Praful Bidwai


Less than two months after it scored a spectacular victory in the Delhi elections to stop the Narendra Modi juggernaut, the Aam Aadmi Party got drawn into an ugly, bruising internal conflict which led to the expulsion of two of its best-known leaders from the national executive.


Yet neither AAP’s national convenor Arvind Kejriwal who won this inner-party contest, nor Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan who lost it, emerged from it smelling of roses.


The confrontation, and the manner in which it was handled by the AAP leadership, points to a major democratic deficit in a party whose very rationale was to democratise Indian politics, free it of corruption, and make it more transparent and accountable. That’s why so many people who invested great hopes in “AAP the experiment” feel let down by what has happened to “AAP the party”.


More important, the convulsion AAP has gone through, leading to a depletion of its leadership and denting of its image at an early stage, weakens India’s secular-democratic forces and the agenda of equity and social justice.


Conversely, it strengthens the forces of communal intolerance, authoritarianism and iniquity. This is bad news even if AAP flourishes, as does the new party that the Yadav-Bhushan duo are reportedly planning to float.


The Yadav-Bhushan episode was triggered as much by a clash of personal ambitions as by differences over styles of functioning—never mind the lofty rhetoric about internal democracy  and “dissidence”. Mr Kejriwal, with his authoritarian personality, had no use for peers or joint stakeholders in the enterprise called AAP.


Mr Kejriwal has seen AAP as his own proprietary shop especially after winning the Delhi elections, which he did without help from other leaders, as distinct from his own coterie of loyalists. He also resented the fact that Mr Yadav wanted AAP to contest the Haryana Assembly elections which preceded the Delhi polls by four months and would have diverted attention from these.


The Yadav-Bhushan duo, especially Mr Yadav, was loath to be treated as subaltern elements who must always bow to the Big Boss. So they invoked the one-person-one-post “principle” (never debated in AAP) and requested Mr Kejriwal to step down as national convenor.


Mr Kejriwal saw this as a display of excessive ambition. But this is a normal, legitimate part of party politics. Gandhi, Nehru and Bose too nurtured ambition. Even Rajesh Pilot contested party elections against Sonia Gandhi, and wasn’t victimised for so doing. But for Mr Kejriwal, even a little ambition spelt disloyalty. He decided to confront Messrs Yadav and Bhushan with a winner-takes-all approach: it’s me or them, he told his followers, who overwhelmingly voted to throw them out, along with associates Anand Kumar and Ajit Jha.


Mr Kejriwal did this in a crude fashion, with abusive language, while relying on recorded “evidence” of private conversations based on sting operations. This, and the use of bouncers and banning of cellphones, even pens, at the March 28 national council meeting, speaks of a new low in politics.


First of all, it’s wrong in principle to spy into people’s private conversations. Democratic politics entails the highest respect for personal privacy, or it’ll create a spy state. Second, it’s illegitimate to use information from stings as “evidence” of the adversary’s culpability. And above all, it’s unethical to cultivate journalists by selectively leaking such details to them.


Regrettably, the Yadav-Bhushan duo too reacted by using identical hardball tactics, which brings it no credit (although beyond a point, it probably had no choice). While claiming victimhood, Mr Yadav repeatedly invoked respect for difference and dissidence, but he himself showed no respect for dissidents in Haryana. He also resorted to manipulative tactics in AAP’s internal postings.


Neither side was innocent. But at the end of the day, Mr Kejriwal emerges more blameworthy, for three reasons. He made a unilateral flip-flop on dissolving the Delhi Assembly: after his 49-day tenure, he demanded dissolution and moved court on this, but suddenly asked that fresh elections not be held. Second, he allowed some dubious donations to be accepted, although he kept himself aloof from the process. Third, he imposed a despotic, authoritarian decision-making frame on AAP.


This is not to underrate the historic importance of Mr Kejriwal’s stunning performance in the Delhi election. It was his personal victory, the more so because AAP’s canvassing was woven around his popular appeal.


But politics isn’t about elections alone. And popularity is about more than personalities. It’s also about Delhi’s poor wanting to punish Mr Modi for his pro-rich elitism, “56-inch” arrogance and sectarian Hindutva. Mr Kejriwal became the man of the moment, who happened to articulate a set of popular aspirations and demands.


There was nothing inevitable about AAP becoming the extremely personalised party it did. This is not a natural law of Indian politics. Although many parties are centred on a single personality, some aren’t, like the Communist parties or the regional units of major outfits like the Congress or even the Bharatiya Janata Party today, or the Swatantra party or smaller Left-leaning parties of the old days.


AAP had a chance to forge a collective leadership. But it itself made that task difficult by rejecting ideology, and making a virtue of political amorphousness and absence of a programmatic framework. With the recent purge, it seems to have squandered the chance altogether.


AAP is becoming a party of Mr Kejriwal and his clones alone: his young Hindi-speaking admirers who typically quit well-paying IT industry jobs to work for AAP. They look up to him as a demigod, and he feels most comfortable in their company.


This cabal, as AAP’s sacked Lokpal Admiral L Ramdas put it, is an “all boys’ club”. There are no women in the Kejriwal cabinet, and after Christina Samy’s resignation, none in its national executive either. This is utterly deplorable.


AAP has a bright future in Delhi and will remain nationally relevant as a potential pole of attraction. Whether it expands to other states will depend on whether it takes some strong pro-people measures in Delhi. The AAP government has just raised the minimum wage, but by only five percent. It must do better. That said, its first three major moves fall short of expectations.


First, it’s scrapping the Bus Rapid Transit system—the ideal long-term, equitable solution to Delhi’s horrendous transportation problem, 15-20 times cheaper than the Metro, which was maligned by the car lobby and sabotaged by the police in its very first 5.8 km-long stage. But AAP hasn’t bothered to study the BRT or alternatives to it. Nor has it consulted anyone, least of all bus commuters, thus betraying its process-related promise of swaraj or local democracy.


Second, it has banned the sale of all kinds of chewing tobacco besides gutkha, which is nationally banned. It makes no sense to do this when cigarette and beedi sales aren’t banned. Given that tobacco-chewing is widespread, the ban will only drive the business underground.


Third, the government has decided to supply every family 20,000 litres of piped Delhi Jal Board water free every month, corresponding to 140 litres per person per day (lppd), and charge the full rate for higher volumes. This quantity is excessive. What’s really needed is more reliable, regular water supply. Even poor people are willing to pay for this.


Studies show that a person doesn’t need 140 litres (over 10 buckets) a day. Realistic estimates are 50-60 litres, the highest being 85 litres. Subsidising water for the poor is justified. But giving it free to all will encourage waste, waterlogging, pollution and disease. The elite will only flush it down the toilet.


The expense incurred in supplying free water will prevent AAP from addressing the big iniquities in the water sector: huge wastage, exclusion of the poor, and big class disparities in consumption.


Fiftyfour percent of the water supplied by DJB is criminally wasted: there are very few bulk meters even to monitor the waste. DJB pipelines don’t reach one-third of Delhi’s 33 lakh households, mostly the very poor. They have to buy exorbitantly priced water from mafia-controlled tankers. The mafia mines water haphazardly, contaminates groundwater and lowers the water-table.


Take disparities. Sixty two percent of households get less than 50 lppd, and 25 percent less than a paltry 20 lppd. But 17 percent, living mainly in Central and South Delhi’s bungalows and posher flats, get 390 lppd.


The top priority is to reduce waste, extend the pipeline network to create universal access, meet the needs of the bottom 25 percent, and double the number of meters from 14 lakhs. DJB has been systematically weakened through privatisation of services and huge staff reductions. Starved of funds, it cannot even maintain its infrastructure. AAP has ignored these realities.


AAP must think its policies through critically, and with the seriousness they deserve. Or there’s a real danger that despite its pro-poor intentions it will end up pleasing the elite and alienating its own base. That would be tragic for Indian democracy.

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