The bruising conflict in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has spawned two contradictory responses, reflecting the contrasting nature of realms in which political battles are fought in post-liberalised India. One is the media — print, 24/7 TV, and social — where the fight to fashion popular perception. The other is at the ground level, whether in constituencies in elections or inside the party.
In the media the rebel quartet of Yogendra Yadav, Prashant Bhushan, Anand Kumar and Ajit Jha has dominated for most parts. This is because they have waged their battle around the idea of the right to dissent, which has popular resonance. In the breathless rush to beat competition, nobody has the time to ask whether dissent in the party has its limits, and if indeed there is, whether the transgression of it ought to have another descriptor.
But what has been portrayed as a battle to maintain the purity of AAP’s ideals is in reality a power struggle sparked off last year, following its disastrous performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. At the nub of it was the debate whether AAP should exclusively focus on winning back its redoubt of Delhi, or fritter away its energy in contesting assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra.
The national executive (NE), the party’s apex decision-making body, was overwhelmingly in favour of not punching above its weight. Partly, this was based on hard calculations — AAP had defied the tsunami in favour of Narendra Modi to mop nearly 32% of votes in Delhi, as against the pathetic national vote-share of 2%. Delhi, it was thought therefore, had to be the theatre where the party’s comeback show should be mounted. It was also feared participation in the Haryana and Maharashtra polls, in which it was impossible for AAP to do well, could become a pathetic preview irreparably damaging to the party in Delhi.
Partly, it could be argued that the NE members favoured contesting in Delhi alone because many of them, including Arvind Kejriwal, had cut their teeth here. It has also been speculated that they supported the Kejriwal line because of the undue influence he wielded on them as national convener. By contrast, Yadav and Bhushan belonged to the minority group keen on fanning out nationwide.
This then became the backdrop to the manoeuvres inside the party. Bhushan’s father, Shanti, who is the founding member of AAP, took the campaign to remove Kejriwal as national convener outside the party’s ambit, confirming what had been till then whispers among its activists. To a prominent TV channel, Bhushan Senior said, “He (Kejriwal) is a great campaigner, but in my opinion, he lacks organisational ability. He does not have that kind of competence which can spread the message of the party all over India…”
This was to become a familiar pattern of expressing what has been charitably dubbed as dissent — Bhushan Senior would mouth opinions which Bhushan Junior and Yadav declared they disagreed with. But credulity was indeed stretched when Bhushan Senior endorsed Kiran Bedi’s candidature as the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate. All this at the time AAP was on its way to delivering Modi, as opinion polls had then indicated, his first electoral defeat since he won Gujarat in 2002.
To dismiss the utterances of Bhushan Senior as idiosyncrasies of an old man is tantamount to willingly suspending disbelief. For instance, he showed mental acuity and sagacity in reversing his line before the NE meeting of March 4, which ultimately dropped Bhushan and Yadav from it, declaring that Kejriwal shouldn’t be removed as national convener and his son and his dissident-in-arm too were pillars of the party.
Obviously, it is too much to expect a son to demand action against his father, but what about Yadav, who is justifiably so proud of his secular-liberal credentials? Really, should an exception have been made of Bhushan Senior? Weren’t other party leaders justified in suspecting that the Yadav-Bhushans wished to nix their poll prospects?
For the record, it might be an education to know that Yadav sacked from his campaign team the then Gurgaon district convener in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. The convener differed with Yadav’s strategy of attacking Modi instead of the Gandhis in the campaign and was understandably deemed inclined to the BJP. But did Yadav gather all AAP volunteers of Gurgaon to vote on what was his personal assessment of the district convener? This example has been cited to illustrate the facetiousness of the demand of those who know no alternative terms to describe dissent even when it assumes crippling proportions.
The quartet has dominated the perception battle because the opposing group in AAP hasn’t in earnest joined issue with it. Perhaps this is because it is at the driver’s wheel, more interested in driving down the road into the future than to stop on being hailed down for a debate. AAP will be judged on the governance it provides, not for defining the limits beyond which dissent turns into something sinister, regardless of the importance of this exercise.
Indeed, the timing underlies Kejriwal’s decision to escalate the internecine conflict. The Delhi government is scheduled to re-launch on April 2 the anti-corruption line, which was such a tremendous hit last year, apart from a slew of other decisions over the next two months. AAP believes the festering wounds of factional fights distract the party from getting down to business.
At the ground level, the quartet hasn’t, as of now, managed to trigger a groundswell in its favour. This is because people find irresistible the gravitational pull of power, which is vested in Kejriwal. Whether or not his government delivers on governance will remain a matter of enduring debate over the next five years. Indeed, the possibility of the quartet’s rebellion yielding concrete gains will have to await the emergence of more widespread discontent, the pull of which for the electorate is as irresistible as power is for party activists and MLAs.
Ajaz Ashraf is the author of The Hour Before Dawn.
The views expressed by the author are personal