When a founding member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Shanti Bhushan said a few days ago that Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, despite his brilliance, lacks the skill to run an organization, it found immediate resonance with party volunteers in Punjab. The State that catapulted the AAP to Parliament with four MPs — and where the party is still seen as a beacon of hope in an increasingly bleak political landscape — is a classic case of all that is wrong with the party today.
Successes and failures
The other charge against Mr. Kejriwal — of his being dictatorial and not respecting the party’s founding principle of ‘swaraj’ — is amply visible in the AAP’s decision to not contest the coming Assembly election in Haryana. The Haryana shocker, which may well lead to the party’s premature demise in the State, came at a time when the AAP had succeeded in establishing its structure in most of the districts and when volunteers were in a happy state of anticipation hoping to replicate the success in Punjab in some measure. That the party won only 4 per cent of the Lok Sabha votes from Haryana — much below the 23 per cent estimated by its internal survey — was not a damper because most saw the speedy mobilization in the State as preparation for occupying the Haryana Assembly. The Lok Sabha election was to be a mere stepping stone. Everything changed after the results — the AAP drew a blank everywhere except in Punjab. Everything — except the core idea of the AAP and all that it stands for, which still has the potential to attract crowds and volunteers.
Post the Lok Sabha election, Mr. Kejriwal came to Punjab to thank the people. Amid the euphoria, the most significant thing he said was that from then on he would monitor the affairs in Punjab himself. The AAP then launched ‘Mission Vistaar’ to consolidate its position and establish a much-needed grass roots structure in key States. In the last week of May, soon after Mr. Yogendra Yadav resigned from the party’s Political Affairs Committee (PAC) followed by an acrimonious exchange of letters between him and founder-member Manish Sisodia, the latter was sent to Punjab to organize the party. Mr. Sisodia’s four-day tour ruffled many feathers. He was booed by supporters in Ludhiana where he allegedly showed disrespect to a local martyr. He apologized, but failed to reach out and assuage hurt sentiments. Further, many workers who had opposed the party’s candidates during the elections were suddenly seen on stage with him, leading to much heartburn. Some of them are now in charge of districts. Many others were angry at not being given a hearing and were handed out forms in which they were told to put down their grievances. In the words of an office-bearer from Punjab: “The visit was a disaster, but worse was to come.”
Mr. Sisodia’s visit led to the formation of an eight-member ad hoc State executive committee comprising four elected MPs and four members who lost the Lok Sabha election. It replaced the earlier campaign committee steered by Mr. Yadav. Instead of getting to work immediately for the two by-elections held on August 22, the committee did not hold any meeting for more than a month. It met for the first time on August 24, after it became clear that the party was unlikely to win either of the seats contested by it. Both the party candidates — Harjit Singh Adaltiwala from Patiala and Baljinder Kaur from Talwandi Sabo — lost their security deposits.
Jarnail Singh, the observer for Punjab who was appointed by Mr. Kejriwal, is also not perceived as the force who could galvanize its apparatus. The result: the political consolidation that was so important after its surprise performance is as yet invisible; on the rare occasions when the AAP does raise an issue in Punjab, it is with half-hearted voice. Says a despondent leader: “The party is beset with factionalism and blatant one-upmanship. We do not have a dynamic face to lead the team in Punjab and the collective leadership is also flawed.”
The Haryana story strikes at the AAP credo of ‘swaraj’ even more. More than 90 per cent of the volunteers from 18 district meetings said the party should contest the Haryana elections. The State executive committee also gave a unanimous opinion in favor of contesting. The Hindu has learnt that when the matter went to the 22-member National Executive Committee of the AAP, 15 of the 17 members who voted did so in favor of contesting. Mr. Kejriwal and five others who are close to him did not vote. Mr. Kejriwal’s contention was that if the party does not do well in Haryana or Maharashtra (the other State in which the AAP was planning to contest), it could damage the morale in Delhi and affect preparations for the elections there.
“But what do we tell the scores of workers calling us everyday to ask what they should do now?” asks an anguished member of the State executive. Mr. Yadav and the party’s Haryana unit are worried that the 4.5 lakh votes that the AAP got will now go to other parties. “Not only has all our work gone in vain, but it will be extremely difficult for us to reclaim the space that we have created for ourselves. The supporters are feeling cheated, and the impression is that the party is running away from a battle,” say the State leaders.
The importance of star appeal
More importantly, how wise is it to overrule the wish of an overwhelming majority of the party, particularly when the party preaches the values of internal democracy to others? Though dissent and talk of a split are in the air, Mr. Kejriwal’s detractors are held back by his star value and widespread appeal, bereft of which the party would almost certainly totter. Even Mr. Bhushan’s outburst was tempered with a qualifier: that Mr. Kejriwal is still the best man to lead the party.
In June, when Mr. Yadav resigned from the PAC, his letter read, “There is a widespread perception among the workers and sympathisers as well as external observers that the party is falling prey to the disease of personality cult that afflicts all the political parties in the country … But there is a difference between a leader and a supremo. Love and affection for a leader often turns into a personality cult that can damage an organisation and the leader himself. This is what appears to be happening to our party. Major decisions of the party appear to, and indeed do, reflect the wishes of one person; when he changes his mind, the party changes its course of action; proximity to the leader comes to substitute for organisational roles and responsibilities.” His is not a lone voice anymore and critics of Mr. Kejriwal’s style of running the party have since grown in the Punjab and Haryana countryside.
And yet, as a worker in Punjab points out, “The volunteers who support us are ahead of the party and are urging the leaders to catch up with them. The leadership, unfortunately, is busy playing crabs.”
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India. Click here to go to the original.