Nobody is clean in this ugly war

In the conflict within the AAP, the battle has been cast as one between strongly ethical ideologues and practitioners of opportunistic politics. Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification of a fight far more layered and complex

April 11, 2015 12:28 am | Updated April 02, 2016 04:06 pm IST

Riding a roller coaster will likely be easier than tracking the developments within the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The avalanche of exposés, letter bombs and sting operations has brought out so much dirt that there is no real way to judge who is right and who is wrong.

Yet, two months after Mr. Kejriwal’s epic conquest of Delhi, it is the rebel duo of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan who appear to have won the perception war.

Mr. Kejriwal twice won the battle of numbers — in the February 7, 2015 Delhi Assembly election and then at the March 28 National Council (NC) meeting of the AAP. The NC voted 247 to 10 to oust Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan from the AAP’s national executive.

Divide within

Paradoxically, however, Mr. Kejriwal lost even as he won. In their own way, Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan have outwitted the AAP convener by positioning themselves as the only upholders of principles in a party founded with idealism but now fixated on winning by any means. This narrative, which has enormous urban appeal, has split the party as it has the voters. Indeed, the two men, at least for now, have created a rift between Mr. Kejriwal’s steadfastly strong underclass support and the educated strata that intermittently joined the core. In the latter group’s perspective, Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan constituted a reassuring, stabilising presence in the eager beaver, oftentimes rash, AAP.

Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan have always come across as intelligent, patient and reasonable, especially on television, where the average party spokesperson screams rather than speaks. Add to this their already considerable professional reputations — one a reputed social scientist and the other an activist lawyer — and it was clear that in any conflict within the AAP, they had a better chance of being heard by the media and the middle class.

Take the NC meeting. The two men emerged from it, looking harried and done in, which immediately set them up as the fall guys. Mr. Kejriwal’s supporters by contrast seemed uncouth, all brawn and no brain. Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan alleged rowdyism and violence at the NC, charges which were made entirely believable by the lack of transparency in the meeting’s conduct. Mr. Yadav said he was silenced at the NC, folded his palms and apologised to the people: “Believe me, this is not the party I wanted.” TV lapped up the drama.

The Kejriwal faction did not bother to weigh in with its own version. Mr. Kejriwal left after his inaugural speech, and his team carried on, unmindful of the commotion outside. To those outside, this conveyed an arrogance completely at odds with the disarming projection of the AAP before the election.

Sense of betrayal

There is a sense of betrayal among the AAP’s more educated voters, deepened by the daily leaks of accusatory letters. Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan have both written to Mr. Kejriwal, charging him with being a control freak and jettisoning the party’s founding principles; worse, they have said this was a character trait with Mr. Kejriwal, citing many instances, among them Mr. Kejriwal’s habitual disregard of internal decision-making bodies; his attempts to form a government with the Congress, post the AAP’s Lok Sabha debacle; his insistence on awarding the party ticket to defectors and people of disrepute; and his refusal to allow autonomy to State units.

Most media opinion has tended to support Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan, projecting them as ideologues too sophisticated to match the goonish, brat pack led by Mr. Kejriwal. This battle has been cast as one between strongly ethical, almost other worldly, ideologues and practitioners of opportunistic politics. And this spin has been so voraciously consumed that it has almost become the definitive story to tell: The man who swept Delhi off its feet is now like any other Machiavellian fixer, defeating his enemies by stealth and ruling over his clan with an iron fist.

Internal contradictions

Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification of a fight that is far more layered and complex than suggested by the immediate circumstances. Mr. Yadav was the party ideologue but by no means did he advocate pristine, pure politics. He has an understanding of realpolitik drawn from years of studying elections. And the pragmatism that has been attributed to Mr. Kejriwal was originally articulated by Mr. Yadav. Indeed, it was Mr. Yadav who positioned the AAP as a post-ideological party geared to finding solutions and delivering results. A report in the Business Standard (January 9, 2014) quoted him as saying: “We are neither socialists nor capitalists. We are a pragmatic, problem solving party.”

Consider another contradiction. Mr. Yadav believes in fighting every election whereas Mr. Kejriwal advocates caution. On Mr. Yadav’s suggestion, the AAP contested 400 plus Lok Sabha seats, and earned the sobriquet, Zamanat Zapt Party (deposit forfeiting party). Mr. Yadav himself fought from Gurgaon, when as a psephologist, he would have been of greater help in an overseer’s role. On the campaign trail, it was evident that the affable and very polite Mr. Yadav was cutting no ice with the voters. In the event, he came fourth in Gurgaon with his vote share at a dismal seven per cent. The AAP itself was routed in Haryana, belying its publicised image as “destination-next”.

The Haryana debacle was a warning that the AAP needed more preparation before trying its luck in the October 2014 Assembly election. But Mr. Yadav and the State unit were set on fighting the election. In the end, the State unit passed a resolution saying it did not want to fight the election without the AAP’s central leadership on board. Mr. Yadav told ANI that Mr. Kejriwal hadn’t “vetoed” the idea of contesting but it was the State unit “which is saying that unless the party chief is with us we do not want to contest.”

In other words, the AAP’s Haryana unit expected Mr. Kejriwal to campaign in the State, diverting his attention from Delhi. An autonomous State unit asking to depend on the national leader is a strange definition of autonomy. Worse still, Mr. Kejriwal was being asked to prioritise a “low yield” State like Haryana over a potentially winning State like Delhi at a critical time.

Questions for both sides

There are many omissions of procedure where Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan have been equal participants. L'affaire Somnath Bharti — involving a January 2014 vigilante raid on African women — sent waves of revulsion in Delhi. Mr. Yadav cleared Mr. Bharti, then Law Minister, of any wrongdoing, promising that the party would act on any adverse inquiry finding. The correct course of action would have been to ask Mr. Bharti to step down pending the inquiry report. As it happened, the report found him guilty. Many twists and turns later, the Delhi police are currently awaiting sanction for Mr. Bharti’s prosecution.

As in 2014, so too in 2013, there were defectors and “tainted” candidates in the Delhi election fray. Candidates were imported from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, and there were strong volunteer protests in the case of one candidate, Desh Raj Raghav. The AAP’s 2013 ticket distribution committee, which included Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan, overruled the irate volunteers. Journalists ran stories on the “tainted” candidates of 2013, asking significantly: Is winning everything for Kejriwal? A woman MLA, whose candidature was opposed by Mr. Bhushan this time, was also cleared by the 2013 selection committee.

Team Kejriwal has a lot to answer for: the sacking of the internal Lokpal, Admiral (retd.) L. Ramdas, opacity in decision-making and encouraging a coterie culture, and so forth.

But the rebels have to answer questions too. In a March 2014 interview to The Hindu , Mr. Yadav said he and Mr. Bhushan were clear that Mr. Modi was the AAP’s main opposition. Is it not possible that Mr. Kejriwal was prompted by the same compulsion — to secure Delhi against Mr. Modi — to seek an alliance with the Congress, post the AAP’s Lok Sabha rout?

Procedures and principles cannot operate in a vacuum, and Mr. Yadav, the advocate of pragmatic, solution-based politics, ought to know this better than anyone else.

Mr. Yadav and Mr. Bhushan have not had one word of praise for Mr. Kejriwal’s superhuman Delhi performance. Nor have they, even once, censured Mr. Shanti Bhushan for nearly destroying the AAP on election eve. In any other party, this would have invited instant disciplinary action.

(Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. E-mail: )

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