An Alternative Swaraj

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AAP is determined to expand its political base by fighting the Punjab assembly elections. But it faces a challenge in the form of Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, who have hinted at plans to form a new party to take on AAP.BY GAURAV VIVEK BHATNAGAR

When the Aam Aadmi Party surprised everyone by winning 28 of the 70 Assembly seats in the 2013 Delhi elections, the common grouse in the Congress and the BJP was that they had not anticipated its rise and had therefore not targeted the party and its candidates adequately. Though subsequently in the 2015 polls both the national parties targeted AAP, it was too late. Arvind Kejriwal’s outfit returned to power with a thumping majority securing 67 seats, as this time even the Dalits and Muslims had realised it was a force to reckon with and could provide an alternative to the two traditional rivals.

However, soon after that victory, Aam Aadmi Party began disintegrating. It expelled two of its stalwarts and founder members, advocate Prashant Bhushan and social scientist and psephologist Yogendra Yadav, leading to a split in the party which saw many of its state leaders, especially in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab also moving away. The dissident group subsequently formed Swaraj Abhiyan in April 2015 and recently announced its decision to form a political party to carry forward the unfinished agenda, which it claims, had originally led to the formation of AAP.

This new formation probably poses the biggest threat to AAP as it seeks newer pastures in Punjab and Goa, which are headed into Assembly elections in 2017. The threat lies in as much as both the formations eyeing more or less the same vote bank as the ability of Bhushan and Yadav to expose the widening chasm between the promises and utterances of the AAP leaders and their plans and actions.

A case in point is how Swaraj Abhiyan has got after AAP over its liquor policy in Delhi, forcing Kejriwal to do a volte-face on the issue. Bhushan recently accused Kejriwal of adopting an ‘anti-people’ liquor policy. The party pointed out that 58 wine shops had opened up in Delhi ever since the AAP government came to power. Moreover, it charged that even where residents had protested against the opening of these shops in their neighbourhood, AAP had not listened to the protests and gone ahead with the opening of the shops.

When the Kejriwal government insisted that under the new excise policy, no new liquor shop would come up, except in malls, in the current financial year and that Mohalla Sabhas – a group of residents of roughly a thousand households -- will be empowered to shut these if they were found to be causing a “nuisance”, Bhushan was quick to ask: “What is the legal sanction behind the CM’s declaration about the role of Mohalla Sabhas in closure of existing liquor shops.”

AAP will be hoping that it does not have to contend with another opponent in the state, especially one who not too long ago was one of its own

Knowing the constitution of AAP inside out, he claimed that the Kejriwal regime had not passed the Swaraj bill which would have given legal sanctity to the Mohalla Sabhas. In the same breath, he also questioned the logic behind a one year moratorium on opening of new vends and questioned if the exercise would be resumed after the civic polls in Delhi and the Assembly polls in Punjab.

The fight of the Swaraj Abhiyan did not end with the exchange of words alone. As if imitating the style of AAP, its leaders and activists have now started organising “Jan Sunvai” (People’s hearing) in several parts of the city on the issue. This should be of concern to AAP as it threatens to eat into its very base in slums, unauthorised colonies and resettlement areas from where the party had arisen.

The by-elections to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi earlier this year had also shown that both the Congress and BJP are gradually finding their footing in their strongholds. They had won 5 and 3 seats respectively, while AAP had also bagged 5. But as Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken pointed out, AAP’s performance was not up to the mark as nine of the wards which had gone to polls were represented by members who had joined the AAP. The elections showed that AAP’s popularity in Delhi was not secular for all formats of polls.

But the true test of the party lies in Punjab, where it had sprung a big surprise by bagging four of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and forced its way into Parliament at a time when Modi was riding a wave. This time, the party believes that it will sweep the polls in Punjab and has been citing a C-Voter survey of early 2016 to state that it could even bag 100 of the 117 Assembly seats.

No wonder, Congress, BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal now acknowledge that AAP is a force to contend with and have been constantly targeting it through court cases, police complaints and media campaigns. At such a juncture, the entry of Swaraj Abhiyan on the scene is only expected to queer this pitch.

In late July, Swaraj Abhiyan had announced the constitution of a 6-member committee to build a full-fledged party by October 2. Yadav and Bhushan had declared that the new party will offer “alternative politics”. It is worth noting that in the past few months, pressure had been increasing within Swaraj Abhiyan for taking the political plunge in Punjab. In May this year, a section of its leadership in Punjab led by Professor Manjit Singh and supported by two AAP rebel MPs, Dr Dharamvir Gandhi and Harinder Singh Khalsa, had even announced the formation of a regional political outfit, the Swaraj Party.

Though the central leadership of Swaraj Abhiyan distanced itself from the new formation, and its national spokesperson Anupam stated that since the decision was not taken in accordance with the due process laid down by Abhiyan, it was “unable to own or endorse it”, the parent organisation wished the new outfit well.

However, the presence of both Gandhi and Khalsa at the national convention of Swaraj Abhiyan where the decision to announce a new party was floated, showed that the core of the Abhiyan remained intact in Punjab and it could pose a formidable threat to AAP in the state.

The central leadership of Abhiyan also realised that an overwhelming number of members were in favour of forming a political party when at the first national delegate convention in Delhi in July, nearly 92.5 percent of them voted in favour of forming a party and entering electoral politics, especially now that it had constituted duly-elected committees in 114 districts and seven states of the country.

But Yadav in an interview to The Wire insisted that Swaraj Abhiyan would only move one step at a time. He said it had in its founding document stated that “we are in politics and our aim is to establish an alternative political force.”

But, for forming a party, he said the party needed to create a minimum critical mass. Stating that the new party to be floated by Swaraj Abhiyan, whose name is yet to be decided, would not be centralised, nor run by a Delhi darbar or high command, Yadav said it would have a genuinely federal political structure.

On the question of its fighting the Assembly elections in Punjab, Yadav said if Swaraj Abhiyan is forming a political party, it “does not mean that we can jump in and contest every election that comes thereafter or to contest every single seat. We have to look at it in the long term. We are not a party in a hurry. It would not make any sense to get into a large state without adequate preparation. Electoral intervention makes sense if you have some base and if you are seen not merely to be good people but also as competent, effective people.”

Summary

  • AAP faces a potential challenge in Punjab in the form of the Swaraj Party comprising former AAP members
  • Swaraj is in no apparent hurry, seeking to build critical mass and offer genuine alternative politics
  • Swaraj believes that more important than contesting elections is the need to be competent and effective
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