Delhi durbar

Print edition : April 03, 2015

New Delhi, December 10, 2012: India Against Corruption activists (from left) Prashant Bushan, Arvind Kejriwal, Prof. Yogendra Yadav, (second row, from right) Shanti Bhushan and Gopal Rai during the announcement of their political party. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Torn apart by internal conflict soon after its stupendous electoral success in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party struggles to remain united and keep its founding principles intact.

“WE are not here to change governments or the parties in power. We are here to change the way politics is done in this country. We are here to change the system.” This oft-repeated declaration by Arvind Kejriwal, the newly elected Chief Minister of Delhi and the Aam Aadmi Party’s convener, is widely seen as a joke today as top AAP leaders are out in the public sphere accusing each other of playing dirty politics. The infighting reached its pinnacle with the noisy ouster of the AAP’s two founding members, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, from the party’s top decision-making body, the Political Affairs Committee (PAC). Prashant Bhushan, a crusader against corruption, and Yogendra Yadav, psephologist and social scientist, both with impeccable credibility, were removed after the contents of a letter they had written jointly became public. In the letter, titled “Note on the way forward”, which was sent to the party’s National Executive Committee members, they had suggested a few crucial steps needed to take the party forward and regain the ethical and moral high ground it had lost during the Delhi Assembly elections held in February.

Some of the points listed by them were:

Set up an internal ethics committee to look into complaints relating to violation of ethical standards. The note cited some recent instances, which included the issue of dubious donations to the party, which surfaced during the campaigning in Delhi, and the recovery of liquor stocks from Naresh Balyan, the party’s candidate for the Uttam Nagar Assembly constituency.

Decentralisation of decision making. The PAC and the National Executive must retain the right to decide whether or not to contest parliamentary and Assembly elections, the State-level committees must have the right to decide whether and how to contest local body elections.

Constitutional protocols must be followed: the National Executive and PAC meetings must be held at prescribed intervals; the proceedings must be recorded, and the minutes circulated among members.

Have a code of discipline, confidentiality and ethics for members, especially for office-bearers and elected representatives.

Reconstitute the PAC with better gender/regional parity.

Have a mechanism for coordinating party and government work.

The note was preceded by a five-page letter from Prashant Bushan to the National Executive members on February 26. It may be recalled that Prashant Bhushan had differed on the party’s candidate selection process for the Delhi elections and had distanced himself from the election campaign. He came further under the scanner after his father and founding member of the AAP, Shanti Bhushan, had in the midst of the campaigning, stated that Kiran Bedi, who quit the AAP to become the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, would be a better choice for Chief Minister, and asked Kejriwal to step down as convener. Although Prashant Bhushan dissociated himself from his father’s statement at that time, his complaint about the choice of certain candidates was not taken in the right spirit by people close to Kejriwal. Prashant Bhushan had questioned the lack of transparency in certain decisions taken by the party and pointed out that Kejriwal had overruled the National Executive’s stand on crucial matters such as taking the support of the Congress to form the government in Delhi in December 2013. He said that the party’s disciplinary committee and internal Lokpal were almost dysfunctional, their system of accountability was slack, and that had demoralised dedicated party volunteers. Most importantly, he objected to the person-centric campaign during the Delhi elections, saying it was making the party look like other Indian political parties. He said in his letter: “Running a person-centric campaign may be effective but does that justify sacrificing our principles.”

When the note and letter became public, all hell broke loose in the party and leaders close to Kejriwal, such as Dilip Pandey, Ashish Khetan, Sanjay Singh and Ashutosh, launched a media campaign against Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, accusing them of “hatching a conspiracy” to remove Kejriwal from the convener’s post and take control of the party. Amidst all this, Kejriwal, the self-confessed anarchist who advocated complete transparency in everything, disappeared from the scene. “He was apparently seized with a malady, which is described in political parlance as the Sonia Gandhi syndrome,” said a senior national executive member. When the ever-voluble leader became silent, his aides took over and indulged in a free-for–all, throwing accusations at Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. Both of them were tried in the media and declared guilty. Subsequently, at the National Executive meeting held on March 4, the two leaders were expelled from the PAC by a 11:8 vote. Significantly, Kejriwal excused himself from this crucial meet on the flimsy ground that he had to attend a naturopathy session in Bangalore for his diabetes and high blood pressure.

The jostling within the party, which had displayed enormous self-control when its leaders were being called names by a mainstream political party during the run-up to the Assembly elections, has not stopped. The day after the National Executive meeting, Mayank Gandhi, another founder member and the party’s face in Maharashtra, wrote in his blog that it was at Kejriwal’s insistence that the two leaders were dropped from the PAC although other members had tried to achieve a respectable compromise. Mayank Gandhi, who continues to blog about the party affairs, has been targeted by Kejriwal loyalists and he fears he may be expelled, too.

The infighting has raised many serious questions, for which no senior leader has an answer. The points raised by Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav should have been discussed at party forums. Political observers feel the allegations about dubious donations by way of fake cheques should have been probed once the heat and dust of the elections had settled. Similarly, the charge of liquor hoarding against Naresh Balyan, which had surfaced in a video, have not been investigated. Allegations that a party candidate had put up communal posters was shown by the media, yet the party chose to look the other way. Kejriwal, it may be noted, had iterated that if evidence of serious wrongdoing emerged against any of the AAP candidate even one day before the elections, the candidature of that person would be cancelled and the party would leave the seat uncontested. In fact, in the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections, one such case emerged and the candidate’s nomination was cancelled. Unlike in 2013, when the AAP put up its candidates’ list online and invited public scrutiny, nothing of the sort was done during the recent elections. Even the PAC was not consulted in the selection process.

Another deviation from the party’s avowed principle was that several defectors were given the AAP ticket. The founding members were upset with these violations and demanded an explanation. Prashant Bhushan had objected to the nomination of 12 candidates, mostly from outer Delhi, who were known to be strongmen in their respective constituencies and had a history of switching parties for political benefits. Like many other leaders in the party, he felt that giving the ticket to these persons would not only tarnish the image of the party but compromise its founding principles. A senior leader, Atishi Marlena, told Frontline: “The matter was taken up before the [party’s] Lokpal, Admiral Ramdas, who investigated the charges against these candidates. He rejected the candidatures of two of the 12 persons and their names were dropped from the list of nominations.” Nonetheless, such strategic partnerships with regional strongmen marked a huge departure from the way the party had conceived itself to be.

Similarly, Yogendra Yadav has been open about his views that the AAP is not a regular political party but a political experiment that should be taken forward in as many States as possible. Punjab, where the AAP won four parliamentary seats in May 2014, had elicited a lot of hope among party cadres. However, it is believed that the Delhi team, which has come to be known as the Kejriwal camp, is against venturing into any other State, in effect making the AAP a Delhi-centric party, at least for the time being.

Mission Vistaar

A senior party leader known to be sympathetic to Yogendra Yadav’s position says that Mission Vistaar, a nationwide programme to build a strong network, has received little attention from the Delhi-based leaders, most of whom are in the party’s National Executive.

The decision that the AAP will not contest the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly elections was opposed by Yogendra Yadav. In fact, many volunteers who had come from various States to campaign in Delhi view the decision to confine the AAP to Delhi as an organisational loss. A dissident AAP leader from Punjab told Frontline that there was no support from the national executive to expand the organisation in the State where the party won four Lok Sabha seats. This has left party volunteers vulnerable to attack from established parties. “The party has lost credibility among intellectuals of the State who were its biggest support during the Lok Sabha elections,” the leader said. When the AAP could have emerged as a strong political alternative in other States with a surge of support after its massive victory in Delhi, many party leaders find the decision to focus attention only on Delhi politically naive. Mayank Gandhi’s outpouring against the ouster of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan from the PAC, too, reflects this sentiment among the non-Delhi leaders.

“There are two opposing views in the party. One that wants to build a strong organisational base before venturing into electoral politics in any State. And the other, which wants to rely on a strong volunteer base, as in Delhi, if the party decides to contest other State Assembly elections,” a senior AAP leader said. This political divide seems to be at the root of the infighting.

“The points raised by Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan had merit. If the party is seen to be deviating from its fundamental principles, we as its founding members had every right to demand an explanation,” a senior National Executive member, who voted against the move to drop Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan from the PAC, said. This member, who wished to remain anonymous, said those raising the conspiracy bogey needed to understand the difference between dissent and conspiracy.

“A party that claims internal democracy and transparency should have space for dissent. Dissenting viewpoints should be allowed to exist and debated as that leads to the well-being of the party,” he said. “But that culture seems to be disappearing and the party is fast regressing into the high command culture which is the bane of other political parties,” he said.

Significantly, similar views were expressed by those who have been associated with the party since its inception but have not become members. E.A.S. Sarma, a former bureaucrat who was involved in framing the AAP’s vision to include gram sabhas in the decision-making process, said he felt dismayed at the turn of events because the AAP had professed to break free of personality-driven politics and take decision making to the grass roots. “Of late, there have been deviations from its founding principles. I know all the three [Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav and Kejriwal] are well-meaning people. They should sit down and sort out their differences,” he said. He advised Kejriwal to tolerate dissent.

While many AAP insiders describe the current situation as a “crisis of success”, a lot depends on what happens at the meeting of the party’s National Council, an all-India body with 500-odd members, slated for March 28.

“I hope good sense prevails over them. I hope Kejriwal will make amends because this party has succeeded on the strength of people’s expectations of a different sort of politics. That expectation should not be belied,” another senior National Executive member said. In his opinion, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav provided the required intellectual muscle to the party, which enabled the leadership of Kejriwal to gain people’s trust, and this balance should be maintained. “He must not mistake popular support for the support for his own personality or charisma,” the senior member said.

Kejriwal and his deputy, Manish Sisodia, could not be contacted for comments.

It took the Congress some 90 years to fall into the personality trap of “India is Indira and Indira is India”. The BJP fell to the Narendra Modi image within 34 years. The AAP has taken only a year and half to embrace personality politics. The party’s unprecedented victory in Delhi seems to have tilted the scale in favour of the Kejriwal camp, and the removal of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan from the PAC indicates that Kejriwal has emerged as the single-most powerful force in the party.