In January 2014, when asked about his party’s ideology at an Idea Exchange session at The Indian Express, senior Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Manish Sisodia, still fresh from an incredible victory, had simply said, “Hum toh aam hai (We are ordinary people).” For a party born out the idealistic anti-corruption movement of 2011, this ‘aam-ness’ was the thread that held it together — the idea that this is a political formation that represents ordinary people who have come together to change the set ways of traditional politics.
As AAP national convenor, Arvind Kejriwal railed against the ‘corrupt’, took on the powerful, and, through the concepts of mohalla clinics, the Delhi Dialogue Commission and mohalla sabhas, offered radical ways of governance. The party rode on the powerful symbolism of the jhadoo – AAP’s broom, they claimed, would sweep out corruption and the corrupt, and the tired and set ways of politics that the national parties represented.
The party also looked to expand beyond its turf, and Punjab, a “full state” unlike Delhi, was where AAP hoped to finally implement all its ideas. Instead, it is where the unravelling began. The party performed way below its expectations, winning just 22 of the 117 seats. That, followed by the loss in the municipal elections in Delhi, set off an open war in the party, with sacked minister Kapil Mishra accusing Kejriwal of personally being involved in dubious financial dealings.
While AAP sources maintain that there are at least six MLAs who privately back Mishra — the party leadership has identified 28 others as “vulnerable” — the accusations have temporarily served to bring the party together. As one party leader put it, “Without Kejriwal and his symbolic association with honesty, what are we? Just another political party.”
So how did it go so wrong? And when did the tailspin begin? The ‘cult of the supremo’
In February 2015, the AAP government was buoyant after its landslide victory in the Delhi elections, where it won a record 67 of 70 seats. But the first open tussle came within months when AAP ideologue Yogendra Yadav was expelled from the party along with Prashant Bhushan.
While their departure arguably marked the beginning of the party’s implosion, the past two years have seen the AAP government embark on a tumultuous journey. The gains the party made through its governance have been lost in the din of its fight over jurisdiction with the BJP-led Centre and former Delhi Lieutenant-General Najeeb Jung and the party’s allegations of EVMs being tampered with.
This period also saw the emergence of different factions. By 2017, with campaigning for the Punjab Assembly election in full force, there were at least two active factions: one centred around Kejriwal and the other led by Kumar Vishwas. With this, allegations of Kejriwal’s ‘autocratic’ style of functioning began to be increasingly aired.
This had been flagged as early as in 2014, when Yogendra Yadav, then a National Executive (NE), questioned the “supremo style of functioning” in the party.
Bijwasan MLA Devinder Sehrawat, who was suspended from the party’s primary membership in 2016 after he spoke out against the alleged “coterie” surrounding Kejriwal, says, “We did not come here to make Arvind Kejriwal the chief minister or the prime minister. If this boat sinks, we all sink with it. They might have placated Kumar Vishwas for now but the real issues have not been addressed. No fresh blood has been inducted into the decision-making bodies and MLAs are not empowered — this isn’t how a party that propagates swaraj should run.”
Party spokesperson Sanjay Singh disagrees. “I think dissent within the party is good. Everyone airs their views and we improve upon whatever is needed. As for authoritarianism, this allegation is not correct. There is no coterie. Where else does it happen that people say things against the leader and continue to remain in the party?”
Crisis of governance
Nowhere is the gloom more apparent than in the Delhi government. A senior bureaucrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “When AAP first came to power in 2013, we used to work till 11 pm. In those 49 days, Kejriwal worked with the energy of a man possessed. MLAs and AAP workers would constantly walk in and out of the third floor of the Secretariat, where Kejriwal has his office. Everyone had suggestions, everyone had ideas and all of them were heard. It was unlike any other government office.”
That changed gradually, say MLAs, with the third floor now a “corridor of power”, with one MLA even comparing it to the Congress’s power nucleus at 10 Janpath.
At the heart of it is, says a government official, is “paranoia”. “It is common knowledge that Kejriwal trusts only two of his ministers — Manish Sisodia and Satyendra Jain. While it is good to be cautious, making your preferences known so openly has hurt him. His stubbornness about how to do things has also started coming in the way of his popularity with party members,” he says.
The party’s problems have been compounded by the near-paralysis of its functioning. Officials say the High Court ruling, upholding the administrative powers of the L-G, has meant that the bureaucracy has almost entirely stopped cooperating with the government.
“There are things we have managed to do despite the situation. Education has been one of our big successes but we have totally lost the support of our own officers. The files have stopped coming to us and the files we had in our offices are stuck at the L-G’s office,” says a senior government official.
While the CBI is investigating a case of money laundering and nepotism, the Anti-Corruption Bureau is investigating irregularities in the PWD department, both involving Satyendra Jain, who holds the health and PWD portfolios. The two departments, along with education (held by deputy CM Manish Sisodia), say officials, have traditionally driven governance in Delhi. “With the cases, all the work that we had been doing, whether it is mohalla clinics or road engineering, are stuck. With different cases of corruption levelled against us, different agencies have taken away our files. This has essentially meant that we can’t do any work on those issues,” says an AAP source.
With the CBI filing a case against former health secretary Tarun Seem, the bureaucracy is “spooked too”, says the source. “The officials now believe that the AAP government will be around at best for another three years. All of them directly report to the L-G. The state government can’t even transfer a peon. If we tell the people about this, they will ask us to step down. After all, what use is a government that can’t govern? If the Supreme Court upholds the HC verdict, there will be no point fighting the next Delhi polls,” he says.
Yadav, who was among the first to have brought up the alleged personality cult in the party, says that while he doesn’t “feel bad for the leadership of AAP”, “I feel sad about the thousands of volunteers who have stuck on… the millions of voters who had put their faith in AAP. Right now, it seems like a case of murder versus suicide — where it is a race between the BJP trying to use all means, fair and unfair, to break the party and the party trying to kill itself,” he says.
Crisis of ideology
Many believe the crisis faced by AAP isn’t just political, but also an existential one. At the heart of it, they say, is the question of what the party stands for. “Ultimately”, as one party leader put it, “anti-corruption isn’t an ideological position but a moral position”. Consequently, he says, the Centre’s attacks on them have been to tarnish this position. So with 14 MLAs (3 later acquitted), being booked for offences that include fraud, forgery and molestation, among others, the party’s image has taken a beating.
An AAP worker explains, “We were a party that prided itself on being non-political. But everything that has happened in the past year — the defections, the factions, the accusations and the suspicion — it’s like every other party.”
Many in the party also continue to feel that the lack of clear ideological direction is a problem. “On certain issues, like Kashmir or homosexuality, there is great debate within the party and that is natural. There are many who feel that AAP shouldn’t have issued a statement against the SC judgment on Section 377, but they did. But increasingly, with the party structure weakening, these differences are coming out in the open,” says a senior leader.
The party’s finances are also under strain following the full-fledged Punjab campaign. “We were getting some funds from NRIs in the run-up to the Punjab polls. But after the results, whatever little came in as way of donations stopped. This is also part of the reason that our Delhi campaign was lacklustre,” says a leader familiar with the Punjab campaign.
Senior AAP leader Ashutosh denies the dip in donations has to do with poll losses. “That (donations dipping) has always been the case for us when we are not in election mode. It is like a war and peace situation. We don’t address our donors when there is no election. In any case, our party does not need crores and crores of money,” he says.
Unlike Punjab, Delhi is AAP’s core state and a defeat here has rankled no end. The party’s vote share had reduced from 54 per cent in 2015 to 26 per cent in 2017, allowing dissenters the legitimacy to speak out against the top brass. After the loss in the recent polls, Vishwas had raised concerns over “disconnect with volunteers” and AAP’s decision to “solely blame EVMs”.
Another senior leader attributes the MCD loss to “overconfidence” in the party. “We were supposed to contain the Congress’s vote share below 15 per cent at all cost but that didn’t happen. We also erred in selecting candidates and not making a statement with the right optics in the run-up to the polls. We did not have a Dalit face in the Cabinet, for example. People think that Delhi ignores caste and religion when it votes but that is not the case.”
A larger role
“We should have focused more on Delhi.” With the party having suffered serious setbacks over the past two months, that’s a constant refrain within AAP and which has now started affecting its prospects in other states.
The party has all but given up its plans to contest the upcoming Assembly elections in Modi’s home state, Gujarat. Its state head there, Gopal Rai, has now been appointed as the Delhi unit head.
Not too long ago, Kejriwal was considered a potential fulcrum of the anti-BJP Opposition and had even addressed a joint rally with Mamata Banerjee on demonetisation. But now, a larger role for Kejriwal or the AAP looks increasingly difficult.
“Kejriwal, as a leader born out Delhi politics, had the potential to be a pan-Indian leader in a way that regional leaders often can’t. But with the kind of problems the party is having, it is difficult. Some might even say he has wasted his opportunity,” says a source close to Mamata, adding that this didn’t necessarily mean that Kejriwal had become irrelevant. “It all depends on how he handles the next few years of his term,” he says.