Edited Excerpts from an interview
Did AAP win 29 seats in Delhi because of its door-to-door campaign or grassroots activism?
We used a different strategy in Delhi. Unlike other parties, we didn’t have too many resources to back us. Our only asset was the potential support of the people. The challenge for us was to convert this potential support into actual votes. In Delhi, we did not focus on big meetings. We conducted street-corner rallies and door-to-door campaigns — that was a real winner. It enabled us to converse with the people: look in the eye and speak to them. Big rallies require resources and paying money to people to come. People who come for such big meetings are committed supporters or those willing to be hired. They are not the ones who come for smaller meetings; the ordinary people.
You are contesting for the Lok Sabha election from Gurgaon. What’s your poll strategy there?
The Lok Sabha constituencies are huge and we cannot cover all of it. This election would be won or lost in Mewat because the balance in the rest of the constituency leaves little margin of improvement. It is a fairly crystallised vote, but the margin of gains in Mewat is very high. We will try all possible means here.
Traditionally, the Muslim voters here have been voting for the Congress. Do you see that vote swinging in your favour?
Muslims are discrediting the Congress across the country. Wherever they have an alternative, the Muslims prefer the alternative. The entry of AAP has created such an option. For the first time after VP Singh in the early 1990s, Muslims now feel they have a national alternative to the Congress in AAP. In the Delhi Assembly election, there was a tremendous upsurge in favour of AAP. They liked the party and wanted to try it out. But, towards election time, they withdrew, feeling that the BJP would come to power if they vote for AAP.
There was some hesitation. Post the Delhi election, we saw amazing response from three groups — Dalits, Muslims and Sikhs — across the country. The challenge is to convert it into votes. People want an alternative. We never did anything that traditional pro-Muslim and pro-Dalit politics dictates. We never spoke the things that Dalit thinkers would like us to talk about like reservations in promotions and so on. We touched upon basic issues and the experiment shows that, within these communities, identity politics need not trump. If you speak to Muslims about education, health and security, which are important issues, they matter more than the classic identity politics question.
How much of your knowledge of political science and psephology do you use in your strategy?
Frankly, not much. The so-called expertise that people attribute to me is overestimated. Asking me where to contest elections and to strategise is akin to asking Amartya Sen [without misinterpreting the stature of the person] where to invest in the stock markets. For the past 30 years, while I have done things that people have noticed, since the mid 1980s, I have also led a life as a political activist. In the last year, I have drawn from that experience of 20 years as a political activist. I’ve been a part of spectacular failures, which teach you more than textbooks. It taught me more than formal political science.
The issues you raise show that you are no stranger to Mewat…
It’s my homeland. I did not choose Gurgaon, it chose me. I was born here. All these years that I have lived in Delhi, I have never registered as a voter in Delhi. I always came back to vote in my village. Over the past 10 years, I have been connected with various social activist groups such as the Mewat Vikas Samiti, amongst others. So, I have been travelling here. This constituency packs the entire diversity that India has. There are four distinct segments to this constituency. The Muslims in Mewat, the Yadav-dominated agrarian community, Dalits and the small percentage of urban population makes it a difficult constituency to negotiate.
Is it right to say that you are an AAP ideologue?
Despite what the media has described me as, I am not the ideologue of the party. That comes from the understanding of traditional Left parties, where there are ideologues who never enter the political fray but whose job it is to produce documents and understandings. AAP is a different kind of creature, where an ideologue doesn’t quite exist. Moreover, I took a conscious decision to not play such an organisational role. Throughout my academic career, the things that I have done have been team achievements — I’m a team player. I have done some reading and writing for the party, including writing the Delhi election manifesto, but, it is not my principal role in the party.
AAP started with a clear anti-corruption agenda. Why this sudden shift to an anti-Modi campaign in Mewat?
There is no sudden shift. When we were still a movement, there was ambivalence about some of the bigger questions because all kinds of people had come in to join the organisation. But, as soon as we turned into a party, we were very clear about two things: social justice — we would not be a party that is against social justice — and secularism. We would not be a right-leaning party. Unfortunately, after the Anna Hazare movement, a lot of people had this impression. We were clear on these issues, otherwise I wouldn’t have stepped into this party. What I am saying in Mewat is something that I have been saying for the past 10 years — that Modi’s brand of politics is a challenge to the very idea of India. That challenge has to be taken head on. If there’s something that excites me about politics, it is to fight for these big ideas.
What about rumours that some party leaders were unhappy about AAP giving tickets to Ashutosh Gupta in Chandni Chowk and Ashish Khetan in New Delhi constituencies, which are considered winnable seats?
Much of it is speculation. There is no party where there are no contests about who should get which seat. In traditional parties, the unease surrounds people who muscle-in using money — people who buy tickets and peddle their influence. In our case, there is potential support, but we do not have faces that can connect with the masses. A person who is recognised by a few in the neighbourhood might be elected as the MLA candidate but not as an MP candidate, who has to have a different reach. Not everyone in our party understands this. This has led to bickering especially amongst people, some of who are not central to our organisation and the media has played it up.
If AAP is providing an alternative by challenging the status quo, why is the media trying to create a negative perception about the party?
I don’t usually believe in conspiracy theories and I tend to dismiss these things. All I can say is, the amount of money being pumped into this election is astonishingly large. Maybe, you and I will discover a few years later how much was pumped into this election and where. Everyone tells me that one of the biggest expenditure is on the media and I am not talking of formal advertisements. I am talking about paid news, which is a small phenomenon. What we are talking about is much bigger. I think that a lot of money has gone into trying to get the media to turn against AAP. The totality of media coverage, especially in the past 6-8 weeks, cannot be explained merely by our mistakes or facts. Something else, something very big is at play.
When did the media turn against AAP?
Usually, governments get a six-month honeymoon period. We were in office for six weeks. In that period, it was difficult for anyone to write against us, so, we got very positive coverage. Those weeks, Modi was off the front pages. I am told he was not very happy about it. Lots of things happened at that point and someone will connect the dots some day.
What is your opinion on Chidambaram’s proposal for a Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor?
I am a cynic when it comes to these things. It has nothing to do with generating jobs; it is one more real estate. When SEZs came to Gurgaon, I had said then that it had nothing to do with economic activity. The Ambanis withdrew the SEZ and the government allowed them to use the same land to create a world-class city. The idea is to create many small towns around this industrial corridor, couched in economic activity. Who asks about how much employment was generated? Realtors will be happy and so will be politicians. Gurgaon city is well-developed but you can see how poorly Mewat fares in the same district.
Your party has given tickets to three journalists. Are you getting complacent?
We had two options. One, was to give it to people within the party organisation. Every party worker in Delhi knows who Ashish Talwar is because he is very important to the party, but, does everyone in Delhi know who Ashish Talwar is? So, we did not have any additional traction. There are advantages of face and name recognition to the party as long as they are decent people. Ashish Khetan was a surprise choice even for me because I didn’t associate Khetan with this possibility. But he is one of the smartest journalists in the country and if he has access to parliamentary papers, he would do great service to the country.
Does AAP have a view on the kind of foreign policy that India should follow?
We have prepared a 35-page policy statement that has a page or two on every issue. The page on foreign policy has been distilled from a 15-page document. We appointed 31 committees that did their homework and made recommendations. We then distilled their opinions. There is no clear opinion as to what AAP would stand for in terms of its economic policy. It is quite difficult for a new party, which began on a single plank, to see what its economic implications are. We have no differences on social justice or secularism. On economic policy, however, there is no difference of opinion; there is a lack of opinion. There is a vacuum. On secularism and social justice, there were opinions, and we arrived at an understanding. It requires technical expertise to understand how an economy runs and on that we did not have enough depth. So, everything got stalled.
Are you going to release this policy document?
The document was prepared in September- October 2013. In the past 7-8 months, we have not had the time to sit down with it. The topsy-turvy journey of AAP has not permitted us the deep conversations to develop policy. Since January this year, we had three days but for half the time, we were answering media queries. Experts worked on it and I went through it, but we have not had the time to discuss it. The other option was that someone writes it up for us, but I resisted it. We are a new party, so we should not smuggle in a readymade ideology. So, people should ideally debate this document and then agree to it.
Is Arvind Kejriwal the party supremo?
Party supremos can decide whatever they like. That doesn’t happen in AAP. Arvind has more influence in the party than others. No organisation offers equal say to all. Is the real authority, say by virtue of influence that you command or by some power? He has greater say but many of his opinions are often contradictory. But, in the meetings, things are discussed frankly and differences are expressed freely.