EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
To what do you attribute this spectacular success of your political party, especially the fact that you did not have any politician in your ranks and it was truly an aam aadmi effort?
It is important to remember what this success is and what it is not. In numeric terms, we were merely the runner-up in Delhi. We had only 28 of 70 seats and just below 30 percent votes, which by itself is not spectacular. To be absolutely honest, our performance is a little lower than what I had expected, but what makes it spectacular is that it’s a moral victory and a political breakthrough. It is a moral victory because when people thought the right kind of things — white money, politics without caste-criminality- communalism — cannot win, AAP has succeeded. When people thought ordinary people have no chance in politics, AAP has succeeded. It is a political breakthrough, therefore, for a new kind of politics, for alternative politics.
What brought this about, above all, is the aspirations of the people. I wish to say emphatically that it is not a success of AAP as a political organisation. We were and we are a small organisation with fairly limited capacities, a limited number of persons — with very high spirits — but with little resources. The people in Delhi wanted a change. They did not want merely a substitute. They were looking for an alternative and we did a few things that brought us onto the radar. The people were looking for something and we managed to place ourselves in front of their eyes. They picked us up and they gave us this great opportunity. In a sense, we became instruments. In Sanskrit, there is a nice word, nimitta. We were just nimitta maatra (only a medium) of this change. We are not agents of this transformation.
You party is now very upbeat about its prospects at the Lok Sabha election. How much do you think your success in Delhi has prepared you for the plunge at the national level and how different would the national battle be from what you have experienced in Delhi?
The situation at the national level is in some ways the Delhi situation writ large, in the sense that the political opportunity is huge and our organisational capacity is truly very small and tiny. The political opportunity is big because ever since the results in Delhi came out, and especially after we formed the government, the response of the people has sort of bordered on the euphoric. There is a great upsurge from all quarters — Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, interiors of Odisha, villages in Haryana — everywhere there is this astonishing upsurge of interest, excitement and hope. After a very long time, there is hope being associated with politics.
At the same time, our organisational capacity is very inadequate in the face of this opportunity. Our organisation is bigger than what the media thinks it is. We created an organisational structure in 300 districts about a year ago, so we do have a presence. But I have no hesitation in admitting that our party organisation is not capable of handling the kind of upsurge, the kind of flood, deluge, which we are faced with at this moment, and, therefore, we are trying to increase our capacity.
Would the slogan of anti-corruption work as magically as it worked in Delhi or do you think you may need to target different issues — issues in addition to the issue of corruption — in order to get a majority or large numbers of the electorate on your side in different parts of the country, say, Bihar, Gujarat or the Northeast?
No doubt, every part of the country has its unique political situation, topography and political issues. Delhi itself was not purely a corruption issue; it was “corruption plus”. We foregrounded questions of water, electricity, women’s security, health and education. Similarly, for example, corruption itself takes very different forms in Haryana than in Delhi. The moment you go to Haryana, the question of agriculture and farmers’ conditions becomes a very prominent issue. The issue of corruption will undergo transformation from state to state and the “plus” element will change from state to state.
Arvind Kejriwal’s background as a social activist predates his emergence on the political battlefield. You and Prashant Bhushan have, in your own ways, been very connected with civil society and social activism all over India. A large number of activists are worried that the politics of the day, and the fact that you are trying to be an aggregator for the largest number of people possible, will necessarily force you to move to the centre if not to centre-right on many issues. It has been raised that AAP does not have a prescription for institutionalised discrimination, caste-based discrimination. How do you respond?
First of all, I want to emphasise that it is not just the three of us. If you look at other major figures associated with the party, Gopal Rai, Sanjay Singh… a large number of people in our national executive have all been associated with people’s movement in some way or the other. There is no doubt that when issues are raised by a single-issue movement, then they are raised with a certain sharpness because exclusive focus on one issue gives you a certain liberty by which you pose it. The moment you mediate two issues, whether by a political party or a multi-issue movement, they have to be moderated. And the principal task of politics is to mediate competing claims. So, I find nothing strange, odd or objectionable about it. Of course, the very task of politics is that it would need to talk about the interests of the farmers and, at the same time, the interests of the landless labour; of the producer and the consumer; of the working class as well as the industrialist. This is the task of politics and if it looks like a dilution, I would say that is precisely what democratic politics is all about. And why do you dilute? You dilute precisely because you would have a wider reach. A movement puts the issue sharply almost one-sidedly and reaches a very limited number. Democratic politics, mainstream party politics, raises it less sharply but reaches out to a much wider public and leaves a much deeper imprint on policy and politics.
Regardless of the results the Lok Sabha polls might throw up for you, how do you see AAP evolving as a party and as a political movement?
You have used the right expression. It is still a movement. We haven’t quite adjusted ourselves to becoming a party and no more. We are a movement and we continued to have a movement-like character even during elections, and we don’t want to straitjacket ourselves into a party party. The stages of the evolution of the party are: a greater clarity and greater consensus on some of the key policy issues; a question of training of volunteers based on the party’s ideologies, the party’s own convictions; the challenge of taking the party beyond Delhi and demonstrating that the party can be viable in a rural setting; and a challenge of creating a middle-rung leadership of a kind that is qualitative and different from the rest. So, at the moment, honestly, all I can see are challenges and challenges and challenges.
A lot has been written that there is too much anger in AAP. There is a question of tonality. There are accusations that people of AAP speak as if they know everything, they have great self-righteousness. Is there enough humility in AAP? Do you think you have all the answers already or you will find them as you go along?
When a movement comes to mainstream politics, it brings the energy and anger of the movement. Anger and energy are in some ways connected. I can very easily now step back and say, well, we shouldn’t have been harsh. I personally feel we shouldn’t have been harsh on a couple of occasions that we were. But then, am I sure that without that harshness, without that energy, we would have broken through the very high entry barrier of politics? So I don’t want to be hypocritical and take the easy way out because my own tone happens to be a more moderate tone. I can’t take benefit from that harshness and then run away from the consequences. Yes, we need to learn a lot. Especially now that we are in government, we have a lot to learn. A lack of experience is occasionally a strength, but by and large it is a challenge, it is a weakness, it is something where we need to learn more.
You talked about moderating different positions. But do you see any conflict between positions for the people’s movements, the dispossessed, and the middle-class agenda that necessarily has to be adopted and taken forward?
There is always some degree of conflict between the voices raised by two different sections of society. In the case of Adivasis and Dalits, there is a conflict between Adivasi issues and Dalit issues. There is a conflict between farmers and landless workers, there is a conflict between concerns of dispossessed rural Indians and the metropolitan middle classes. The task of politics is not to accentuate these differences; it’s to try and find a ground where these can be articulated in a way that it becomes a shared concern. I refuse to believe that middle-class Indians cannot think about rural India or middle-class Indians are not ashamed of poverty, that they do not want to live in a country where millions of Indians do not go hungry.
Why do you think the Left movements and parties have failed in this country?
It would be unfair to simply say they have failed. We don’t know what would happen to our movement a hundred years from now and history can be more cruel to us than it has been on others. So, it is very easy for a toddler to say that someone who is 70 years old has failed. My sense is that movements perform their own role at a given point in history. And very often, they stop being as energetic at some point. And then the baton has to be taken over by someone else. This is how history moves forward, when persons and movements become irrelevant. I really do not know how history will judge small people like us even 20 years from now.