New Delhi: The Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) fundamental concern is to devolve power to the people by ensuring direct participation in decision making, said Yogendra Yadav, the brain behind the political and electoral strategies of the party that has promised to clean up politics after a spectacular electoral debut in the Delhi assembly election. The AAP doesn’t believe in any -isms, Yadav said in an interview, adding that his party stands for the most vulnerable when it comes to economic, social and developmental priorities. Edited excerpts:
What do you think is the big message that the AAP’s success has sent?
What is being called success is actually a very partial success. After all, we were technically the runners-up in Delhi. Normally, the party which gets this much of votes and seats should not draw this kind of attention. The reason why we look successful is that more than an electoral victory, it was a moral victory, it was a political breakthrough. Moral victory in that it achieved what people thought was impossible; namely that the party which did not have the kind of resources, the kind of clout, the kind of patronage, the kind of organizational strength and which did not use caste, community identities, could actually make a dent, make an entry into mainstream politics. Given the very high threshold of viability, given the very high entry barriers in politics, that a rank outsider could enter without using any of these dirty tricks, that I think was important.
So, the big message is that in democratic politics, there is still a space where a newcomer can enter, where honest and straightforward means can be deployed, where alternatives can be tried out.
The first two weeks in government have not been without controversies.
Did you imagine it will go without controversy? Can there be anything which is important, which is notice-worthy and which is not controversial? I don’t remember any such thing as far as I can go back. Things which get noticed are bound to generate some debate, some excitement, some hopes, and in media, hope and excitement get generated in the name of what is called controversy.
How is the party taking it?
My sense from speaking to ordinary people, speaking to party workers, speaking to ordinary people outside Delhi is that it is being received with enormous excitement. That people feel that the sense of hope that it generated has continued unabated, it has actually gone up in the last few days. If you look at the response to our party throughout the country, we had a certain level of response prior to Delhi results. After 8 December, it scaled up immediately and the day we formed (the government), it went up one more step, which is where it continued.
My own sense is that formation of government has taken us to a high level of political support, enthusiasm and so on. As it always happens for any party in governance, especially for a new party, this is also a period of learning. It’s a period where you gather some experience, where you learn the ropes, where you learn lessons for the future.
What is the ideology of AAP?
I can begin by saying what it is not. AAP does not subscribe to any of the pre-packaged ideologies of the 20th century. 20th century gave us large ideological packages as I said, highly stylized, very pre-determined, connected to each other, and, therefore, they gave the impression of being whole integrated things. But in reality, these were highly contrived packages.
So, what AAP does not do is to begin by saying we believe in this ism or that ism of the 20th century: No, we certainly don’t. What we do not do is to say that therefore that book is our Bible or the other book is our Bible, no we don’t. We begin with certain convictions, certain principles.
The first principle being Swaraj itself. By Swaraj, we mean that in democracy, power has been alienated from the people. While it is called democracy, people wield very little power. So, our fundamental concern is, we want to return that power back to the people by devolving the power, by ensuring direct participation of the people, by doing decision making closer to the people.
With this, the second big conviction is what you may call the very name of the party ‘aam aadmi’ (or common man). We stand for the vulnerable; we stand for the last person. My own interpretation would be the last person first. When I have to think of economic priorities, when I have to think of social priorities, when I have to think of developmental priorities, I would apply the Gandhian test. This is something that Gandhiji said: ‘Think of the weakest person you ever met in your life and ask yourself, what I am going to propose, is it going to help him or her or not’. So that, I think, is a very good litmus test. So, the ‘last person first’ is clearly a principle that can be used.
Along with that is a deep conviction about diversity. We are a society where diversity is not a problem; diversity is our strength. Diversity is something that we must live and cultivate and strengthen. These are some of the convictions that we begin with. And much of our party ideology would be an attempt to elaborate upon that.
Given the fact that we come from very, very diverse backgrounds, we all inherit some slice or the other from the 20th century ideology. It is natural that we in the last one year do not end up replicating each other.
I say so all in the context of recent controversy and so on. Half of these controversies begin with false assumption. The assumption is that because you are in the same party you must have identical worldviews. We don’t; what is there to hide about it? Prashant Bhushan comes with one conviction, I come from a different conviction, Arvind Kejriwal, Gopal Rai, Sanjay (Singh), name anyone of us, (we) come from very different ideological streams with different convictions, very different languages and vocabulary of politics.
What is amazing is not that we retain a bit of those convictions; what is amazing is that in the course of one year, we have come to share a certain basic political programme which we go by. And that political programme is evolving, that programme refuses to typecast itself into standard ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. It looks at specific situations and it actually is into attaining our objective. So in a way of saying, you could say problem solving, responding to specific situations, looking at evidence and trying to say which is the best way forward. That is our ideology.
What are the plans to play a bigger role in the national stage?
I wouldn’t claim that we have very elaborate plans. The fact is that the situation is changing very rapidly. And we are trying to respond as best as we can to a changing situation and try to shape it somewhat. In retrospect, in Delhi, we look wiser than what we may have been. We are newcomers who are trying to respond to a given situation.
In the national scenario, suddenly Delhi has catapulted us to a level we were not placed before, where we had not planned to be and for which we were not prepared. I have no hesitation in admitting all this. After the formation of government, we have ended up being at a much higher level than before.
So, the first thing in our plan is to assess very, very honestly, brutally and frankly, about where we are. Newspaper headlines and polls may give us a certain high but I wouldn’t just go by that. So, the step one is to have a realistic estimate of where we stand (not only) in Delhi but outside of Delhi in different parts of the country.
Step two is to allow for mechanisms for inducting this additional energy that we have suddenly been gifted with. There is an upsurge in the country, people want to join us, they are calling us from all possible sources trying to contact us. How do we induct this energy into the party, that’s our second challenge. So, step two is (to) find ways of inducting it and that is why we have devised this very large and ambitious programme of Main Bhi Aam Aadmi, which is to connect to and enrol very large number of Indians all over the country into the party.
Step three, then, is to find the leaders. We are not confining ourselves only to the party, the party’s structure or the party’s pre-existing leaders. To expand, we need to find new leaders, we need to find new talent in society which is lying there, which may not have connected with us. We really need to devise mechanisms through which we do not become a party with closed doors.
So that our workers and our leaders do not develop a typical railway compartment mentality, which is that you close the door as soon as you enter. So, we need to evolve mechanisms, which is what we are evolving right now. Having done all this, then we have a realistic estimate of where we pitch ourselves. Are we going to do very few selective seats, or are we going for all the seats or something in between. We have not yet made up our minds. We do believe that we are aiming for something higher than what we were a month ago but we can’t exactly say how much and where.
You have observed Indian politics for a long time now. What do you think are the limitations of a party like the one-year-old AAP which wants to scale up?
There are lots and lots of challenges and politics is such a difficult business. I was aware of that but I must say that I am far more acutely conscious of the difficulties of what it means to do politics today than I had a year ago.
First of all, we have a strange problem. There are parties which have leaders but don’t have supporters. We are a party which has a vast pool of potential support and sympathy but we actually do not have ready-made leaders at local level. So strangely, it is a party which is searching for local talents, local leadership.
There is, of course, lots of leadership which is available and that is our second challenge. So, on the one hand we have to search for talent, leaders, people who can organize, who are natural leaders of society and who share that ethical core, those principles, that we believe in.
Secondly, we also have the challenge of filtering a lot of muck that has come our way. When you face this kind of flood, flood carries with it water, it also carries a lot of junk with it. So, how do we filter that junk out? At the moment, when our stock appears to be high, all kinds of elements driven purely by ambition and others would come our way. They do not necessarily share our ideology, they do not share the goals that we want to work towards. So, how do we weed them out? That’s our second challenge.
Third challenge is how do we evolve a policy programme. Given that we come from very different directions, we have worked out some shared tenets but within those shared convictions, how exactly do we translate that into something like a national manifesto, which is a major step for a party to be taken? And how does that manifesto or how does that platform speak to the very diverse social groups which have come out to support us? We are not a party of any one section of the society, we are a party which has had a cross-sectional support cutting across classes, cutting across social groups, so how do we mediate between competing claims of these sections, that is our challenge.
And how do we so rapidly create an organizational structures in such a short span of time, that is a challenge. Honesty, all I can think of are endless challenges right now. The one thing that strikes me almost everyday is how big is the opportunity and how small are we. Those set of individuals who happen to be located at the eye of the opportunity, how small we are in terms of our understanding, in terms of our vision, in terms of our heart. So all of us need to become bigger than we are.
What do you think will be some of the biggest issues in the 2014 Lok Sabha election?
More than specific issues, I think 2014 is about what kind of political change that we want to see in India. Political change, people do want because after the 10 years incumbency of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance), there is not just disquiet, there is not just anti-incumbency, there is a deep sense of disgust with the regime that governs.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Congress ends up with the worst score in its history. So there is a deep disgust (against the incumbent regime) and desire for change. But what kind of change is the big question of 2014.
On the one hand, we have change as substitute. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the main opposition, a very large party in the country, represents substitution, which is to say the regime remains, the establishment remains the same in terms of its orientation and ideology, but the face gets changed. A few symbolic things change and a certain set of specific policies also change. But in overall terms, it is the same political establishment which continues to rule.
The other option is change as alternative and I like to believe—you could say I am biased, yes I am—I would like to believe that AAP represents an alternative.
So the real question is, like it was in Delhi, in Rajasthan people did not have a choice. In Rajasthan, it was existing regime versus the substitute. People opted for the substitute. In Delhi, they had a substitute versus an alternative and we got a somewhat unclear verdict. But the alternative got votes in ways which no one expected.
At the national level, once we have that option posed, how would that be responded to... issues then will follow from this. If you follow substitute then you have one set of issues, if you go for alternative, you have another set of issues. But to me, this big choice will determine the outcome of 2014.
Since you talked about the Congress and the BJP, do you think the emergence of AAP has somewhere taken the sheen out of the election campaign of BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi?
You could say that going by at least by the media response. Through the latter half of 2013, Modi appeared to be going up and up and suddenly you notice that in the last six weeks, he has been kind of eclipsed, shall we say. That is certainly not what we wanted, which is to say that is not what the Aam Aadmi Party was targeting, unlike the Congress, which was very much interested in attacking Modi. Congress thought that the best way to tackle this rise of the BJP was to attack Modi. The trouble, of course, is that the Congress had no track record to be able to do so. The more they attacked Modi, the bigger he became.
Aam Aadmi Party did nothing of that kind. We simply projected our alternative, we went ahead with our choices, we did what we had to do and the consequences are there for everyone to see. So, clearly you cannot erase a small line, as they say.
Did you feel a very strong need at any point within the party to have a clear public stance on some of the important national issues?
Not just now, we felt this need right from the beginning and we have been trying to address it from day one. The party was formed in November and in the month of January last year, we had a three-day brainstorming about all the issues, which was followed by forming 31 committees which had some of the best intellectuals, academics, experts, activists in those committees who came together, who gave an opinion and guided the party about those things, which has helped the party develop an understanding which has not yet been translated into a formal document. But we have debated it quite extensively, be it agriculture or foreign policy or all the controversial questions of our times. We have spent a lot of time discussing these things. Mercifully, the media was not paying any attention to us when we were doing it and that gave us the space to be able to do that in a relaxed way.
It also happens that only one set of things that we say and do get noticed by the media. So, when we gave our detailed response to the budget last year, for example, no one noticed us. When we speak about Muzaffarnagar no one notices what we say, when we spoke about Article 377 no one notices what we say, when we speak about Ishrat Jahan (no one notices it).
So at the end of it, everyone comes and says but you people talk only about corruption. The trouble is we talk about other things and people don’t notice us.
So, we have developed many of these things and we are taking further steps. No doubt we need to do much more and as and when we sit down to set out these things, there will be many things to be ironed out. But we are not exactly where everyone thinks we are, namely that we only share anti-corruption (views) and we have not discussed anything else. That was about a year and a half ago; we have moved on.