A month in power and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – run Delhi government has accomplished what months of name calling by the BJP and Congress couldn’t – the party’s performance has scared away intellectuals, academics, activists, corporate honchos and middle class Indians from joining the party. Some who had earlier joined have distanced themselves from the party.
However, the party is increasingly finding overwhelming support among Delhi’s lower socio-economic strata like its autorickshaw drivers and street vendors whose lives have become better with the usual police harassment at an all time low.
Until the mishaps of January, the intelligentsia across India thought the party to be a beacon of hope and were inclined to join or support it. An AAP insider termed it a “tsunami of support” that the barely a year old party had received ever since its meteoric rise in the Delhi assembly elections.
It could be that this “tsunami” buoyed the party leadership to such an extent that their veneer of humility fell off to increasingly expose a face that isn’t very different from the rest of the political class – an attitude to power that betrays a deeply feudal mindset and an intolerance for criticism. Word is fast spreading that Arvind Kejriwal is a dictator and runs the show through a coterie.
Spokespersons like former journalist Ashutosh and Sanjay Singh only confirm this with their bad-tempered handling of press conferences.
Many who have known Kejriwal for sometime claim the only thing that has surprised them about the events of the last few months was AAP’s brilliant performance in the elections. A former associate says Kejriwal is extremely dictatorial and works through his “Gang of Wasseypur“.
This coterie, comprising Manish Sisodia, Sanjay Singh and a couple of others, follows its leader unquestioningly. All power flows from this coterie and even leaders like Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav are not part of it.
Another associate says the feudal mindset is best betrayed by Sanjay Singh who has made AAP in Uttar Pradesh a party of his caste group, preferring Thakurs to any other in the distribution of party tickets. AAP is already finding it difficult to get any Dalits to contest on the party ticket in UP’s reserved constituencies.
But complaints to Kejriwal haven’t helped. As Anna Hazare discovered during the Jan Lokpal movement, it isn’t easy to get rid of somebody who is part of Kejriwal’s coterie. Hazare wanted Mayank Gandhi to be kicked out of the coterie for the longest of times to no avail.
AAP’s “tsunami” of nationwide support from among the intelligentsia may be drying up but the urban poor are increasingly enamoured with the party. Autorickshaw drivers and vendors in Delhi claim police harassment has reduced, allowing them to take much more money home at the end of a hard day’s work than ever before.
But this support may have come at the expense of that of the crucial middle classes and opinion makers.
The Aam Aadmi Party is becoming a refuge for the gullible and the opportunists, attracting small-time leaders and activists with political ambitions who know they are unlikely to find space in any of the established parties.
But few of these new entrants are aware of AAP’s high command culture, as founding member and former diplomat Madhu Bhaduri alleged when she recently quit the party. Sources say that lawyer Prashant Bhushan is already feeling sidelined but is too much of a gentleman to say this openly. Yadav continues to fall on the margins of the decision making process.
The entire show is run by Kejriwal and his confidantes. A former associate described how the coterie functions. The former associate said that at a meeting some months back Yadav spoke about how AAP should project its “collective leadership” and not any single individual. All agreed but the next day the posters and banners across Delhi had only Kejriwal’s picture. Sources say Sisodia engineered this overnight. At the next meeting it was explained facetiously that supporters from across Delhi had put up these banners and posters spontaneously. It isn’t for nothing that Kejriwal has been known to call Sisodia his “genie”.
The AAP leadership suffers from other pitfalls. Observers say Kejriwal and Sisodia’s understanding of the system and how it functions is limited. An activist says this was exposed during the Rail Bhawan dharna in their disrespect for the constitution and the sanctity of Republic Day.
Kejriwal and his team had little idea that the entire parade zone is taken over by the Army. The team became extremely nervous when an Indian Army officer came to the protest site and asked them to vacate the spot. The officer said AAP leaders and supporters would have to be bundled into trucks if they didn’t move from the spot a day before the full dress rehearsal on January 23.
This was when the team went into a huddle to look for a compromise and were actually bailed out by the Congress under Rahul Gandhi’s instructions.
Most activists across India who have known Kejriwal and Sisodia are quiet about them as they believe that AAP represents a positive moment in the country’s politics, a change from the cynical politics of the BJP, Congress, Samajwadi Party etc. Also, the party has won enormous support among Delhi’s autorickshaw drivers and vendors who constitute a sizable vote bank. It is a message that could resonate among the urban and rural poor of the Hindi heartland.
The question now is can Kejriwal and his coterie succeed in keeping their support base among the urban poor intact at the expense of losing support of the intelligentsia until the next general election. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has accomplished something similar – she may have lost support among the liberal educated class but has consolidated her appeal with the urban and rural poor.
Can Kejriwal and his gang repeat that in Delhi and elsewhere?
The answer to this could determine who forms the next government after the Lok Sabha elections.