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A Political Gang War in Delhi

What’s behind Arvind Kejriwal’s bloodletting within the Common Man Party?


For two years, the anti-corruption-activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal had the citizens of Delhi captivated and the country’s political class running for cover. No one in the Indian capital could ignore the impassioned rhetoric of the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party, a political outfit inaugurated by the 46-year-old Kejriwal and other political neophytes — activists, lawyers, academics, journalists, and TV anchors, backed by vast numbers of student volunteers and funded primarily by members of the middle class. The Common Man Party promised, thrillingly, an “alternative” Indian politics that encompassed many ideas hitherto thought impracticable, such as complete transparency in election finance.

Middle-class Indians hadn’t seen a politician like Kejriwal before. The flimsy physique, the squeaky voice, the rimless glasses, the degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, the career in the higher bureaucracy abandoned for a cause, the dowdy muffler wound around the head in the winter smog as he preached the gospel of a new swaraj, or “self-rule,” a term popularized by Mahatma Gandhi. Most refreshingly, he seemed to have brought into the political ring a party that was not at some level a personality cult, and seemed to speak to voters as a coherent chorus of equals. In the strange and sublime masque that is Indian politics, “Muffler Man” had come to stay.

In the party’s debut election in December 2013 — for the legislative assembly of the city-state of Delhi, watched by the entire country because it involves power in the capital — the AAP’s astonishing performance produced a hung parliament. This, however, led to a series of missteps: The AAP formed a minority government, and then gave up power just seven weeks later for the sake of principles it declared inviolable. Skepticism about the party’s long-term prospects deepened when the AAP decided to contest the national elections in May 2014 with almost no success. It appeared that the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi would sweep all before him, and that Kejriwal (who foolhardily chose to run against Modi in the national elections) would have to resign himself to the politics of protest.

But incumbency brings its own depredations, and a few months of observing their new prime minister was enough for Delhi’s voters to believe that his power in the capital needed a counterweight. Meanwhile, Kejriwal kept up a strong challenge, proving a more effective critic of the new government than the main opposition party, the moribund Congress. And so it happened that in February of this year, in the next elections for the legislative assembly of Delhi, the AAP routed both Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress, the country’s two major political parties, and handed Modi his first-ever defeat in an election. Chief Minister Kejriwal was the toast of Delhi.

Like India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his Congress Party, Kejriwal and the AAP made democracy seductive to a new generation not naturally inclined toward politics — middle-class India has long taught its own to focus on making a secure career for themselves, and leave the machinations and corruptions of politics to the professionals.

And like Nehru’s Congress, the AAP brought to Indian political discourse both a new rigor and a new rapture. Where could the party go from perhaps the greatest-ever debut in Indian electoral politics? Could it transfer its native mode of agitation, creative destruction, and economic populism into stable governance, incremental progress, and stability? Could it use its secure base in Delhi to build a national network that would give voters around the country a third option in the next national elections in 2019?

So it seemed, for a while. Unfortunately, as of early April, it appears the best days of the AAP may be in the past.

Over the last month, Kejriwal and the party high command have, in a long-drawn and tawdry drama, tarnished their reputations, perhaps irredeemably, by rudely insulting and removing from their posts as official spokesmen for the party two of the AAP’s key strategists, the political scientist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav and the combative lawyer Prashant Bhushan. Both Yadav and Bhushan had argued for greater internal democracy in the party, but their arguments were seen by Kejriwal loyalists as an attempt to sabotage the AAP’s forward momentum. The breathtaking conviction with which Kejriwal loyalists accused them of “anti-party activities” and the appalling pettiness visible to every neutral observer suggest that in the strange and sublime fairground of personality cults that is Indian politics — almost all Indian parties big and small, including the ruling BJP, have a figure whose word is law — the latest show on offer is the cult of Kejriwal.

Where should one look to make sense of this? Bollywood, perhaps. In the many films about the city’s gang wars produced in Mumbai every year, the usurper of power in a gang is never more insecure than when he actually takes command. All those who helped him reach his goal are suddenly suspect. Who knows; perhaps they have their eyes on the throne as well?

Something similar seems to have happened to Kejriwal. No reason or principle more persuasive than the paranoia of the newly powerful can be produced to rationalize his decision to jettison his two most prominent companions in the “movement” — the word the party used for a long time to describe itself. Even at the risk of damaging his reputation for integrity and his brand appeal as the “common man” risen to power, Kejriwal has chosen the peace of a pre-emptive purge over the fear of a potential coup, perhaps even a decade from now.

Although the putsch (Yadav called it “a Stalinist purge”) has been almost universally condemned in Delhi, it’s worth noting that there was also an undertow of grudging respect for Kejriwal’s ruthlessness — even among the BJP and Congress leaders who now gloated at the disintegration of the AAP and declared that its claim to a higher political morality had been exposed as fraudulent. A man who, when seeking power, behaved like Gandhi speaking the language of conscience and trusteeship seems on attaining it to have metamorphosed into a realist of Machiavellian cunning. The widely read political commentator Shekhar Gupta tweeted, “Whatever yr view on #AAPBreakUp, a ruthless new leader has risen in India.”

Or, to put it another way, Kejriwal’s win in Delhi in February was so big that it has emboldened him to conclude that a position of strength for the party is unsustainable for him personally because of his past conflicts with his colleagues. He’s decided to settle for a lose-lose situation that he believes he can turn around in the long term, but his rivals cannot.

This is a considerable gamble. Yes, Kejriwal’s hold over the chief ministership of Delhi — a position that, while offering few real powers, means that he will always have a voice in the capital — is secure until 2020: The AAP’s majority of 67 to 3 in Delhi’s assembly is so large that even a breakaway faction could not topple the new government. But the party itself suddenly seems a much thinner and smaller thing. And Yadav’s summary demotion — he has not yet been expelled from the party, leaving him the decision either of both sinking and staying, or leaving and starting out again — brings to an end one of the most distinctive and creative collaborations in modern Indian politics. Between them, Kejriwal, Yadav, and the outspoken lawyer Bhushan (never one to settle for the compromises that Kejriwal might today see as part of practical politics) built a new kind of party machine, doing innovative work on everything from social media to widening the profile of candidates in electoral politics beyond machine politicians.

Yadav’s loss will prove particularly costly for the AAP. As much as Kejriwal and Bhushan are outsiders in Indian politics, Yadav is an even more unusual figure, though with a purer political pedigree. A political scientist familiar to Indian audiences for his work as a pundit and a psephologist long before Kejriwal was a name to reckon with, the 51-year-old Yadav might fit into Plato’s notion of a philosopher-king, given power not because he is mighty, but because he is wise. It’s rare for a figure whose main contribution to democracy for two decades was intellectual and speculative (see: influential essays like “A Radical Agenda for Political Reforms” and “The Paradox of Political Representation”) to suddenly enjoy the power to influence the future course of these plans and patterns that Yadav did, and perhaps still does.

Famous for his ringing, oft-repeated line that politics is the “yugdharma” of our time — in other words, the duty that none can forsake participation in this yug, or age, of Indian history — Yadav deserves credit for more than just making the AAP a political and intellectual force. To the disenchanted Indian middle class, accustomed to tarring all politicians as cynical and corrupt, Yadav provided a stern but necessary counsel: “If politics is about shifting the balance of power in a society, then not resorting to politics is not an option.” The AAP was the fruition of just such a vision.

Should he decide to leave, though, as seems likely, Yadav’s options will be few: either to start again from scratch with a new political formation — which he might not have the charisma to sustain — or to return to intellectual life, which would represent a considerable come-down from the pleasures and challenges of formulating strategy at the cutting edge of Indian democracy.

It seems, then, that although the AAP will keep the rank and file of the party together and ride out the crisis, it will in the coming months and years become a more conventional political party, one depending far too much on the direction and whims of a supremo. And elsewhere in the capital, Modi will be watching the crisis in the AAP with a combination of schadenfreude and relief, sensing that the competition is growing more similar to him — and falling behind at the same time. Congress has too many demons of its own, most notably that of the stasis at the very top of its ruling dynasty, to profit from the AAP crisis.

And the citizens of India? If the aam aadmi, or common man, is today disappointed with the AAP, it’s only because he or she had invested so many hopes in the party in the first place. Perhaps Indian voters will take away from the AAP crisis the lesson that all political parties are fickle and fallible. But even if the AAP itself were to fall further from grace, the energy of the questions addressed and the ambition of the methods devised by the party would still have opened many new doors in Indian democracy. If the AAP could build so much from scratch in just two years, perhaps another citizens’ movement based on an equally passionate commitment to another cause — feminism, freer markets, a more flexible notion of Indian identity, the eradication of caste discrimination — could do so too. All over India, politics is suddenly no more always the problem, but also the solution.

Still, both Yadav and Kejriwal have been left with only one foot to stand on. As the Bombay films about gang wars tell us, when the members of a gang turn on one another, those of all other syndicates sleep very soundly at night.


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