“We are in politics because we feel there is a serious threat to the idea of India.”
On July 31, Swaraj Abhiyan leaders Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan announced their decision to float a new political party as an “alternative political vehicle”. A six-member committee has been formed to complete the formalities before October 2. In conversation with The Wire, Yadav – who along with Bhushan and Anand Kumar was expelled from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which they had co-founded with Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal – talked about how the new political party would be different from the “supremo” culture in Kejriwal’s outfit and what their political party would be seeking to achieve.
Why have you decided to form a political party now? It has been said that some Swaraj Abhiyan leaders were opposed to the idea of forming one.
We have actually gone step by step. On the very first day, on April 14, 2015, when Swaraj Abhiyan started, our founding document says that we are in politics and our aim is to establish an alternative political force. This is what our founding document says.
So there is no question of not wanting to be a political party. I have been asked this question about a hundred times in the last one year and I have always said that “party banana to bade dharam ka kaam hai aur achcha kaam hai” (forming a party is a pious and honourable thing to do). We had this in writing that we had to do two things before we got into party formation. One, we create a minimum critical mass, you can’t have a notional sense and declare yourself to be an alternative political force. Second was keeping the standards of transparency and accountability that we have demanded from the rest of the universe. Both these things are written in our founding declaration of April 14. You will find them on our website.
Then in November 2015, we took the second step and we concretised each of these things. What is it to have a critical mass? We said we need to be present in at least 100 districts, which should be at least one-third of six states of the country. We quantified it. In terms of transparency and accountability, we laid norms that there should be Lokpal, we should have a grievance mechanism, we should have our public information officer; all this was written in a document called ‘Our Path to Politics’ which was authored by me and this was passed in the month of November.
And then we spent the last four months meeting each of those conditions. So we now have our organisation. We have a duly-elected committee in 114 districts of the country, which includes at least one-third in seven states. Second, we now have a committee of Lokpal with people of some proven credibility and recognition in society. So we have (advocate) Kamini Jaiswal, we have (journalist) Sumit Chakravarty and Noor Mohammad, who was a deputy election commissioner of the country. We have also set up a principal information officer (PIO) of Swaraj Abhiyan, who would give out information about us. We may be the first political organisation with a PIO who would give out information to everyone. Also, we have set up the disciplinary and grievance mechanisms. And then this (party formation) was the most natural step after that.
So there is simply no question of any one of us not wanting to form a political party.
So now the next step would be to get the name registered, which is in October?
The resolution that we have passed says that the first mandatory thing to do is to constitute a political party by October 2. Till then we have to take care of our basic formalities, which is to think of a name, work out a constitution, bring other people on board. So the challenge in the next two months is to think of a structure where we are formally and legally a political party, but we are not like a political party. This is what our resolution says – we want to be a party which is not centralised, which is not run by a Delhi darbar or high command, where we have a genuinely federal political party and that gives effect to and concretises all the values that we have been talking about.
It is easy to talk about values and, especially after the AAP experiment, people now tend to say that we have heard that before. So the challenge for us is more than anyone else, we have to now struggle against a certain disbelief and give concrete evidence that we mean what we say. So we have to do all this and we need to involve others. In our resolution we have clearly said that Swaraj Abhiyan alone is not enough, that we want to reach out to people and political organisations and many small innovative political parties and invite them in this foundation of the political party. That is our challenge for the next two months.
You share a lot of support base with the Left parties – as in Punjab – as also with the AAP, which is now growing in several parts of the country. A lingering doubt amongst many is that your coming into the political arena would lead to a split of the secular vote. Are you worried, especially since right-wing groups are raising their heads in various ways now?
That is precisely our point now. We, and our resolution, say that we are in politics because we feel there is a serious threat to the idea of India. There is a challenge to constitutional values like never before. So if the emergency was a challenge to the idea of democracy, today we are witnessing the biggest every onslaught to the idea of a plural, diverse secular India. And unfortunately, those who call themselves secular forces are simply not up to the task, especially in parties like the Congress, Samajwadi Party, RJD, JD(U) and in many ways in the Left establishment, not Left parties all over the country, but wherever they are a political establishment. These parties are actually far from putting up a fight to the BJP, they are the principal culprits as to why Narendra Modi is today the prime minister of the country. Because what they have done is that they have reduced this sacred constitutional principle, one of the foundational ideas of our republic, to a very shortsighted politics of keeping minorities politically hostage and this is what we seek to oppose. It is our belief that both the politics of a Congress-mukt Bharat or the politics of keeping the BJP out at any cost are self-defeating politics.
We are here to offer a genuine alternative. In fact that, above all, is what moved us to become a political force now.
So what would be different in your approach towards atrocities on Dalits and minorities?
One of the biggest failures of the progressive forces in our country is that they have abdicated the plank of nationalism and by default handed over this plank to those forces who did not shed one drop of blood for the freedom of this country. That RSS, Modi and the BJP should present themselves as the champion of Indian nationalism is a travesty to the heritage of our freedom struggle. Unfortunately, it is the complete abdication by progressive secular forces and their refusal to engage with the nationalist language which worsened the situation. You cannot fight that nationalism by just talking about the constitution, the energy and resource of this secular battle will come from your nationalist credential, which need not be chauvinist. That was the whole point of Indian freedom struggle. The struggle was not chauvinist, it was not racist, it was not narrow minded. The Indian and South African freedom struggles are some of the greatest freedom struggles of the world and Congress and along with it all other so-called secular parties have simply abdicated that plank. So the challenge is to re-energise it.
So three things have to be done together: One is invoking the spirit of and deep participation in the nationalist imagination. Second, Hindu-Muslim unity. And third, challenge to the Hindu order of caste hierarchy. All these things have to happen together. If you don’t do any one of those things, you will lose the battle.
Which are the elections you would be looking to fight to begin with? The civic polls in Delhi or assembly elections in Punjab?
We do have to take a final view on this. If we are inviting others to join, then it is probably not correct for any of us to spell it out. All that I can say is that the fact that we are going to form a political party does not mean that we can jump in and contest every election that comes thereafter or to contest every single seat. We have to look at it in the long term. We are not a party in a hurry. It would not make any sense to get into a large state without any adequate preparation. Electoral intervention makes sense if you have some base and if you are seen not merely to be good people but also as competent, effective people. So it has to be a mix of ethics and viability.
How do you see the AAP now? It is emerging as a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative. Does it concern you that you are also looking at the same space?
To be absolutely honest, at least I do not spend time thinking too much about it. It is not the whole or the principle opponent vis-à-vis our political structure. I think AAP is well on its way to self destruction, perhaps not in the short-term, but self-destruction begins by destroying the moral foundations of the system. Unfortunately, they are in that mode. I really feel bad, not for their sake, but for the sake of the country. The country had reposed so much hope in this experiment called Aam Aadmi Party and I really wish it had, repaid it or not, at least retained its place as the symbol of hope for the country.
From being a ray of hope for the young generation, for the people of India, for the idea of India, today it has become just one more anti-Congress, anti-BJP force, just like Lalu Prasad Yadav was in Bihar.
Even this morning we were described by newspapers as AAP-rebels or something, but for us the success would lie in our work and not reminding people of the AAP momentarily. We are not trying either to coax their MLAs or their voters. That’s not our principle objective. The constituency they have carved out right now is the anti-BJP, anti-Congress coalition. The country has seen so many versions of that. We are not into one of those coalitions or one of those blocks. What we are eyeing is something that the party abdicated which is their skill, the technical section of their roots and citizens cutting across all sections of the society. It had received support from people who approach politics in this country with idealism and hope and some conviction. That was what the AAP stood for and people voted it for. There are also people who never got in touch with AAP, those are the people we would like to reach out to.
We see ourselves as a positive alternative. Fifty years ago, it was said, if you are young and if you were not a communist then there was something wrong with you. That‘s the kind of spot we are looking at. We want to have an appeal among the young, among the idealist, among those who are audacious and those who want to do something different. Even if it is 1% of the population, we want to be the number one party for that constituency.
The youth constitute nearly 60% of the population and a significant percentage of the electorate now. Social media has emerged as a major tool for reaching out to them. The AAP used a lot of social media to reach out, you were also a part of it then. How would Swaraj Abhiyan use this medium?
That indeed was a revolution in political communication. No one can doubt that. The world is not the same again. So obviously we would have to do much more than we have done so far. I am there on Facebook and Twitter and have some followers. Prashant (Bhushan) ji is smarter and a subtle user of Twitter as well as Facebook. But as an organisation, we have a long way to go. As individuals we have some following, but as an organisation we still have to build our brand, especially among the youngsters. So yes, we are working on it. I would say in a couple of months time we will make progress.
Have you finalised the name of your party, would it remain Swaraj Abhiyan?
No, we have not finalised the name. One thing that we have finalised is that Swaraj Abhiyan will remain as it is. It will continue to work on all our flagship programmes Jai Kisan Andolan, Jan Andolan, Shiksha Swaraj and the like.
You said we do not want to make the same mistakes as the AAP did and would seriously promote transparency. How is Swaraj Abhiyan doing things differently?
Unfortunately, the entire political system in the country is so non-transparent. And an ordinary worker of the party has no information about what is happening inside the party. So the political system needs to be opened up and therefore one of the first steps we have taken is that we have put ourselves, that is Swaraj Abhiyan, under the Right to Information Act through the PIO and we have responded to that. I do not think the bureaucratic parameters of RTI should be brought within the political parties, because they are not government, but there is no reason why the decisions of the political parties, information on the office-bearers and their income and expenditure should not be in the public domain. Swaraj Abhiyan has always disclosed not only its income but also its expenditure in the public domain. We have also put our minutes in the public domain and we have a PIO who is there to respond to any queries. That is at least one step ahead of any other political party.