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.

India Today - - INSIDE - By Ku­nal Prad­han

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-



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.


Pho­to­graph by M ZHAZO

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