Editor's note: When it was inaugurated in November 2012, the Aam Admi Party symbolised an experiment in audacity; Jacobin radicalism wrapped in a muffler. It windmilled its catapult in the direction of the grand old goliaths of India's political pantheon, signalling its intent to dismantle the prevailing order. Three years later, on 10 February, it succeeded in felling the Philistine giant, seizing 67 of 70 seats in the Delhi legislative Assembly — 32 of which were held by the ruling BJP, and eight by the Congress. In the year that has elapsed since, AAP has pendulated between triumph and failure — some of its shimmer has dulled, and yet it is encrusted with new jewels; the muffler is frayed at the edges, and still it flutters as the pennant for an alternative form of political engagement.
It has lost much of its original flock, while gathering new, unlikely adherents to its scrappy, DIY dogma. The party is marking its anniversary revelries by launching a massive self-congratulatory campaign 'PehlaSaalBemisal (one wonderful year)' to draw attention away from the disappointments, and instead enumerate all that it has achieved. We shouldn't grudge AAP its birthday bash because that's what every party does: glorify its performance on the ground. But when it comes to politics, AAP came in with the promise of a difference, of ringing in an era of alternative politics. AAP has left out that aspect of its promise from its anniversary achievements narrative. To understand this aspect of the party, and the bearing it has on alternative politics in India, Firstpost has invited writers to assess AAP’s performance against its founding principles.
This essay by Yogendra Yadav, an erstwhile member of the party's national executive till his public falling out with its national convener, and Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, marks the first in the series.
Most of us can recall this story from our school textbook. Baba Bharati, a sanyaasi, was tricked by Kharak Singh, the dacoit, posing as a handicapped person seeking lift. As Khadag Singh sped away with Baba’s prized Arabian horse, Baba asked him to halt and made an unusual request: “I am not worried about the horse. Just don’t mention this incident to anyone.” This stumped the dacoit. Baba explained, “Should they get to know about it, people will stop trusting any helpless stranger on the street.”
This story comes back to me often as I am asked about the effect of Aam Aadmi Party on Indian politics. The media is keen to evaluate the performance of the first year of AAP government in Delhi; I am not. TV reporters expect me to list all the governance failures of AAP and are surprised by my unwillingness to oblige. They are intrigued when I insist on listing some of the positives of this government. They suspect I am hedging my bets. I cannot explain to them – not in a 20 second byte – that my disappointment is different.
For me AAP government in Delhi was not just one more government, it was to be a new model of governance. Contesting elections in Delhi was not about becoming an alternative power centre; it was an experiment in alternative politics. I hope – and think – that this government has performed a shade better than the previous Congress government. But that was never the point. The real question, which I can never get the TV anchors to ask, is: what happened to the idea of alternative politics?
This idea was not born with the Aam Aadmi Party. If anything, it goes back to post-Emergency era and the disappointment with the Janata experiment. Soon the mainstream Left also came to power in West Bengal and created its own discontent. That is when critical minds within and outside politics started reflecting about limits of mainstream party politics. Kishen Pattnayak was convinced that mainstream politics had become irrelevant for social transformation. In 1980, he began his search for a new political formation that reflected the energy of people’s movements. Rajni Kothari and Dhirubhai Sheth theorised about non-party political formations. The last decade of 20th Century and the first decade of 21st century witnessed many unsuccessful attempts at alternative politics. Unknown to itself, AAP was an inheritor to this long-standing quest.
This quest was not for creating a political alternative to the then ruling parties. It was about forging an alternative to the entire political establishment. It was not about governing better than others; it was about changing the paradigm of governance with a new model of democracy and development. It was about a new agenda for India, a new set of policies and a new vision that went beyond the inherited ideologies of the 20th century. It was not just about winning the political game but about changing the rules of this game. It was about connecting politics to grass-roots issues, struggles and movements. It was not just about creating a new party, but about creating a new kind of party. It was about creating a democratic, transparent and accountable instrument for democratic politics.
Where does that quest stand today?
The AAP experiment did something all its predecessors could not: it made a breakthrough in electoral politics. AAP’s electoral success made it seem that alternative could be viable, that good could be effective. Hence the extraordinary national euphoria around this new party that had tasted success in just a city.
This did not last long. In politics, sustaining a balance of virtue and power takes superhuman wisdom, integrity and hard work – all at once. Small men (like me) who were at the helm of affairs could not match up to this demand. The pursuit of power was divorced from pursuit of virtue. AAP rapidly deteriorated into a mainstream political party, just the kind it was meant to provide an alternative to. While AAP experiment achieved something others could not, it failed to retain even minimally the integrity that defined the quest for alternative politics. This may not mean the end of AAP as a successful entity; but it does mean the end of a dream.
The story of last one year is not the story of imaginary personal feuds that the media looks for. In essence, this is a story of success turning into a curse and the Party turning into a monster machine that must feed on the fuel of electoral success.
The rise of this political machine has pushed aside the quest for alternative politics in many ways. First of all, this has meant a loss of alternative political vision. The logic of success determines the direction of a political machine; hence it cannot tolerate any other driving force. This is what explains AAP’s reluctance to offer or develop a coherent political vision. Secular compulsion of courting Muslim votes sits uneasily with chauvinist nationalism and a majoritarian cultural orientation. Patronising views about Dalit, adivasis, OBCs and women are stapled with policies of social welfare. Its economic policy is a bundle of please-all noises that combine pro-poor sops with pro-business framework. Even the idea of radical political decentralisation – once the core commitment of the party – is now junked. If there is an ideology that keeps together a series of knee-jerk reactions and afterthoughts, it is populism.
Loss of vision in the party has been accompanied by loss of integrity, both within the organisation and in how the organisation relates to the world outside. The political machine requires centralised command; hence the personality cult that can put other personality-driven parties to shame. (Even Jayalalithaa’s party does not put her photo on its flag!). The machine is obviously corruption-neutral and is well suited for resourceful political entrepreneurs who now dominate the party. It also needs managers. Thus an army of professionals, career-seekers, opportunity-explorers and some well-meaning slaves comes up to sustain this machine. The volunteer is no more than a dispensable cog in this machine. Success brooks no norms, no talk of ideology and principles, no dissent. An embrace with Lalu Prasad Yadav is a natural corollary of the working of this successful machine.
Today this machine is the biggest obstacle to alternative politics. The problem is not that AAP has abandoned the path of alternative politics; the real problem is that it has tainted the idea of alternative politics.
As I travel all over the country in search of seeds of alternative politics, the one question that I am asked everywhere is: what is the guarantee that you won’t do what AAP did to us? Won’t you change as Arvind Kejriwal did? These are the only times when I wish to connect to Arvind and say something that echoes Baba Bharati: “I wish you well for a successful tenure and higher successes to come. Just don’t use words like honesty, swaraj and alternative. People will stop believing these words. The road to alternative politics was always tough; don’t make it tougher.”
The author is a member of Swaraj Abhiyan and the National Convener of Jai Kisan Andolan
In Part 2: Social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan on why Arvind Kejriwal is the village idiot with a PhD