Yogendra Yadav speaks of his decision to contest the Lok Sabha election, the AAP’s expectations and the reasons for the party’s high-pitched attacks on Narendra Modi
From foretelling elections on television to hitting the campaign trail in the dusty tracks of Gurgaon in Haryana, it has been a difficult but inspirational journey for Yogendra Yadav, political scientist and chief spokesperson and strategist for the Aam Aadmi Party.
It takes the onlooker a while to accept that television’s most famous number cruncher is actually soliciting votes in a garlanded, topi-wearing avatar. Mr. Yadav himself gives the impression of preferring to be in the background, doing what he knows best: providing strategic inputs to his young, financially-strapped party as it struggles to navigate the choppy, uncertain waters of the Lok Sabha election.
At the same time, Mr. Yadav feels his decision to contest was “unavoidable” in view of the immediate imperative to widen the AAP’s electoral base and give it a national profile. “After Delhi, we needed a second political breakthrough. Haryana will have Assembly elections in October 2014. Gurgaon is my home and the AAP’s decision to field me from this constituency is to prepare a base camp for the Assembly polls. Besides, unless I came here to fight, our workers would not have got the sense that we are in this election for real. Arvind Kejriwal’s example has shown that we have to take risks. Our leadership has to be seen to be taking the risk for our workers feel motivated.”
Travelling with Mr. Yadav is like being on a hop-on, hop-off bus. He speaks with candour on many things: his decision to contest the Lok Sabha election knowing that his work as a thinker-strategist would suffer; the AAP’s natural evolution from a party with an iffy, confused vision to one with a secular, social justice orientation; the reasons for the party’s high-pitched attacks on Narendra Modi; and the AAP’s expectations in this election and where it sees itself after it.
But the conversation breaks off each time a village comes into view. Mr. Yadav disembarks to deliver his election speech, which is a full throttle assault on the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. Modi and the “Ambani connection.” This might seem odd in a State ruled by the Congress, but it is not, given that his principal rival, Rao Inderjit Singh — a local dynast with deep roots in the area — has recently defected from the Congress to the BJP. “In this place, Force dynasty has combined with Force Modi,” he tells his audience.
Back in the SUV, Mr. Yadav admits that the AAP has gambled by choosing to contest across the country rather than confine itself to its stronghold regions of Delhi and Haryana: “In Delhi, we had a political breakthrough and made a moral impact. There were two choices before us. Either consolidate ourselves in Delhi and expand at the most to a few metros and therefore have good returns. Or scale up our fight in view of the unprecedented response the AAP has been getting from around the country.”
“I’m sure we have opted for the right course because we are in this for the long-run; our objective is to create a long-term alternative. Upscaling so rapidly is difficult but by not expanding, we ran the risk of allowing our support to evaporate. My own view is that the only way to create a national political alternative is through these rapid and crazy moves of upscaling. The text-book understanding of politics is that you do small steps. But this has never happened in history. Launching a party is like rocket launching. Either you defy gravity or you collapse, there is no third way. This was the only realistic path available. We will see after the election how far we have succeeded.”
Mr. Yadav’s prognosis for his party is that it is a serious contender for winning in Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh and in some urban pockets of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. A second tier consists of regions where the AAP could get a 5 to 10 per cent vote share, making the party “politically viable straightaway.” Mr. Yadav believes that the AAP’s presence in these regions “will change the nature of political competition.” Then there is a third tier, where the AAP, Mr. Yadav says, will “register only a symbolic presence.” But even a symbolic presence is important “because in the long run it gives you a national character. He gives the example of Punjab and Gujarat where the communists and the Gandhians respectively had a tiny presence but nonetheless acted as a strong moral force: “The moral pressure brings attention to critical issues.”
Mr. Yadav says he takes a long-term view of politics: “The idea is to create a force of virtue that will change the character of public life; that will shape the national agenda.” According to him, “The real test of a political force is how much do you shape the agenda, how much do you change the rules of the game, how many idealistic youth do you draw to the party.”
One more halt and a speech later, the question of the AAP’s ideology— or more precisely, the lack of it— comes up. Mr. Yadav refuses to get into the “secular-communal” debate, arguing instead that in comparison to a stated “secular” position, the better route to secularism is through a diverse vote base. “The best thing that happened to us in Delhi was our discovery that our support among Muslims and Dalits was disproportionately large.”
This support base, Mr. Yadav says, has naturally led the AAP towards secularism and social justice. “Our commitment to secularism and ideology springs from our support among Muslims and Dalits; this is what anchors our ideology.”
On the party’s reluctance to take a defined ideological position, he says: “It is a different kind where there is no high political theory of secularism, there is no ‘secular’ rhetoric. Instead the focus is on inclusion.” Mr. Yadav points to the irony of Muslims and Dalits supporting the AAP despite the party’s refusal to toe the intellectual line on identity and related issues. “Arvind [Kejriwal] addressed a letter to Muslims which was not in the language of official secularism at all. The letter did not raise any of the classic Muslim identity issues that obsess the Muslim leadership, such as Aligarh, Urdu, Muslim culture etc. The letter talked about security which is a real issue and it talked about water, electricity and other livelihood matters. By any textbook understanding of Muslim politics, we should have bombed. Our party’s stand on Dalits is similar. We do not say what Dalit intellectuals want us to say.”
Is the AAP’s support base also the reason for its strident opposition to Mr. Modi? If so, why was this focus absent during the government formation in Delhi? “It has been my consistent position that Modi stands in opposition to the idea of India. Can there be a stronger statement than this? During the Delhi election and while in government, we were bogged down by everyday issues. There was also some resistance in the party to foregrounding Modi as that was not seen as our key strength. But even at that point I and Prashant [Bhushan] were clear that the principal opposition to the AAP was Modi.”
What if the AAP was crushed by a gigantic Modi wave? Mr. Yadav is clear that that will only strengthen the party’s will to fight Mr. Modi. “It does not matter how many seats the AAP wins. Even with no seat, we will stand up on the street and fight Modi. The Congress and Rahul Gandhi will not have that courage. At that point we will need a strong moral force to take on Modi and that will be the AAP. For me that is my politics.”
From rejecting the need for a stated ideology to emerging as the strongest voice against the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Yadav and his party have indeed come a long way.
“The best thing that happened to us in Delhi was our discovery that our support among Muslims and Dalits was disproportionately large”