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The Crisis in Delhi: The Politics of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)


One doesn’t know where to begin when talking about the mounting ‘crisis’ in Delhi. Each day has brought out to the public view a new conflict within or outside the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ever since it came to power in Delhi a few months ago. The crisis has now resulted in a democracy and governance deficit on the one hand and of politics on the other hand. It reveals the superficial reality of a formation like the AAP in Indian politics. And, more than revealing the failure of the kind of empty aspirations it represents, the AAP crisis also highlights the failure of an imported Western mode of political process in the Indian context.

On the face of it, the AAP crisis is characterized by two facets: internal squabbling and outer conflict. Internally, the party was never seen to possess a democratic or mature way of functioning. Even before it assumed power in Delhi, it was well-known that the AAP was a largely one-man show with Arvind Kejriwal at the helm. He could never manage various members – like Kumar Vishwas and others – some of whom publicly spoke out against his method of dictatorship and others deserted the party for various reasons. Many celebrities and famous people who had joined the AAP were quick to desert it out of disappointed expectations, much before Kejriwal came to power in Delhi. These people had genuinely believed that AAP would bring some change. Even till recently, some of its supporters were under the delusion that whatever else AAP may be, it is better than BJP and Congress, on fronts such as corruption and people power. These unwarranted expectations were shaken when one of the biggest internal splits of the party took place a few months ago, resulting in the ouster of intellectuals like Yogendra Yadav, Prashant Bhushan and Prof. Anand Kumar. The ouster of these academicians disillusioned a huge section of AAP supporters consisting of youth from universities like DU and JNU. As usual, like all of the AAP’s internal conflicts, this bitter drama too was played out in the public domain clearly revealing a lot of other things, such as instances of corruption, exposure of incriminating taped conversations where Kejriwal is heard exhorting his MLAs to engage in horse-trading to ‘buy’ the legislators from opposition parties and other instances of internal corruption within the party.

Once this phase of the crisis got old, we thought that we would now hear something from the Delhi government about, at least, its short-term governance agenda. But that was not to be. The Delhi government is unique in that it has not even pretended to have taken a single initiative since it came to power. When it is not engaged in public theatrics, it is harassing – and, of course, ‘protesting’, which is its favourite mode of harassment – the central government to release more money for Delhi, complaining that it won’t be able to govern without funds. This brings us to the other conflict – with the AAP at its centre – which unfolded recently. The persistent clash with the centre took on a new turn when it morphed into the conflict between the AAP and the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung.

Like some of the centre-state conflicts, the current conflict too occurred over the issue of appointments. In the temporary absence of the Chief Secretary, KK Sharma, Najeeb Jung appointed Shakuntala Gamlin as the Acting Chief Secretary on 15th May. This appointment was contested by Kejriwal on the ground that Gamlin had previously tried to ‘trick’ his government into giving more money to the power companies in Delhi. There was no good reason for the L-G to bow down before Kejriwal’s demands, so when Gamlin took over in accordance with the L-G’s wishes, Kejriwal accused the BJP of playing politics through the L-G. Subsequently, when Kejriwal accepted Gamlin’s appointment with a threat to monitor her, other conflicts followed. Appointment and removal of a number of bureaucrats became an issue for contest between the L-G and the Delhi government. Here also it was Kejriwal who first started the conflict, as immediately after the Gamlin controversy, Kejriwal sacked the principal secretary for services, Anindo Majumdar who had notified Gamlin’s appointment. He also subsequently appointed the principal secretary for general administration by bypassing Jung altogether. More recently, the AAP again took a controversial step when it sourced police personnel from Bihar and trashed the appointment by the L-G of MK Meena as the Anti-Corruption Branch (ACB) chief. They were defeated in this decision, but subsequently Kejriwal tried to transfer Delhi’s Home Secretary, Dharam Pal, who had notified Meena’s appointment – a step which was again struck down by the L-G – a constitutional action on the L-G’s part as land, law and order and police fall under the jurisdiction of the L-G. In each of the issues, the question was not one of constitutionality, but of the AAP’s aggressive confrontation with the centre, through the medium of the L-G.

The most recent crises to engulf AAP are those of the fake degrees of its law minister Jitendra Tomar and the domestic violence allegations against AAP member and previous law minister Somnath Bharti, who was also accused of prosecuting the Africans in a Khirki Extension raid last year. The fact that Kejriwal had personally stood by Tomar a few months back when some party members accused him of forging degrees speaks volumes about Kejriwal’s double-faced approach to corruption.

Besides this identity crisis that the AAP and its members are now facing, there is also a clear-cut ‘governance crisis’ in Delhi, which has been ongoing since Kejriwal took over, but which has just been acknowledged in the public domain viz. AAP’s thwarted unrealistic promises of delivering electricity at low prices and the waste management crisis. More than 10,000 tonnes of waste accumulated in less than 10 days in East Delhi because of the inability of the government to deal with the strike by the workers demanding the payment of their long overdue salaries.

Right and Wrong: Was Kejriwal Justified?

A study of the events, as they unfolded, clearly shows that the answer is no, due to several reasons.

First, it was AAP’s Manish Sisodia who had initially proposed two names to the L-G to choose from, in appointing the acting Chief Secretary – Shakuntala Gamlin and Parimal Rai. He had also indicated to the L-G to select Rai instead of Gamlin. Why he proposed Gamlin’s name among the two is something to be wondered about. The L-G, disregarding AAP’s ‘indications’ chose Gamlin for the simple reason that she was more senior – a perfectly legitimate decision. Moreover, in what came as a huge blow to the AAP, Rai himself rejected his nomination for the post of the acting Chief Secretary. Despite this, the AAP persisted in opposing Gamlin’s appointment and changed it into a full-blown centre-state issue, by levelling baseless charges against the centre.

Second, besides the above obvious catch, other factors also show that Kejriwal had instigated the conflict for a baseless, personal reason and not the other way round. Even if Jung had appointed Gamlin, why would Kejriwal object on the ground that she took the side of the power companies, since the appointment was only a temporary one? The Chief Secretary was on a leave for only 10 days, while the tussle of Delhi government with the power companies has been an issue since more than a decade! Even Kejriwal would recognize that 10 days of Gamlin in a temporary position would not make his government hostage to the power companies, so the public drama clearly points out to a usual AAP ploy to gain public attention.

Third, legal experts – who are also, ideologically, left-of-the-centre intellectuals – proffered their view on the crisis. Their position, unsurprisingly, backed Kejriwal. The arguments were that Kejriwal’s was an elected government and, therefore, represented the ‘will of the people’ (an argument given by several political parties), and that, legally, the L-G cannot impose his choice on the government as the initial decision has to be taken by the government and then sent to L-G for approval. Here it should be noted that the Union Territory of Delhi is unlike any other U.T. and State because of the physical presence of the Central Government over there. There are subjects such as police, land etc. where constitutionally the L-G is entitled to exercise full right on the behalf of the Central Government.

Kejriwal was really playing politics over appointments. Having been defeated over the Gamlin issue, Kejriwal sought to play politics of revenge by nullifying other existing appointments and new appointments notified by the L-G.

AAP in the Near Future

Seldom have political parties written a script of their own demise as clearly as the AAP has done. Its transition from an ambitious tributary of the Anna Hazare movement to a political party has been an abject failure. Forget about Delhi, it could not tailor itself to the reality of the rest of India, for two main reasons.

First, even its outer form, the AAP has simply been the partial political expression of middle and working class discontent, concentrated in the Delhi population. Pinched by economic deterioration, loss of international prestige and the legacy of corruption left by the Congress, the people saw the AAP as an alternative. There is nothing new in this trajectory. It has been replicated world-over. The rise of extreme Left and far-right movements all over Europe and in the UK – such as, the Five Star movement in Italy, the Independent Party in UK, the Golden Dawn party in Greece, rise of Le Pen’s party in France and the anti-Islamic PEGIDA movement in Germany – are similar, in idea, to the AAP’s rise in Delhi.

This never really meant anything long-term. It was obvious, right from the beginning, that AAP was unlikely to last long. Every party has had to cultivate a strong grassroots base and mobilization consistently for a number of years. The AAP has no such organizational base. Its voters keep fluctuating, and, as the by-polls showed, it hasn’t been able to touch the core BJP vote-bank in Delhi. If AAP has attracted the disgruntled voters of the Congress, it should have displayed the political acumen to retain them. But, as the recent events show, it could not even display a pretense of governance, let alone taking any real initiatives.

Second, the AAP suffers from a fundamental flaw – not an organizational one, but at its roots. Its functioning, ideology and process clearly symbolize assumptions based on the Western conception of national life. It started with big dreams about petty realities. It made the mistake of assuming that conversations about a ‘rules-based system’ in the Indian context meant something, forgetting that the Indian national life can never be circumscribed or imposed upon by mere formal rules and institutions. And if this were not enough, the AAP has also a peculiar psychological character – it can only survive by feeding on continuous public drama. There is nothing it can deliver on the governance front which, even a corrupt party like Congress, could deliver – after all, there is nothing to be delivered under the present conditions of its functioning. The AAP seems to have fallen prey to the necessity of asserting its identity through constant confrontations and baseless dramas. As a result, what AAP really achieved was the opposite – a total de-institutionalization and chaos within itself – of what it sorely needed.

The AAP does not seem to us to signify anything long-term even in the context of Delhi politics.

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