In normal circumstances, Arvind Kejriwal would have been among the 4,000 people invited for the oath-taking ceremony of Narendra Modi and his council of ministers. Kejriwal is the former chief minister of Delhi, even if only for 49 days and whatever one’s assessment of his record, protocol would have meant he got invited. Instead, the chief of Aam Aadmi Party was in the sweltering confines of Tihar Jail, where he was sent because he refused to furnish a bail bond of Rs 10,000 in the criminal defamation case filed by Nitin Gadkari.
Kejriwal’s contention was that there was no need for a bail bond if the accused and his lawyer appeared in a summons case—a simple written undertaking would have been enough. The magistrate did not agree and sent him off to jail for his refusal. Ironically, one day later, on the advice of the Delhi High Court to furnish the bond and challenge the magistrate’s order, Kejriwal did just that and walked out.
It is difficult to gauge exactly what Kejriwal or his party gained from this defiance. If the plan was to stand on principle, there were other ways to go about it. As applied, the magistrate’s order does look excessive. Moreover, there needs to be a debate around the idea of criminal defamation, which can have a chilling effect on not just public life, but crucially, journalism. But was this the way to bring attention to the issue?
Another possibility is that Kejriwal felt this would once again draw back some attention to him and on his party. After the high point of winning 28 seats in the Delhi state elections in December, AAP has been mostly on a downslide. When the momentum for the general elections picked up, AAP became one more party in the fray. For a new party, it did garner a lot of media coverage, especially on television. Kejriwal’s decision to oppose Narendra Modi in Varanasi immediately put him on the radar of newspersons, but other candidates were not so fortunate. In Mumbai, for example, Meera Sanyal, Medha Patkar and Mayank Gandhi were credible candidates, but they were facing huge, well-oiled and well-funded party machineries. AAP simply did not have the wherewithal to fight in 432 constituencies. The idea may have been to get enough percentage of votes to be called a national party, but it meant that the resources were spread too thin.
Post-elections, all the limelight was stolen by Narendra Modi and the BJP; all other parties were ignored. AAP’s brain trust may have figured that defying the magistrate and going to jail would get much-needed sympathy. The party even tried to explore the possibility of reforming the Delhi government. But the net result is that, even hardcore AAP sympathisers were left baffled and a little upset. This is the time for regrouping and planning the next step – the party has four MPs in Parliament and the Delhi elections will have to be fought in the coming months. Every bit of time and energy should be spent on thinking about the future, to ensure that the goodwill of December 2013 is not dissipated. This is no time for drama and stunts.
In the meantime the decision of two of its most high profile leaders – Shazia Ilmi and Captain Gopinath — to quit has come as another blow. The latter was a relatively new member, but Shazia was among the founders and a key member of the think tank until she found herself edged out. Her parting shot, that the party was now run by a small coterie, is a serious blow to AAP’s claim of being a consensus-driven outfit. Her departure may well be connected to the refusal of AAP to give her a ticket for Chandni Chowk and instead move her to Ghaziabad, but if you look beyond her personal peeve, what she says has to be taken seriously.
AAP is now at a serious crossroads in its short existence. It has to decide very carefully how it will proceed from here onwards. Will it go down the long, painstaking and boring route of organization-building, without which no political party can survive? Or will it look for quick fixes, continue to take crucial decisions in a secretive way and clamour for media attention? For a party that made such a virtue out of public consultation, AAP has shown it is not very different from other parties. It caught the imagination of many people looking for an alternative, by focussing on corruption, but that is not enough. It has to also give shape to an ideology, one which unites and binds all its members. Kejriwal has lost many supporters, especially among the urban middle classes, but he is still respected by a large number of people who see in him a hope for a new kind of politics. His low-key, but effective fight in Varanasi won him new admirers. The lower strata of Delhi have faith in him. AAP is not yet a lost cause, far from it.
The next five years are going to be dominated by the BJP, almost without any opposition. The Congress has been reduced to just 44 seats in Parliament and seems to be bereft of ideas. But its secular and people-oriented programme still has adherents. AAP can show that it too has the interest of the common man at heart and will continue its battle against corruption. This may get the party one seat here and another there, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. If it wishes to be a serious player on the Indian political scene, AAP must begin its slow, but steady onward march with clear policies and well-thought out tactics. Otherwise it will always be remembered as a one-election wonder, which came, conquered and then disappeared.