History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, but what happens when the farce is played out time and again? Many years ago, I asked the veteran socialist leader, the late Madhu Limaye, on why the Janata Party was unable to hold together in the 1970s. Limaye, a rare political intellectual, answered, “Khichdi when made at home tastes really nice but when you try and cook it in politics, it begins to smell.” The Janata Party, he said, was a khichdi, where parties with contrasting ideologies had come together with the singular purpose of defeating Indira Gandhi. Once she was defeated, a break-up was inevitable. Interestingly, it was Limaye who reportedly advised the mercurial George Fernandes to first support the Morarji Desai government on the floor of Parliament, only to go and withdraw support hours later.
Since then, many Janata Party-like experiments at ‘alternative politics’ have been attempted, but typically none of them have endured. The fragments of VP Singh’s Janata Dal, for example, are scattered across the political landscape, and are now threatening to come together again only because of the fear of the Modi juggernaut. But it’s the recent implosion in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) barely weeks after the spectacular success in the Delhi elections that has grabbed the headlines. Is AAP destined to go the way of the Janata Party and the Janata Dal?
A potential split in AAP was, in a sense, scripted into its creation. AAP, in its original avatar, was a by-product of the anti-corruption movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare. The desire to have a strong lokpal or an anti-corruption ombudsman had brought together diverse individuals whose ideological compatibility was always questionable. Anna was an ageing maverick from rural Maharashtra, Arvind Kejriwal a dynamic NGO activist, Kiran Bedi a hardnosed police officer, Prashant Bhushan a crusading public interest lawyer, Yogendra Yadav a dreamy academic. The first split took place when an ambitious Kejriwal and fellow-travellers like his Man Friday, Manish Sisodia, began to tire of Anna-style fast politics and sought a more direct role in electoral politics. Anna and Bedi both had strong links with the state and didn’t want to challenge the establishment beyond a point.
Even when AAP formed a government in December 2013, the glue was a strident anti-corruption plank but little else. What, for example, did a firm believer in old-style Lohia socialism like Yadav have in common with the economic worldview of a South Mumbai banker like Meera Sanyal? How would a Bhushan’s controversial stated position seeking a referendum in Kashmir square up with a Kumar Vishwas’ ‘soft Hindu’ politics? I recall posing this question to Kejriwal after his initial electoral success. His answer: “Our political party is like a ‘Shivji kee Baaraat’, we welcome anyone who wants to join us in the crusade for clean politics.”
Anti-corruption politics can be a calling card as an oppositional force bidding for power. Former Prime Minister VP Singh, for example, used it most effectively in the late 1980s to put the Rajiv Gandhi government on the mat. Kejriwal too, was astute in taking on the UPA by flagging the many scams in its tenure. Popular anger can be channelised by anti-politician sloganeering: ‘Sab neta chor hai’ became a signature tune for AAP in its early rise to power. But once in office, the idiom and practices need to change: Pressures of democratic politics can force compromises where the means matter less than the ends.
As a full-time politician, Kejriwal was willing to adjust: Defeat in the Lok Sabha elections had forced him to climb down from his moral perch and look to strike ‘deals’ with an eye on ‘winnability’. As ideologically-driven individuals, neither Yadav nor Bhushan seemed comfortable with making those ‘adjustments’. They seemed to be seeking a moral purity, which was never going to succeed in the cut and thrust of electoral politics. To expect every individual contesting on an AAP ticket to be a modern Mahatma would be to impose a certain self-righteous moral superiority on to a political system which is increasingly immoral.
AAP may claim to be a party with a difference, but the truth is, for all its well-intentioned claims, it has to survive in a political culture which demands compromise with lofty idealism and a certain ruthlessness in the intent of its political leadership. Kejriwal may have a messianic zeal to be an agent of change, but like all messiah-like figures, he has also chosen to nurture a personality cult with its resultant coteries. If in its first coming, AAP was held together by a commitment to take on corruption, in its second avatar, it is Kejriwal’s domineering persona that now is a cementing factor.
The 2015 Delhi win was driven by Kejriwal’s energetic and charismatic leadership, blessed with the kind of mass connect that neither a Yadav nor a Bhushan can ever hope to match. AAP cleverly and deliberately converted the Delhi elections into a presidential-style leadership contest much like the BJP did in the 2014 general elections. Just as the BJP cannot now complain about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s larger-than-life image, neither really can AAP look beyond a Kejriwal-driven high command. Almost every political party in India today, without exception, is tightly run by a family or an individual. To have expected AAP to be different was just an illusion.
Post-script: A few years ago, when Yogendra Yadav took the big step of joining politics, I had helpfully suggested that he would be better off staying as a brilliant political analyst in the studio. He chose to go ahead and do what he believed was his calling. Now, should he take the unlikely option of returning to his TV avatar, he might well find an old friend waiting to be part of another election jugalbandi.
This article first appeared in Hindustan Times