Big Game Hunters
Its 49-day tryst with power has only spurred the Aam Aadmi Party to go national, with the hope that it’ll return to office in Delhi on its own steam in the next polls.
When former Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and education minister Manish Sisodia, friends and collaborators for over 15 years, headed to the Delhi Assembly on February 14, they were not certain of what was in store for them. Kejriwal had suggested he would resign if the Congress did not support his push for the anti-graft Jan Lokpal Bill in the state, but his decision wasn’t set in stone yet. Midway through the proceedings, while Kejriwal and Sisodia sat in the front row of the treasury benches, what lay ahead for their Aam Aadmi Party ( AAP) came to them in a flash. It was a moment of clarity in which they realised that their stint in the Secretariat was over, at least for now. “That day, when we tried to table the Jan Lokpal Bill, what I saw in the Assembly made me sad,” Sisodia tells INDIA TODAY. “The way BJP and Congress came together to block us, the way they synchronised their movements, proved to us that we could not do anything meaningful as a minority government. We didn’t run away from governance, we’ve decided to return with a full mandate in order to do our job properly.”
A few hours later, as they were meeting Delhi Lt Governor Najeeb Jung to tender their resignations, the SMSs started pouring in. “In my 19 years of service, the last 49 days have been the most inspiring,” a senior bureaucrat wrote to them. “Thank you for reminding me of the idealism I had left behind in college,” texted another. There were others, of course, who were relieved that Kejriwal’s unorthodox government-on-the-streets had ended its unusual soliloquy. But make of AAP’s tumultuous stint in power what you will, there’s no denying that the party has changed the nature of political campaigns in India, and that it is serious about be- coming a party which can win states and Lok Sabha seats across the country.
The first sign of its future intentions was visible on February 15 when AAP released its first list of Lok Sabha candidates for the forthcoming General Elections. In a precision attack on several big-ticket Members of Parliament, they named opponents for Congress VicePresident Rahul Gandhi, former BJP president Nitin Gadkari, Samajwadi Party President Mulayam Singh Yadav, Rashtriya Lok Dal ( RJD) President Ajit Singh, and tainted Congress leader Suresh Kalmadi. It was a brazen, nostalgic, Bollywood star Dharmendra-style flinging of the gauntlet: Ek ek ko chun chun ke maroonga (I’ll pick you off one by one). Their first targets are dynasts, criminals, and corrupt politicians. “We will field candidates against all such people,” says Sisodia, 41, Kejriwal’s closest ally and the party’s most prominent leader after him.
AAP hasn’t yet arrived at a figure on how many of the 543 Lok Sabha seats it will contest. Nor does it know for sure if senior leaders such as Kejriwal and Sisodia will contest the Parliament elections. The two have indicated that they are more inclined to focus on party work but could still be persuaded, as they were when it came to forming the Delhi government, if their supporters coax them enough. Maybe through another referendum.
As things stand, AAP’s policy on the Lok Sabha elections is simple enough: They are looking for suitable candidates—professionals with a good track record and some standing in public life — across the country. The focus is on urban areas where they already have a growing support base, but talks and internal surveys are on in a number of rural constituencies as well, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana. Party insiders tell INDIA TODAY that they are speaking with former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai for a seat of his choice in Delhi, and also with former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi. They don’t want to be part of any Third Front formation but use whatever seats they get to raise questions about opaque government policies and push for their ultimate goal of transparency and de-centralisation.
“Our goal is to make people understand that politics needs to change at a fundamental level. Then even a Narendra Modi or a Rahul Gandhi will be forced to deliver along these changed parameters,” Sisodia says. “Then our party will no longer be needed.”
This sentiment was echoed by Kejriwal when he spoke at the Confederation of Indian Industry ( CII) on February 17. It was a pivotal speech for the former Delhi chief minister. He was speaking before scepti- cal captains of industry, and small and medium business owners, who had so far only heard negative things about his economic vision. Among the decisions taken by the party when it was in power was to disallow FDI in multibrand retail, ask for private power distribution companies to be audited because they overcharged consumers, and file a criminal case against Mukesh Ambani for allegedly inflating the price of natural gas.
In an hour-long interaction, Kejri- wal surprised his audience by stressing that his party was not against the private sector. This main submission, though he did not lay out a detailed plan, was that private business is essential, that governments need to stay away from it as much as possible, and that no one can do business effectively unless there is an honest, efficient administration at the Centre.
“Mr Kejriwal cleared a lot of doubts and concerns we had about AAP. We got the impression that he is not anti-in-
dustry. Good governance and clean administration. is a must for business to thrive,” Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General of CII, said later. “Kejriwal has rightly said that job creation has to be done by industry.”
AAP has, therefore, shown that it can reach out to a larger audience even in the aftermath of its government’s resignation, which has universally been regarded by opinion-makers as a fiasco. But the AAP leadership realises that a time when they can make a genuine pan-India impact hasn’t quite come yet. Their stepping stone still has to be Delhi, where their position is not quite stable yet. “Only when we have come back to power in Delhi, when we have introduced laws such as the Jan Lokpal Bill and the Swaraj Bill, when we have shown the people the benefits of these legislations for at least two years, will our time truly come,” says Sisodia. The Swaraj Bill intends to give the people direct power to curb corruption at the local level.
AAP’s initial plan after winning 28 seats in the December Assembly polls in Delhi had been to sit out of power and push for a re-election. After a se- ries of internal debates, it decided to take Congress support to utilise the opportunity to be in power—even if for a short while. Not being able to table the Jan Lokpal Ball, forget passing it, convinced them that it had been a mistake. But the experience has still taught them something valuable.
Now they believe that their theo-
DESPITE THE LOK SABHA FOCUS, AAP’S STEPPING STONE IS STILL DELHI, WHERE IT HAS NOT FOUND A
STABLE FOOTING YET.
ries—which were just scribbles on a drawing board without any governance experience—can actually be put into practice. “We have become more confident that we can rule once we have the right numbers,” says Kejriwal. Leaders also admit that if they get another stint, the impatience of trying to push policies through without proper administrative procedure will have to be abandoned. In political terms, AAP’s biggest success is how it has painted Congress and BJP in the same brush. It has managed to prop itself up as an alternative for anybody who is disgruntled with either of the two national parties, or with the entire political establishment. Evidence of this elevated status is seen in how leaders from Congress and BJP are spending more time slamming AAP than each other. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde has described them as “yedas” (crazy in colloquial Marathi) and BJP’s Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley has described their stepping down as the “end of a nightmare”.
But politicians across the board may have to stay awake for a little while longer. AAP’s swelling cadres prove that India’s new aspiring class has linked itself to the party in several urban centres. Like it or loathe it, the Aam Aadmi Party is here to stay. First as an integral part of Delhi politics and an indiscriminate scalper of political headmen. And, possibly in the future, as the Third Force in a nation divided.
ARVIND KEJRIWALWITH AAP LEADERS PRASHANTBHUSHAN, YOGENDRAYADAV, SANJAYSINGH, KUMAR VISHWAS AND MANISH SISODIA IN DELHI