On February 10th, as the Aam Aadmi Party swept the polls in Delhi, there was euphoria amongst large sections of the electorate both within and outside Delhi. For some the euphoria was driven by the fact that the seemingly unstoppable BJP juggernaut was dealt a comprehensive and humiliating defeat; but for many others it was undoubtedly the stunning victory of the underdog, the Aam Aadmi Party led by the indefatigable Arvind Kejriwal. The victory launched a thousand columns talking in glowing terms of “new politics” and its possibilities not just in Delhi but across the country.
However, days after its stunning victory, fissures have appeared in the new Party, which show no signs of abating. First two of the Party’s tallest leaders, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, who gave it much of its credibility and intellectual heft were publicly rebuffed and then unceremoniously thrown out of the Party’s highest decision-making body. For good measure, Party riff-raff jumped in to pillory the two leaders. Then amidst a series of charges and counter-charges, a recording of a call between Arvind Kejriwal and a former AAP MLA was leaked in which Arvind is heard casually discussing the engineering of a split in the Congress Party to cobble together an AAP Government in Delhi. The discussion may perhaps be routine in the tactical framework of electoral politics; however it promptly knocked the anti-corruption crusader and leader of AAP, Arvind Kejriwal off his high moral perch. A senior leader of the Party, Anjali Damania immediately quit (again on Twitter) claiming that she had not joined the Party for this “nonsense”. The speed of AAP’s assimilation of the very mores of Indian politics it railed against is surprising; however its public unraveling is less so since its internal contradictions were apparent from the very beginning.
There are two types of internal contradictions in AAP, which will come to the fore over time. The first contradiction is ideological incoherence, which was evident even during the Anna Hazare movement. Both BJP and AAP used anti-corruption and governance as themes of politics of delivery to ride the anti-incumbency wave. In many ways, these are ideology-neutral themes that melded well with the leader-centric campaigns of both parties: Abki Baar Modi Sarkar and Paanch Saal Kejriwal. This also explains why there is overlap between supporters of the AAP and BJP and why the notion of Modi as PM and Arvind as CM could coexist. However, as the Party moves into governance mode it will be difficult to paper over ideological differences especially with 67 MLAs, many of whom fancy themselves as activists in their own right.
The second contradiction in the Aam Aadmi Party is its pervasive rhetoric of decentralization coexisting with centralized and personalized decision-making in the Party. Centralized decision-making is evident in how much the Party moved away from its own foundational principles in a span of just two years with distribution of tickets being only one example. Over time, this contradiction will emerge at four levels: among members of the Central leadership, already on display; between the elected representatives of AAP and the Leadership; between the elected representatives and volunteers; and Central leadership and Volunteers. Access to power (or its prospects) is a powerful tool to quell dissent among Party MLAs and some other leaders; however much of AAP’s appeal for its volunteers has come from this rhetoric of bottoms-up decision-making, which has given them a sense of ownership over the Party. The Party Leadership will have to close the gap between its rhetoric and action if it wants to sustain this spirit of volunteerism or will see an exodus of disgruntled volunteers. Given the vigilantist culture of the Party, some of these exits could be noisy and damaging to the Party.
Connected to this issue is how the AAP will transition from a largely volunteer-run organization in mission mode to a political party that will need a permanent organization to function. Many of AAP volunteers in the Delhi campaign were from outside Delhi (a significant number were not even physically present but were contributing online or making campaign calls) and thus conflicts, if any, were likely to be transitory and easily managed. With a permanent organization, many different types of conflicts will emerge and it will be interesting to see how the AAP Leadership will manage its relationship with Party volunteers over time
Arvind has shown remarkable ability to rise from the ashes and this is certainly not an attempt to write off the AAP. While the Party can no longer coast on the disarming earnestness of its preeminent leader, it still has full five years to recoup if it can show results in Delhi. However, it appears that part of the Leadership’s agenda in Delhi is to stay on constant collision course with the BJP Government at the Center based on its immediate demand for full statehood for Delhi and administrative control over Delhi Police. A possible calculation could be that the face-off will help it explain the lack of fulfillment of some of its promises in Delhi while helping the Party expand in other states where BJP is in power. The agitational mode of mobilization is also more in line with the proclivities of its Leadership. However, amidst this all, if the Leadership is unable to resolve its contradictions, what seems increasingly likely is that AAP will become another mainstream political party rather than the political alternative it professes to be.
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