will join the AAP? The risk of opportunists tagging along is big and the party as yet has no mechanism to check this.

“Our job is to try and do our best and leave the rest to destiny. I am of the firm opinion that if your intentions are right, then you cannot go wrong,” Kejriwal said. Indeed, this is typical Kejriwal-speak, loaded with idealism and almost bordering on a kind of fatalism. But then, the Delhi experience has shown that the AAP team has managed to capture the people’s imagination and make electoral gains conjoining idealistic political presentations with practical organisational schemes and manoeuvres. The answer that the next six months will seek is how successful the party will be in replicating this at the national level and who will be its associates in that process.

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