Arvind Kejriwal’s vow to take on Sheila Dikshit in the Delhi Assembly polls met with patronising smiles of disapproval from several quarters. “He is sticking his head into the lion’s mouth,” most people had said. A few months later, the sceptics were forced to eat their words. Now, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Kumar Vishwas has extended the same challenge to Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, from where the Congress vice-president has won twice.
The heady success has led AAP to declare that it will try to repeat the Delhi feat by contesting the forthcoming Lok Sabha election and making hay in the sunshine of an anti-Congress wave.
Apart from the three major issues of corruption, misgovernance and VIP culture, Vishwas will challenge Rahul on the issue of ‘dynasty’ politics.
On 12 January, Vishwas delivered his maiden speech at a rally in Amethi, which was attended by 12,000 people. AAP is a new phenomenon in Amethi, where the voters consider it a tradition to vote for the Congress. Rahul is the incumbent MP of this constituency, having been elected twice from here, while uncle Sanjay, father Rajiv and mother Sonia Gandhi have won from this seat too.
Vishwas spoke mostly about dynastic politics and how AAP wanted to uproot this tree, which, he said, is rooted in Amethi’s soil. In an interview later, he said that there is an unsaid pact between parties to ensure that certain seats are always reserved for heirs to political fortunes and senior leaders. Vishwas provided the example of the election of Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav’s wife Dimple Yadav from the Kannauj constituency. Neither the Congress nor the BJP contested the election, with the BJP candidate later claiming that he had missed his train and was unable to file his nomination papers on time.
With The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) forming the government in Delhi and announcing plans to scale up its fight in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls, criticism has flowed in from the BJP. Many feel that these verbal barbs, the latest of which was made by the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi at a rally and on Twitter, are a sign that the BJP is nervous about the AAP effect on the national stage. However, BJP MP Anurag Thakur strikes a defiant note and tells Avalok Langer why the party has nothing to fear from the upstarts.
Edited Excerpts from an Interview
What’s your reaction to AAP’s stunning electoral debut in Delhi? Has it upset the BJP’s applecart?
India is the world’s largest democracy and everybody has the right to form a political party. If a new party such as AAP comes into the political system, it is most welcome. But AAP didn’t get a clear mandate; it was No. 2 in Delhi. However, I congratulate its leaders for whatever they have achieved. At the same time, I feel that it is too early for the media to say that AAP is turning into a national phenomenon. Politics of populism, like saying yes to everything and anything, is not going to help the country. What the country needs is progress.
At the same time, you learn from every political party, big or small. But then again, in the case of AAP, it is not doing anything new or propagating new ideas. It is following a policy of populism. Its leaders say one thing today and another tomorrow. It doesn’t have a proper ideology. To be a political force on a national scale, you need to have an ideology, you need to have viewpoints on national security, foreign policy, defence, etc. AAP leaders don’t seem to look beyond their single-point focus on corruption.
But AAP did win a large share of the votes in Delhi and the party seems to be riding a national wave. Do you think it will be a threat to mainstream national parties?
I don’t think that it’s fair to compare AAP with parties such as the Congress and the BJP. If you look at the BJP’s track record, we have done well in states such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and even Himachal Pradesh. We have provided a good governance model, which has then been applied to other states, whereas AAP has just come to power riding a wave of populist measures. Its idea is to give everything for free.
What is the difference between Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal? Both are following the same political principles. In the name of the aam aadmi, they take money from the government kitty and pump it into subsidies. This money should be spent on growth and welfare schemes. Unfortunately, it is being spent on subsidies, just for votes. Do we need or want these kind of polices? We need job creation like Atal Bihari Vajpayee did during his term. There was development in sectors such as education, highways, ports and airports.
AAP’s entry into UP politics is not targeted at specific vote banks, which is one of the deciding factors in the state. But it has nevertheless unnerved political parties that survive on caste- and religion-based vote bank politics. According to sources, both the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had deployed party workers to observe AAP’s performance at the Amethi rally. In fact, local journalists felt that there were more workers of other parties present at the rally than AAP members.
Saif Jafri, who claims to be an SP youth leader from Bijnor, waited for hours on 11 January outside a press conference venue in Lucknow to hurl eggs at Vishwas.
“I have no problem with Arvind Kejriwal, Kumar Vishwas or AAP. I welcome them into the arena of Uttar Pradesh politics,” he says. “(Vishwas) made denigrating comments against Imam Hussain as well as Lord Shiva. I went to Lucknow because a person who hurts religious sentiments has no right to be in politics. AAP will not survive anywhere in the state.”
After his first rally, Vishwas has begun mobilising his team in Amethi. The people here have heard of Anna Hazare and his fast but AAP is a new animal to them. Winning Uttar Pradesh requires AAP’s formula of door-to-door campaigning and hyperlocal activism. It’s a tried and tested, but not consistent, formula that has worked for the Congress, the BJP, SP, BSP, Trinamool Congress, the Left parties and, more recently, AAP itself in Delhi.
In interviews, Vishwas questioned the Congress’ claim to have spent Rs 55,000 crore in Amethi over the past 10 years. But, he said, there were no roads to show for it, while electric supply is limited to less than half a day.
In the rest of Uttar Pradesh, mobilising villagers will be a difficult task but that is the only way AAP can gain ground.
“Caste- and religion-based politics is political slavery and we intend to do away with it,” says AAP national office-bearer Deepak Vajpayee. “AAP will not give tickets or official positions to people who have misused caste and religion for political gain.” He said that the party wants to make an example of Rahul because he is a symbol of dynasty politics.
As yet, AAP has steered clear of its stand on minority issues, though religion plays an important role in Uttar Pradesh politics. This vagueness leaves AAP in a state of dangerous ambiguity and could damage its prospects in the crucial state.
Prashant Saxena, an IITian and market research entrepreneur, was part of AAP’s Delhi core team and is now part of the party’s national screening committee.
“Mobilising people in rural areas is tough but we intend to educate and convince them on why they should vote for AAP,” he says. “There can be no development as long as corruption eats out of development packages. We have a lot of organisational work left such as appointing state-level functionaries but the people and our supporters are pushing us into the Lok Sabha election race and this leaves us very little time.”
The spread of AAP to urban centres has a lot of people worried. Every day, there is a report of a fresh attack on an AAP office somewhere in the country by political goons, who are unnerved by the upstart organisation’s potential of loosening their grip over the local economy.
AAP is challenging the SP and BSP on their home turf. Thousands have pledged them support through primary membership and donations. Between 10-14 January, AAP received 6.5 lakh missed calls and 1 lakh SMSes as membership pledges and 4.5 lakh unique web memberships — a total of Rs lakh in less than four days.
“AAP’s rally at Amethi was successful because the Opposition parties gave them more popularity,” says Ashok Mishra, a Lucknow-based senior CPI leader. “As yet, they are building a presence in urban centres such as Allahabad and Benaras, but it will be difficult for them to get into rural Uttar Pradesh. For example, Vishwas is using poetry and a common man’s voice to contest the personality of Rahul Gandhi, who is also visible on the ground and in the villages. The caste- and religion-based politics in Uttar Pradesh can’t be disturbed so easily with their agenda, which they don’t even disclose.”
Mishra admits that there is curiosity about AAP in places such as Allahabad, Fatehpur, Azamgarh and Banda but, as yet, the BSP seems to be the leading force in the state.
“The BSP will get 30-35 seats,” he says. “There is an anti-SP wave, which Mulayam and Akhilesh are unable to comprehend. The minority groups have pre-decided their votes for the Congress in urban Lucknow and Mohanlalganj (rural Lucknow). AAP is not really an alternative because the tickets seem to be for former corporate bosses and retired civil servants while the aam aadmi will continue to just hold a broom. They are nurturing a new kind of upper middle-class elite.”
In AAP’s cross-country initiative, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have become important. Haryana will have Assembly polls either combined with or just after the Lok Sabha polls. AAP plans to pitch party ideologue Yogendra Yadav as its chief ministerial candidate. In Gurgaon and Faridabad, both satellites of New Delhi, the AAP phenomenon is gaining ground and giving sleepless nights to established parties.
AAP’s coordination remains chaotic and the party seems to be learning as it stumbles along. In Bihar and Jharkhand, several people claim that they own the AAP franchise. In Patna, a man with a shady past is said to be controlling the state unit. In Jharkhand, no one knows who is in charge with many groups claiming control over the party unit. This even led to clashes in the coal city of Dhanbad.
Despite its many missteps, AAP is unnerving people across the political spectrum. Kiran Bedi, a former comrade of Kejriwal from his India Against Corruption days, recently said that voting for AAP is the same as voting for the Congress. But, a little more than a month earlier, she too had congratulated AAP for securing a large number of seats in the Delhi election. All said and done, AAP going national has many politicians worried.