Monday, 30th October 2017

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No place for peers - Presumption and parochialism

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 30.03.15

The formal purging of Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav at the meeting of the national council on Saturday gives us a clearer understanding of the nature of the Aam Aadmi Party.

It teaches us that the AAP is a form of sole proprietorship, not the political cooperative that many thought it was. The faux collegiality of the AAP's early days, the association of people well known in their own right like Medha Patkar, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, persuaded many that the AAP's rhetoric of decentralized democracy applied to the party's organization. This latest assertion of Arvind Kejriwal's ownership of the party has helped clarify that confusion.

This wishful thinking owed nothing to the things Kejriwal said or did. On the contrary, during his first chief ministership, Kejriwal's behaviour bore witness to his belief that the AAP was an instrument of his will. Whether it was his dharna on Rajpath or the decision to resign office, his political style was personalized to the point of whimsicality.

Kejriwal's colleagues and the AAP's growing army of fellow travellers were impressed by his ability to mobilize people on issues that had nothing explicitly to do with caste and community - corruption, mohalla democracy, populist welfarism - and they chose to believe that this politically correct agenda necessarily implied a commitment to inner-party democracy. After some initial ambivalence, liberals and leftists were so taken by the success of Kejriwal's populism during the Anna Hazare episode that they converged on the political party born of that single-issue campaign, persuaded that they had found in Kejriwal a shortcut to the People.

Kejriwal's genius for raising the profile of his causes by using the endorsements of famous and almost-famous people, misled these figures into believing that he saw them as mentors, patrons and equals. Just as Aruna Roy, Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev felt manipulated and bruised by Kejriwal's instrumental use of their auras, so too did Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav and Anand Kumar reproach him for casting them aside despite their many services to their common cause, the Aam Aadmi Party.

Kejriwal's early mentors can be forgiven for feeling ambushed by his single-minded and self-regarding ambition; at the time, he was an activist with no great track record in public life. For Bhushan and Yadav, though, there's much less excuse. One of the least attractive aspects of their relationship with the AAP has been their implicit assumption that Kejriwal is a natural resource that they can draw on to give substance to their political visions and ambitions. There is at once an acknowledgement that Delhi's mandate was won under Kejriwal's leadership and an insistence that this ought not to matter in the councils of the party, that Kejriwal is, or ought to be, no more than first amongst equals.

This is not how Kejriwal sees his role in politics. Given that he directed India Against Corruption's great political dramas, and cast Hazare in the leading role, given that everything about the AAP - from its name, to its confrontational idiom, to its populist initiatives - was scripted by him, he is in no doubt at all that he is the AAP's ringmaster while everyone else is an act, a star turn perhaps, but no more than that. Bhushan, Yadav and Medha Patkar are, from this point of view, auxiliaries, not part of some collective vanguard.

Bhushan and Yadav's mistake, for which they were so severely punished in the national council meeting, was not the laughable charge of anti-party activity. It was their intellectual sense of entitlement, their presumption in thinking that they were Kejriwal's political peers. It's not a coincidence that Anand Kumar, Ajit Jha and Yogendra Yadav were academics with an acute interest in politics that was held in abeyance (or sublimated into psephology) because the political vehicle that could use their talent and enthusiasm didn't exist.

When they claim co-authorship of the AAP as founding members, they misrepresent a crucial moment in India's recent political history. The people who came together then, gathered to associate themselves with Kejriwal's political virility. Here was a man whose chutzpah and savvy had brought Parliament to a standstill and India's political class to its knees. Many people who wanted to be politically engaged but felt impotent in the face of a corrupt Leviathan and an indifferent People, were inspired to join Kejriwal in this new political project. For the dissenters to argue that Kejriwal's assertion of political supremacy is a betrayal of AAP's political values is to wilfully forget the fact that they attached themselves to the AAP because they recognized that it had been organised around Kejriwal as its karta.

This is not to say that the leadership that has emerged from the purge is a particularly attractive one. It isn't. Charismatic leadership in a democracy like India's is best served when it's obscured by the appearance of fellowship and collegiality. Kejriwal has been damaged by the loss of intelligent, well-spoken allies who had the great virtue of not being seen as his creatures. That they didn't have the modesty to acknowledge their advisory, non-doing role in the party contributed to the crisis, but losing them has meant that AAP is now explicitly and publicly seen to be the vehicle of Kejriwal's ambitions. This is a nakedness that he will come to regret.

The purge has also made the parochialism of AAP's vanguard more visible. The second echelon of AAP's leadership is made up of people who are patently Kejriwal's clients. 'Loyalists' is the euphemism that desi political discourse uses to describe men like Manish Sisodia, Sanjay Singh, Kumar Vishwas, Ashish Khetan, Gopal Rai, et al. This is a homogenous cohort of Hindi-speaking, north Indian men in their thirties and early forties, all of them younger than Kejriwal and all of them part of a coterie that seems to exclude anyone outside this thin demographic defined by age, sex, region and language. These are obscure, undistinguished men who dimly glow in the light of Kejriwal's sun. While Medha Patkar's loss isn't politically significant given the AAP's current political horizons, it does rather bear out AAP's reputation as a departure lounge for politically assertive women.

So, to the extent that the term 'soft power' actually means anything, this purge has robbed Kejriwal's party of some of the appeal that it had in its more crusading, slightly more diverse avatar. For Kejriwal to be surrounded by a gang of men from Ghaziabad who are so similar as to be virtually interchangeable, makes him seem more like a north Indian machine politician than a charismatic national leader. This might be a good thing from the point of view of his chief ministership, but if his ambitions are larger than the NCR's boundaries, which they are, he'll find it harder to attract political talent as the head of a party increasingly seen as an extension of himself. To have the unspeakable yet continuously speaking Kumar Vishwas and the incoherently voluble Ashutosh as the party's television spokesmen can't be good publicity. The invisibility of Atishi Marlena and Meera Sanyal during the recent crisis has done nothing to challenge Admiral Ramdas's pithy characterization of the AAP as a "boy's club".

Still, Kejriwal now has a full term in Delhi to look forward to as the unchallenged leader of his party. Given the shortage of political alternatives, it's not unthinkable that when he decides to look beyond Delhi he might still find diverse and distinguished allies. For now, though, both sides of this quarrel have reason to be pleased: Kejriwal has his city and his critics have their martyrdom.