There is no way of discussing the ongoing crisis in AAP without being blunt and frank. The terrain of politics is, after all, a brutal and treacherous one. So let me put it without mincing words. The ongoing crisis in AAP is not just about ‘differences of opinion’ or ‘toleration of dissent’ but a power struggle. And before squeamish liberal stomachs start churning, let me also add – power struggles are not always only about power in and of itself. Sometimes they are, but quite often they have to do with alternative visions, imaginations and of course, contrary interests. It is only likely that every serious political party or organization will, if it has any life in it, be faced with a struggle over any or all of these matters, for what is politics if not about steering the party/ movement in the direction one understands to be the best course. And these alternative visions, imaginations, policies and interests are inseparable from the position of individual personalities involved. Individual ambitions are pretty much the stuff of politics and it is unrealistic to expect to see a politics without all of this. The will to power is not exactly a self-effacing virtue.
For this reason, factions and platforms are inevitable in all political formations and it is best to recognize them as legitimate entities and have open public debate, on matters at stake. These cannot be matters of concern to only a small group of leaders in the National Executive and Political Affairs Committee (in AAP’s case) or in Politburos and Central Committees (in the case of communist parties). So, if collective deliberations are important in the apex committees, they would do well to be preceded by a public debate among different tendencies within the organization. At one level, this means moving away from the party-form itself to the form of a platform or coalition, where the different groupings and ideological currents are honestly and openly recognized, as are the personal inclinations and angularities of each individual leader.
This longish preface should make it very clear that my concerns here have nothing to do with the usual liberal platitudes about ‘amicably and democratically’ resolving ‘difference of opinion’. A political movement or party is not an academic seminar. Every such struggle, in the final analysis, is a power struggle – so is the current one in AAP. And there can be no doubt that both sides in this conflict are deeply involved in it. Decoding the stakes in the absence of a clear public debate, apart from selective leaks in the press, is not an easy task. But it does not involve rocket science either. One can read the signs, one can read between the lines of the narratives from both sides that have emerged, howsoever partially, in the media. What follows below, though, is a reading quite different from the ones inundating the media about intolerance of dissent.
I believe that ‘unity at all costs’ is not always the best option as it involves importing into the organization, methods and styles of ‘politics’ that are based on compacts between competing elites – of the kind that we have seen operate in Indian politics right from the 1990s – in which basically, nobody wants to rock the boat. This way the interests of both sides are preserved and politics becomes, once again, a treacherous game of behind-the-scenes bargaining. This was the deadlock that AAP (and its precursor, the Anna Hazare movement) broke by blurting out truths that everyone apparently knew but no one dared utter. To quote from an earlier post of mine (written on 13 October 2012) :
Suddenly, everybody is talking favourably about the man from the ‘outside’ who is refusing to respect any of the established protocols of protest and politics. More startling perhaps, is the fact that in the past tw0 days we have had senior journalists and political analysts suddenly telling us that they had known all along that there was a ‘post 1980 contract’, a secret code of silence, that never would the dynasty be attacked – indeed never would any aspiring dynasty be attacked. Everybody knew, says Dipankar Gupta in the Times of India, that the issue came up one and a half years ago – and we all do know that. Robert Vadra’s doings had already been known. A senior BJP leader is even reported to have told a senior journalist that his party had indeed been in possession of the very same documents that Arvind Kejriwal brandished at his press conference. But, this leader went to say, “after an intense discussion, the leadership decided not to rake up the issue in Parliament even after submitting a motion in each House asking for a discussion.” Everybody knew – the parties, their leaders, the media persons, political analysts. And yet, nobody spoke out. All of them colluded, in other words, in suppressing the issue.
This was just one side of the contract. The corollary was that the other players too would not be touched for any of their misdemeanors. To my mind, then and now, this break in the ‘normal’ routines of politics based on the elite contract was largely due to the persona of Arvind Kejriwal. In that post, written after the formation of the party, but before its naming as Aam Aadmi Party, I had also expressed some fears about the possible directions that this new entity may take:
It seems to me that this outfit, whatever the name it decides to call itself by, will be a harbinger of what seems to be seeking to make its appearance worldwide – a post-party politics and post-party democracy. The possibility that it might become a party and yet not be one, is interesting and new – though I am aware that there are many among Kejriwal’s confidantes who would like it to become a party right away. If these advisors have their way, we can rest assured that it will be the end of this interesting new experiment.
I may add now that among the ‘advisors’ I had in mind was also Yogendra Yadav, whose propensity to do politics the conventional way has been quite evident to some of us who have followed his public persona. Politics to Yogendra has always been party politics of the type that has dominated Indian politics for a few decades now and we have had occasional arguments on these and related matters. This attitude to politics is what has always made him comfortable with serving on UPA government committees and inside television studios, where he has spent a good part of his life and presented election analyses, defending ‘politics’ against the popular ‘antipolitical sensibility’ that found its most powerful articulation in the mobilization around IAC and AAP. It needs to be underlined that while this ‘antipolitical’ sensibility is often portrayed as a ‘middle class’ or even ‘elite’ sensibility, it is one that is equally widespread over all classes, especially the poor. This fact does not get adequately reflected in election survey data but any everyday conversation will reveal how common is the refrain – ‘sab chor hain‘ – across the poor in particular.
It is interesting, however, that over the period since the formation of AAP (but in fact, right from the Anna Hazare days), a large mobilization of people was taking place in opposition to the government and since simply being in the movement attracted such vehement attacks from the government as well as from other political formations – this participation led to a politicization of a very different kind. With the formation of AAP and with the issues of everyday life, like water, electricity and gas prices taking centre-stage, as also with the exposure of Reliance Industries, a politics of the popular was clearly emerging that had no relation to any pre-given blueprint. The emerging politics of AAP, as we have observed on previous occasions, was post-ideological in a profound sense and stayed resolutely away from standard divisions of Left and Right. That was both its strength and its weakness. The fact that soon after its formation and its opening of the battle front against Reliance, AAP faced virtual blackout from the media, played no less a role in this politicization. The media too was now seen as part of the power bloc.
Meanwhile, events proceeded rapidly and within less than a year of its formation, AAP had to plunge into the Delhi elections and turn up eventually with 28 seats and the possibility of forming a government. Ill-advised though it was to have formed that minority government with Congress support, the fact that it was done after seeking the opinion of a large section of the electorate once again, opened up a space of possibility in terms of setting the agenda. It was the agenda set by that short-lived government of 49 days that eventually became the basis of the current electoral sweep of the party.
The fact that AAP had managed to stall the electoral juggernaut of the BJP in Delhi, had an immediate all-India effect as well. It added another dimension to the anti-corruption plank of the party and drew many hitherto skeptical sections as well towards the party. AAP supporters started springing up and offices were set up different parts of the country. It was all very exhilarating and as the parliamentary election approached, the clamour for turning AAP into an electorally credible all-India platform also grew. Social movements joined the party and contested on its platform across the country. Here the role played by Yogendra and other socialists in the party in terms of building bridges with these social movement groups was, it seems, quite significant. In an insightful article in the Jansatta (3 March 2015), Punya Prasoon Vajpeyi made an interesting and important observation about this development. He discerned a certain disconnect and tension between this new expansion – which brought in a certain kind of political rhetoric of the social movement/left variety – and the mobilization that had taken place so far on key urban popular issues. In my view, it was not an insurmountable tension but one that needed more time to nurture the dialogue between them. That process could have been quite transformative and over time things could have been sorted out differently. But by prematurely forcing a crisis at this juncture, that possibility too seems jeopardized. In any case, as Vajpeyi observes, once the election was over and Modi took power, most social movements too retreated into their own familiar territories. Thus the pressure to expand had certainly reduced and Arvind Kejriwal and his team decided to focus attention on Delhi.
At one level, this is being made out to be the key issue of contention between the two camps. It is almost as if Kejriwal wanted to simply stay in his ‘well’, shunning any move to expand outside Delhi. This is a misreading, deliberate or otherwise. In the year since the formation of AAP, Kejriwal had toured different parts of the country, setting up units. He also did take up the challenge of contesting against Modi from Banaras and his reappraisal of the ‘national expansion strategy’ seems to be the result of rethinking and drawing lessons from that experience. The conflict, therefore, seems to point to something else: It is in all probability tied to what I see is centrally Yogendra’s idea of politics – a politics whose be-all and end-all is elections. It is one thing to say that we want to expand to other states, but quite another to say that our very first intervention must be in the form of contesting elections with a view to making a bid for power. This conflation of ‘expansion of the party’ with ‘contesting elections’ appears to have become normalized. Chances were indeed, as Kejriwal apprehended, that this time round, if AAP had contested the Haryana elections, it would have lost miserably, jeopardizing even the Delhi election results.
The question then is of how to expand. Do you expand only when you contest elections? There is after all a big issue of land acquisition that is agitating the Haryana peasantry (as elsewhere) and one could argue that one way of expanding would be to do the back-breaking work of building a movement before the next round of elections.
If contesting elections is the only mode of expansion being debated, I think Kejriwal might be right in not wanting to go that way. Let us not forget that in Delhi, he has built up over a decade and a half, a movement along with a small group of activists, away from elections and media glare. Initially, it was RTI activism around allocation of civic amenities in resettlement colonies like Seemapuri and for issues like effective functioning of the Public Distribution System. This was followed by the struggle against water privatization and the effective prevention of the World Bank-pushed plan. He and his fellow associates have faced goonda attacks, arrests, have toiled day in and day out – long before the Anna movement came to the fore and grabbed media attention. One of his team members, Santosh Koli, who was also the prospective candidate for Seemapuri in the 2013 election, was finally killed after a series of threats.
This long and patient work continued, and not in the style of revolutionaries who appear among ‘the people’ with already formed visions and programmes.
[An irresistible aside here: Sub-Commandante Marcos, a key leader of the Zapatistas, explains in one of his interviews that when he and his colleagues used to teach at the University of Mexico, as committed Marxist-Leninists they decided to go to the the Chiapas mountains to foment rebellion by mobilizing the indigenous population. Once there, they figured out that things were not quite as simple as they had imagined them to be. People had their own ways of making sense of the world and the revolutionaries had to learn a new language. Thus, says Marcos, began the tortuous process of unlearning all that they had learned, before they could make any headway with mobilizing the indigenous people!]
Returning to Kejriwal, then, here the struggle was also of finding a way. From initial steps, to forming an NGO to the mass mobilization of the Anna movement and finally, the forming of AAP – one can see the tortuous process of taking up issues and learning on the job, how actually working on the ground leads you from one issue to another, from one form of organization to another. The leader was learning along with the people he was mobilizing. Whatever ‘ragtag’ combination of people that came up around Kejriwal, have taken his lead because they have slogged together, struggled together and suffered together. Many of them gave up their jobs and took the risks of dedicating themselves to building a movement that did not yet exist. Contesting elections and being in continuous media glare was not what they experienced, but patient and often thankless work.
Then comes the ‘moment of the party’. Suddenly people who had so far only walked the corridors of power and inhabited media houses entered the party. Some are media creations and others, at least media savvy and well placed within Delhi’s power elite. They are articulate and suave. They can talk glibly. And they have one great advantage. They have immediate appeal for all those radical, left leaning intellectuals who were apprehensive about possible ‘fascist tendencies’ within AAP. Suddenly this lot see faces they recognize and trust, People Like Us, unlike ordinary AAP members or leaders who were unknown quantities, complete outsiders to the world of power in Delhi. The intelligentsia was now comfortable that it did not have to deal with the unknown. Many Facebook comments were explicit – “AAP minus Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan is fascism/ RSS/ BJP B team.” The people, of course, without intellectual vanguards, are always potentially fascist!
In parenthesis, one should also state, of course, that not every one who has chosen to remain in the ‘Kejriwal camp’ is of the same type. There are those like Ashutosh who are quite problematic – and his motivated tweet saying that this was a division between the ‘ultra-Left that demanded referendum on Kashmir’ and those who believed in ‘pragmatic welfare politics’, only helped obfuscate issues, much to the glee of the left-leaning intelligentsia. It was ‘proof’ to them that what they had felt all along was being proved true. As it happens, this was pure mischief-making, for the Kashmir question has hardly been at issue in the current crisis. And of course Yogendra is not at all on the same page as Prashant Bhushan on Kashmir, given his frank espousal of Indian nationalism and an explicitly expressed distaste for the non-Socialist Left. Ashutosh is also the one who created mischief around Ashis Nandy’s statement on corruption in the Jaipur Literary Festival, completely distorting it and running it on the channel he worked in at that time.
There is also little doubt that AAP (and Kejriwal in particular) needs to urgently deal with a whole range of problems regarding decision making within the organization. The fact that the core team remains primarily a ‘boys club’ too, does no good for the quality of decisions arrived at or for the future of AAP.
However, the problem is not just that newer people from different backgrounds joined AAP. The problem is precisely that this almost immediately became a power struggle. Some of them were clearly not prepared to wait their turn to take over the reins of decision-making, confident in the belief in their own political and intellectual acumen. They were not prepared to wait to build up the movement/ party in their own states over some years, with patient and silent work. Had they done that, they would have also built up their claim to lead on the basis of actual work and not merely because of their supposed ‘intellectual acumen’. They were not prepared to wait and take the more difficult route. At least, some of their actions seem to suggest that.
Here is an extract from an email sent to several journalists in October 2013 by Yogendra’s personal assistant Vijay Raman (who also figures quite damningly in Dilip Pandey’s letter to the AAP Disciplinary Committee published by NDTV a few days ago). It is regarding the possibility of a syndicated column by Yogendra but actually says much more than that:
Dear xyz ji, (name withheld) I am writing to you in follow up to our phone conversation. I am a part of a team of volunteers assisting Yogendra, given how busy he is with election work. We have been pushing that he resurrect his regular writing for newspapers, all the more now, in the hectic busy-ness of day to day campaigning – so he and we, his readers can remain connected and engaged to larger issues and ideas. I am helping put together a syndication that can help reach out his articles nationally as well as in regional languages. Would it be alright with you, if the monthly article he gives you is also shared with a couple of newspapers like say xyz and abc? I am hoping that there would be no conflict of territories and this way we can maximize his reach . If you have a word limit or any other considerations please let me know. I would also request – although it is the least of Yogen’s concerns – that he be paid in line with his stature as a leading political thinker and the popularity of his writing. It also helps given the pace of his politics, that this might be soon one day be his bread and butter. ...I, like many others have come to the Aam Aadmi Party largely inspired by Yogendra, hoping to promote his inclusive and insightful politics. Please call or email me for any clarification. regards Vijay Raman
This email (particularly the bits I have marked in bold) shows that within a year of joining the party, people were being inducted in an attempt to create an alternative centre of power within and outside AAP. The email is quite unique in making the claim that people like the writer had come to the party not because of the anti-corruption movement or Kejriwal’s work but rather because of the inspiration of Yogendra’s insightful ideas. As I said earlier, I seen no problem in this in itself, except that it is being railroaded in great haste, without doing the hard work that it entails. At the very least it would require you to put your own ideas into practice and show results. That way there could emerge a healthy interaction between two different perspectives and there would be something real to choose between. Some people it seems, did not have the patience for all that.
And so, in no time, the guns seemed to have been trained against Kejriwal himself. The statement by Shanti Bhushan that Kejriwal should resign from the position of National Convenor and that Yogendra should be made the National Convenor, immediately raises the question – ‘why only Yogendra’? Kejriwal’s claim to be the NC is quite clear but if, for reasons of ensuring democratic checks and balances, there has to be a division of power, why is it so evident that the position should be ceded to Yogendra? That is what has perhaps raised the hackles of many people who do not belong to the charmed circle of the Delhi power elite. We must remember that Shanti Bhushan’s statement echoes the same thing said by Vijay Raman to a party activist earlier, as is clear in the letter by Dilip Pandey referred to above.
At the moment, I am not even entering to other more immediate issues that have been raised by the Bhushan-Yadav camp – like selection of candidates, the invocation of ‘Swaraj’ in letting state units decide on issues like contesting elections, or even on matters like the Bhushans’ egging on the egregious AVAM and the senior Bhushan praising Kiran Bedi as a better prospective chief minister than Arvind. My interest in this piece has been to focus on what seem to me to be crucial general issues for any party or movement.
A lot is being made now after the National Executive meeting that decided to ease out Yogendra and Prashant Bhushan, about Kejriwal ‘blackmailing’ the NE by stating that if they remain, he will quit from the national convenorship. Frankly, I do not see what other course of action is possible, once it becomes clear that attempts are afoot to take over the fledgling movement/party, by people with a completely different vision and idea. In that case, the only way – perhaps the final way – would have been, had these people managed a take-over, to go back to the people, the large mass of silent supporters. Effectively, that would have been the first step towards a split.
That extreme situation has been averted for now but if that were to happen, there is no doubt in my mind that not all the power elite put together can build a party or movement worth the name that can even win one single constituency in Delhi or anywhere. We can see this through the experience of all the communist (and socialist) parties in Delhi and other states. They have never grown beyond small sects. They have never managed even to save their deposits in any of constituencies they have contested, except for their strongholds in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura and some pockets in some other states. And the story of the communist party/ movement in these states too bespeaks a similar history – the history of relentless and often brutal internal struggle against the usurping of the mass movements and struggles by mere ideologues. The movements in these states were built not on the basis of ideological programmes laid out by articulate leaders well-versed in Marxism-Leninism but through movements like the food movement or land struggles. What they required was political acumen and horse-sense rather than well laid out ideological blueprints. This is not to glorify ‘practice’ against ‘ideology’/ ‘theory’ but rather to underline a logic of politics that is often passed over in embarrassed silence. It is also to underline that this is actually another face of vanguardism whereby self-appointed elites take over and control mass/ popular movements.
Finally, to conclude, a piece of unsolicited advice to Arvind Kejriwals’ camp. There is a serious need to guard against the tendency to go on an overdrive and start a campaign to weed out all supporters of the Yadav-Bhushan camp. In fact, the party needs time to tide over the crisis and move slowly. It needs to seriously start an internal debate on the kind of organizational form and culture it wants to promote. Ultimately, of course, it will be the work of the Delhi government that will make or mar AAP – both in Delhi and elsewhere, in other states. That however, is only going to be the ground on which the future of the party can be built, but any attempt to ignore vital organizational questions can derail the process completely, irrespective of this ground.