The AAP experiment

Working model

Print edition : January 10, 2014

Aam Aadmi Party volunteers distributing Kejriwal's letter seeking the opinion of the citizens of Delhi on whether they should form the next government in Delhi with Congress support, on December 18. Photo: S. Subramanium

Arvind Kejriwal addressing a press conference after the Aam Aadmi Party's meeting at their Kaushambi office in Ghaziabad on December 17. Photo: Monica Tiwari

The Aam Aadmi Party has successfully taken up specific issues relating to the people and reached out to them for directions and solutions. Will the mass appeal thus generated translate into electoral gains at the national level?

AAM AADMI PARTY leader Arvind Kejriwal’s December 17 letter addressed to “Mere pyaare Dillivasi” (My dear Delhiite) concludes as follows: “We [the AAP] are in a big moral crisis ( bada dharma sankat) at present. Many members believe that we should not take the support of either of the parties [the BJP and the Congress] and elections should be held in Delhi again. On the other hand, some members are of the opinion that we should make a government and show them what we can do. We want to know from you what we should do. Unlike other parties, we will not take decisions behind closed doors. We are putting this question to the people because the AAP is not a party of a few individuals but of the common man of this country. We will do what the people want us to do.”

Right from its inception in November 2012, the AAP has vociferously advocated and adopted the approach of reaching out to the people for direction and solutions. Its leaders, from Kejriwal to Kumar Vishwas and Prashant Bhushan, have highlighted this approach as the distinct characteristic of the party. The AAP employed the same modus operandi in selecting candidates in its debut election, in Delhi. It asked people to give their opinion on the candidates through letters, SMS, phone calls, social media platforms and other instruments and also through jan sabhas organised by local units of the AAP.

These consultations threw up suggestions about grass-roots performers and took the focus away from the so-called professional politicians. Leaders and activists of the party aver that this was a stellar contribution to its electoral performance, leading to its win in 28 seats in the 70-member Assembly.

The AAP leadership said it would adopt “the true participatory model” even if the December referendum was for a “people’s mandate” to take over the reins of the State government. At the time of writing this, only the Congress had responded to the 18-point charter, which the AAP presented to the BJP and the Congress, enlisting the steps and measures the party would take if it decided to form the government in Delhi with the support of either of the parties. The Congress’ response was that 16 of the 18 points could be handled at the level of the executive and did not require the support of the party in the legislature. It also added that it was committed to the two remaining issues, matters of policy, in the AAP’s charter, these being granting of Statehood to Delhi and the passage of a State Lokpal Bill. It was this that apparently put the AAP in a “dharma sankat” and impelled Kejriwal to write the letter to the “Dillivasi” seeking guidance.

‘People’s power’

In fact, even before the launching of the AAP, Kejriwal had advocated the “participatory model” as a tool for decision-making on all important social and economic issues. In an interview he gave Frontline in August 2011, when he was called the “Field Marshal” of the Lokpal movement led by Anna Hazare, Kejriwal maintained that the decentralisation of political power was the crux of policy and executive directions because every single policy decision in the current political system was dictated by the centralisation of power. He also held forth on his belief that the decentralisation of political power would mean community control over natural resources, and this in turn would lead towards community control in all areas of governance. He laid emphasis on the participatory model of consultation among a large mass of population as a mechanism to build up what he termed “real people’s power”.

Kejriwal maintained that vested interests challenged and subverted the existing forums to quantify people’s power, such as legislatures and Parliament, and in the process these institutions tended to become oligarchic rather than democratic. He was also of the view that public consultation forums operating at a mass level were less prone to manipulation by vested interests and big-moneyed corporates than legislatures. “Who should define policy perspective? The people should define it. What do you think is easier: to influence a village with 20,000 or three Ministers? It is easier for the World Bank or large corporates to influence a few Ministers rather than a large section of the population. Different groups of intellectuals may have different policy prescriptions. We can deepen our democracy only if people are involved,” Kejriwal said in the interview.

While Kejriwal himself was not available for specific questions on the current round of consultations, senior AAP leader Kumar Vishwas told Frontline that the party believed in persisting with the people-oriented and participatory approach on every single issue and for every important decision of the party despite the many arguments being raised against it by social and political leaders as well as political observers. “The first argument is that a public consultation at such a large scale is not pragmatic. Now the AAP has disproved that again and again over the past few months in Delhi, which has as many as 70 Assembly segments. It was through these consultations that we were able to come up with specific and separate manifestos for the constituencies where the party contested. It showed that the AAP knew the problems of each constituency and that it had projected solutions for each one of them. This was a departure from the one-fit-suits-all approach adopted by other parties, and people saw it as a welcome change. The second argument is that this cannot be replicated over and over again and that the people would get bored with such involvement over a period of time. We believe that transparency is the key to genuine political action and that this approach will engage people consistently and systematically,” he said.

Vishwas agreed that there were several issues confronting the people in the country that the AAP had not directly addressed and that the party was planning to formulate its agenda on the majority of these issues with the approach successfully employed in the Delhi Assembly elections. A number of senior AAP activists said that over two dozen policy groups were already functional to analyse and formulate draft guidelines for the party to devise a comprehensive position on issues. Vishwas said the party did not want to be categorised in terms of existing political or ideological brands. “Our premise is that there should be people-oriented debates and that too structured debates in our country. These debates will help fill the massive gaps in our democracy. Of course, there is the contention that this could lead to mobocracy, but the AAP believes in the overall democratic orientation of our people. That orientation has been asserted many times historically and is something that clearly works against the development of any mobocracy,” Vishwas told Frontline.

Evidently, the AAP perceives Delhi as the beginning of a nationwide intervention that the party has been planning and working on over the past year. While none of the senior leaders have stated that formally, the discussions among a large number of activists who gather at 41 Hanuman Road, New Delhi, which functions as the party’s central office at this point of time, revolve around contesting 100 Lok Sabha seats. “Now our talk of contesting this number of seats does not evoke derision as it did in the early days of the party,” said one of the volunteers who had gathered at the office. “Congress leader Digvijay Singh had challenged Kejriwalji to get elected, even as a municipal corporator; Lal Krishna Advaniji was sure that there was no place for a third party in Delhi; and Sushma Swaraj had asked Delhiites not to waste their votes. But all that pooh-poohing and scoffing at by BJP and Congress leaders did not work.”

National ambitions

Talks abound that the party may contest all the seven parliamentary seats in Delhi. Other States that figure as possible entry points for the AAP include Haryana, which is contiguous with Delhi, and Maharashtra, Karnataka, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. “There are several States, small and big, as well as several cities and towns where scores of people’s issues are left unaddressed, and sections of the population that are aware are desperately seeking an honest, transparent, non-sectarian, non-divisive and secular alternative. The AAP would seek to step into that role,” said a senior party activist who did not wish to be named.

A large number of senior AAP activists assert that beyond policy formulations, the party’s real strength is its volunteer core and its commitment to go any length to spread the party’s message. This was evident in the Delhi elections when the party’s volunteer core and campaign managers reached out to low-income areas that activists of mainstream political parties, and more particularly their leaders, had never visited. “That reaching out to areas earmarked by others as unreachable or not important made a critical difference,” a number of AAP activists told Frontline. The AAP team hopes to repeat this performance in select constituencies across India in the Lok Sabha elections.

Above all, the selection of candidates would be through an interactive process, said AAP activists. A case in point according to them was the candidature of Surinder Singh, a National Security Guard commando who was at the Taj Hotel during the 26/11 shootout in Mumbai. His candidature brought forth the image of a genuine serviceman wedded to the cause of the nation pitted against so-called professional politicians. This image contributed majorly to his success. Candidates like him, AAP volunteers hope, will come across in different parts of the country.

There is little doubt that the AAP as a political organisation is driven by a sense of commitment to probity and people’s participation as well as the energy and enthusiasm of a predominantly young and earnest cadre. Along with it is an organisational mixture combining grass-roots work and modern techniques and technology for mass communication. The party has successfully taken up a number of specific issues relating to the people and has employed the above-mentioned attributes to galvanise support for campaigns that benefit society at various levels. It has also succeeded in translating the mass appeal from this into electoral gains.

While all these indeed signify the strengths of the fledgling party, the absence of well-rounded and stated policy positions on a large number of nationally important questions, ranging from land reforms to economic liberalisation to corporatisation of agriculture, will undoubtedly be a major limitation, at least in the medium term. Sections of the AAP leadership seem aware of this, but they, along with those who are not so convinced about policy formulations, will need to initiate moves to evolve these policy perspectives. To this end, there could be nothing preventing the party leadership from employing the real participatory model that its convener, Kejriwal, holds close to his heart.

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