What can the infighting of the Aam Aadmi Party be compared to? And what might a search for parallels teach us? It is worth looking at examples from India’s political history.
The problem can also be conceptually framed. Political scientists have often noted the tension between democracy and efficacy in politics. Without democracy, organisations can become lifeless. But with internal democratic vitality, organisational cohesion and political efficacy can also suffer. It is not conceptually easy to settle where exactly the fine balance between democracy and efficacy lies. Sound empirical political judgements are required.
Let us begin with the concreteness of historical instances, as opposed to the abstract propositions of conceptual reasoning. In the discussion of the AAP’s infighting, three examples from India’s political history have been cited. All three come from the Congress party: first, the clash between Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose in 1939-40, second, between Jawaharlal Nehru and Purushottam Das Tandon in 1950-51, and, third, between the so-called Congress Syndicate and Indira Gandhi during 1969-71. The first led to the resignation of Bose from the Congress, even though he had won the presidency of the party in an internal election. The second led to Tandon stepping down as party president, despite being elected to the position. The third culminated in Indira Gandhi’s expulsion from the party, though she bounced back by creating a new Congress organisation and electorally trouncing her old party and colleagues.
In each case, a personality clash was also tethered to ideological differences. Bose was not committed to Gandhian nonviolence and, therefore, his election as party president threw a grave challenge to the Mahatma. Nehru was committed to secularism, but Tandon’s inclinations after India’s partition were becoming openly Hindu nationalist. With bank nationalisation, Indira Gandhi was clearly moving towards the left, whereas the so-called Syndicate, whose most prominent leader was Morarji Desai, was associated more with a right-of-centre economic platform.
For understanding the AAP’s internal politics, the Bose-Gandhi clash is not appropriate. India was a colony then and the tussle was basically about how to fight the British — though it was complicated by Bose’s victory over Gandhi’s candidate for the Congress presidency. Until recently, the AAP infighting appeared to be closest to the Nehru-Tandon clash, though not exactly the same. Indeed, the differences between the two sides seemed to make the AAP’s problems more tractable. But if I am wrong, and the situation is more like the 1969-71 internal dissensions within the Congress party, the AAP is headed for a split, with uncertain future consequences.
The facts of the Nehru-Tandon clash are easily summarised. It was an outgrowth of the rivalry between Prime Minister Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel. After Partition, they developed differences over how to deal with the Muslim minority of India, especially as anti-Hindu violence reigned in Pakistan. Patel argued that it was for Muslims to show that they were loyal to India. For Nehru, a test of loyalty was neither practical nor desirable. He also argued that India’s commitment to the security of its Muslim minority did not depend on how Pakistan treated its Hindu minority, for the founding principles of India, as laid out in the new Constitution, were different from Pakistan’s. India should not imitate Pakistan. It was committed to its minorities even if Pakistan was not.
As Patel’s candidate, Tandon won the election for party president. That created a deadly party-government tension at the highest levels of the polity. Arguing that he could not do his job well as the nation’s prime minister if his party’s elected president was so opposed to him on something as basic as secularism, Nehru launched a political battle against the president of his own party. He got the various decision-making bodies of the party to support his ideological position on secularism and didn’t extend any cooperation to the party president in organisational functioning. In this act of political brinkmanship, Nehru actually learned from the Gandhi-Bose episode. Bose had to go because Gandhi did not cooperate with him. Gandhi’s non-cooperation was a kiss of political death for a Congress president after 1920, as was Nehru’s after 1950.
Among other things, by 1951, it was clear to Congress politicians that they needed Nehru’s supreme national popularity to win the 1952 elections. Tandon simply could not deliver votes. Reading the writing on the wall, Tandon resigned and the party quickly elected Nehru as president. In 1951 and ’52, Nehru was both India’s prime minister and president of the Congress party. Tandon faded into political oblivion. Patel, of course, died.
As of now, Arvind Kejriwal is Delhi’s chief minister as well as the head of his party. Two of the best-known co-founders of the AAP have serious differences with him on several questions. If they are placed at the organisational helm, party and government would be at considerable odds and Kejriwal’s political efficacy would suffer. Moreover, Kejriwal is the biggest vote-getter of the party. Though volunteers played an important role, the AAP’s Delhi victory, rightly or wrongly, has been viewed as primarily Kejriwal’s accomplishment.
Are the internal AAP dissensions as irreducibly fundamental as the clash between secularism and Hindu nationalism? Nehru could not possibly have politically cohabited with a Hindu nationalist Congress president. There was no meeting point between the two ideological poles. To the extent that outsiders know something, the issues that have surfaced in the AAP debate have not taken such existential forms. Consider three contentions.
One, should candidates have been given tickets to fight Delhi elections on the basis of absolute programmatic compatibility or winnability? It is well known that political parties in a democracy can’t function on the basis of programmatic purity alone. Winnability is often a criterion. While this does not mean that fundamental violations of key programmatic principles should be ignored, some departures are always tolerated in democratic politics for the sake of pragmatism.
Two, should the state units of the party be autonomous or accept directives from the national bosses? Following Mahatma Gandhi, until 1973, the Congress party always embraced state autonomy. But after Indira Gandhi’s takeover, a national high command prevailed. This is a perfectly legitimate issue for debate. A unilateral decision by the leader of the party is not normally taken without recourse to some kind of organisational basis for decision-making.
Three, should the organisational head be different from the executive head? In democratic parties, the two are joined only in a situation of crisis. Otherwise, these are two different roles in the polity. In any case, the party should decide in an appropriate forum.
In and of themselves, these issues did not appear to be as fundamental as the mortal clash between secularism and Hindu nationalism in the 1950s or the commitment to nonviolence in the Freedom Movement. In principle, these debates lend themselves to a compromise, despite the loud moral protestation of betrayal and skulduggery.
If the contentions are deeper than outsiders know and there are hidden transcripts of incompatibility and injury, the AAP is heading for a 1969-style Congress split. Like Indira Gandhi, Kejriwal might have an upper hand now. Although the short-term consequences of not allowing genuine internal democracy might help a political party, lending efficacy and cohesion, we know from history that such moves can badly hurt in the long run.
The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’