New Delhi: Five years ago, on November 26, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was born as the “party with a difference”. With brooms in their hands and white caps bearing the words “we want self-rule” on their heads, AAP supporters set out to cleanse national politics. The campaign soon grew in strength and caught the fancy of people across the nation. Born out of the anti-corruption citizens’ movement, AAP even drew in youth and talented people from across the globe, many of whom gave up cushy jobs to plunge into politics.
The party had a meteoric rise, first managing to form a government in Delhi and then going on to a decent debut in the Lok Sabha polls. But soon internal strife gripped the party. Charges of nepotism and lack of internal democracy surfaced, and several senior leaders either left the party or were expelled. Despite its initial promise, AAP’s electoral fortunes have not improved.
What went wrong and why? The Wire spoke to AAP spokesperson Dilip Pandey, who left a job as an IT expert in Hong Kong to join the party; AAP founder member Yogendra Yadav, who was removed by the party in 2015 and has since launched his own, Swaraj India; Shazia Ilmi, who was a member of AAP’s first national executive and has since joined the BJP; and senior Congress leader and Delhi unit chief Ajay Maken to understand AAP’s rise and its dwindling fortunes.
To bring about change
Pandey recalled how the idea to form AAP took root when the UPA government reneged on the promise to legislate the Lokpal Bill. “An opinion poll was conducted and over 7-8 lakh people said we should form a political organisation. That is how a social revolution got converted into a political organisation with the hope that we would fight our own election, win it and make the law in the Delhi assembly.”
The idea of bringing in swaraj (self-rule), enacting the Jan Lokpal Bill and eliminating corruption led to the formation of AAP. The party first fought the Delhi assembly election in 2013. “When we bagged 28 seats and then formed a minority government, then people developed a belief in us and later in 2015, we got a historical mandate in Delhi when we won 67 of the 70 assembly seats,” Pandey said.
Soon after these assembly elections, founding members Yadav and Prashant Bhushan were expelled by AAP. But Pandey, who has seen a gradual rise within the party, does not want to make much of the episode. “They left us, they had initially stated that they would launch a social movement but ultimately they too ended up forming a political party and contesting elections. This is a democracy and everyone is free and welcome to exercise their democratic right.”
‘A lot of selfish people left the party’
But what he is truly glad about is that “along the way a lot of selfish people also left” the party. As a result, he said, “our organisation has expanded manifold and become very powerful.” In Delhi alone, Pandey said, the party now has about 1 lakh activists and over 18,000 office bearers.
After contesting the polls in Goa and Punjab, where it emerged as the second largest party, AAP is now expanding its base in other poll-bound states such as Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. “We realised we had spread our resources thin in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and are now contesting in only those states or constituencies where we have a significant presence. Also we do not want to disturb the existing anti-right mandate in Gujarat,” Pandey said to explain why the party is contesting only a few seats in the state.
AAP is a “success”
He insists that AAP has achieved much in its short journey. “We are the world’s most disruptive and the most successful political organisation. As a five year old party, we are probably the first in the world to have formed a government in one state (Delhi), be the main opposition party in another (Punjab) and be the main opposition party in all three units of Delhi’s municipal corporation. So this is a success story.”
Pandey in unwilling to buy the argument that AAP is slipping in people’s minds and that is why it lost Punjab and Goa polls. As for Punjab, where he claims at least 25 of the 30 opinion polls last year had shown it winning the state, Pandey said: “Two things happened: the BJP and Akalis transferred their vote to the Congress and there was large-scale rigging of the EVMs and we have demonstrated that such rigging was possible.” In Goa, though, he said the result was along expected lines.
But AAP also lost in the Delhi municipal elections. Pandey insists that municipal polls are not a fair indicator of the state government’s performance since they are fought on a different scale and different issues. “The best way to evaluate our political popularity today would be to look at the Bawana assembly by-election which we won by nearly 53,000 votes. That shows that our governance is approved by the people.”
Is Lokpal forgotten and buried?
Maken, however, differs on this count. “AAP government in Delhi is all about false claims, twisting of facts and nothing about ground reality. Be it education, health, power, water, Lokpal or internal democracy, they have failed on all these fronts,” he said.
“When it comes to internal democracy, people are leaving the party because their voice is being throttled. As for Lokpal, it is nowhere in the picture or on the agenda of AAP. They passed a Bill, but it was a toothless Bill, which even placed the appointment of Lokpal, the appointment of the investigating office and the impeachment of the Lokpal in the hands of the government. So this provided for the weakest form of Lokpal. Then how could this have been an independent Lokpal?”
As for the Bawana by-poll result being a vindication of the AAP’s performance, Maken said the party’s vote share fell from 1.09 lakh in 2015 to about 53,000 votes. “Their votes have halved. So they are losing their support base. People are also expressing their displeasure against AAP through the votes,” he claimed, adding that in the Rajouri Garden assembly by-election the party had come third.
Elsewhere in the country too, Maken said, AAP has failed to have any impact because people from Delhi go to other parts and spread the message about the party’s shortcomings. “Even when it comes to education, where they claim a lot of success, they have been falsely claiming various data through advertisements,” he charged.
AAP had risen on a corruption-free model
On the issue of corruption, Maken said, “four of the AAP ministers have been caught red-handed on corruption charges. They had been removed from the posts, but still they enjoy being a part of the party.”
On allegations of corruption surfacing in AAP, Pandey said, “We have never said that our selection process would rule out everything. We have said that character, criminality and corruption will the parameters on which our candidates are assessed before they are given tickets. In the assembly elections, we had replaced our Rajouri Garden candidate just two days before the polls because he had not disclosed to us a case. We promise that the process would be clean.”
As four of party ministers have been ousted for moral turpitude, he said: “Our minister Asim Ahmad Khan wasn’t caught through a media sting operation. We had sniffed out a dead rat in our house and thrown him out. So it is our integrity and strength that we have the capacity to expose our own.”
On the other hand, Pandey accused the BJP and the Congress of lacking such guts. “How is it that be it Mukul Roy, Sukhram or Narayan Rane who BJP accused of corruption when they were in the Congress, were taken by the party into its fold as if the charges did not apply to them. The list of such names does not end there, you have more like Hemanta Biswa Sarma in Assam and Vitthal Radadia in Gujarat,” Pandey said.
Is there nepotism in AAP?
“When a campaign takes place, there are faces. So Anna Hazare was the face of Jan Lokpal campaign and Arvind Kejriwal became the face when political campaign began. So he was the natural leader born out of a social revolution.” He said there was a difference between AAP and the BJP and Congress culture. “In AAP you cannot point out a similar instance where two people from the same family have been given some position.”
However, Ilmi, who had been associated with AAP since its inception and was also a member of the Anna Hazare movement, differs. Still very emotionally involved with the idea of AAP, which she describes as a “life changing experience”, Ilmi said within the party she had “fallen from the highs of absolute idealism, hope and the idea of transformation to the lowest nadir of despair, being exposed to what intellectual corruption can be like and how it can be camouflaged.”
“That is what the whole idea of AAP is, it was just a way to get power for Arvind Kejriwal. All of us were pawns in the process, including the people and Anna Hazare. I helped with the media, Lokpal consultation and getting the bureaucrats and different kinds of organisations on the table; Prashant Bhushan with the legal side and Yogendra Yadav with the drafting of various documents. So we all helped in different ways. All of us were used. The idea now is for Arvind and his coterie to remain in power. But earlier the idea was to have transformation of power as we see it.”
‘Earlier AAP spoke about being different, now it speaks about being similar’
As spokesperson for AAP, she said, “we always used to speak about how different we were from everyone else. But you see the debates over the past year now and every spokesperson of AAP is just talking about how it was doing just what the BJP and Congress had been doing. Earlier they cited the best ethical practices, now they cite the worst ethical practices.”
Recalling her differences with the AAP leadership on various issues, including the party’s support of Somnath Bharti following his tiff with African nationals in the capital and her being sidelined within the party ranks as fellow journalist Ashutosh was given greater importance, Ilmi said while the party casts aspersions on those who leave it, people have left because they “feel used, abandoned, hurt, cheated and betrayed.”
Now a BJP spokesperson, Ilmi insists that the AAP government has not been able to deliver. “You might say we are sore losers, but they haven’t been able to govern because they don’t know how to government. Agitation cannot go on at a constant level for ever. After a point of time, there has to be delivery. But without delivery, it is an unsustainable model. So where are the promised wi-fi, marshals, CCTV cameras, extra hospital beds? When you cross-check their claims with the authorities on any subject, you get a very different picture.”
The real idea behind AAP
“The idea of Aam Aadmi Party contributed enormously to Indian democracy and continues to do so although the party that calls itself AAP is no longer the legitimate heir to that idea. That idea was that the rotten political establishment could be challenged by ordinary people. It was also an idea that every political party could conduct itself in a transparent way,” Yadav said.
The idea, he said, had triggered excitement and hope and brought lots of people into the public life for the first time. “Lots of idealist youth took to politics. That to me is a very big contribution to democracy even if many of them have got disillusioned today.” However, many who got disillusioned and left the party continue to contribute significantly to social life in India.
On what disillusioned its supporters, Yadav said, it was “the party leadership’s idea that no matter what you say in public, after that you can do what you like”. This is precisely what the Congress and the BJP do and exactly what the Congress did in Gujarat (by announcing reservation for the Patidars) by making a promise which they know is a false promise, he said.
Honesty was AAP’s only trump card
But in doing so, Yadav said, AAP forgot that “a Lalu Prasad Yadav voter does not expect him to be squeaky clean and he would still stick to him, and so was the case with Jayalalithaa’s voter, but honesty was the only calling card of this party.”
“So they first lost the ideas and then the viability which resulted in electoral losses. I do not judge parties by electoral losses but in case of AAP their first promise was of clean politics, that was done in by the leadership; the second was of good governance, but there again people in Delhi dished out just the official propaganda which was not backed by evidence.”
He said AAP also failed to govern. “They did not understand the elementary grammar of good governance. You do not govern by shouting at your cabinet secretary, you do not hold a press conference against your health secretary, you do not write a letter to Metro saying `I order you to change the fares’ when there are no rules which give you the power to do so.”
Stating that in the end it was “a party which is no different from any other political party”, he said, the only grudge he holds against Kejriwal due to the manner in which the AAP model allegedly failed was that “he killed hope, the hope of so many people who came in for the first time. And many of them went back, very sad, very cynical. For that AAP leadership should take responsibility.”
By bringing the spotlight on itself, Yadav said AAP has also given other parties a long rope. “If today Congress can get up and talk about honesty, nothing can make you laugh more than that. For that AAP leadership is responsible because they have lowered the standards so much that anyone can talk about these things.”
The metaphor that comes closest to this situation is that of the Ram Rahim drama. “You look at it from the outside, you listen to swamiji’s discourses, you get inside the gufa (cave) and you come out puking. The misfortune of Prashant and me was that we got entry inside the gufa and once we got to know what was happening, we had just two options: one to come out smiling and say everything was lovely or to say to everyone around that there was something terrible happening, something that stinks and which needed to change. And this is what we did,” Yadav said.
Pandey disagrees. “We are fairly democratic. People only say there is no democracy in AAP upon leaving it. But we fight, argue and grow within the party. There is a lot of scope of improvement within us and internal democracy within AAP is much more than in other parties.”