ON THE EVENING of 31 August, minutes after a sex video clip of Delhi’s Women and Child Development Minister Sandeep Kumar with a woman surfaced, and was aired by news channels, an emer- gency meeting was called at Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s residence. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, party spokesperson Ashutosh, senior party leader Sanjay Singh and a few other ministers were present. Sources say some of them—including Ashutosh—were initially not in favour of dropping the minister and suggested setting up an inquiry. But as the meeting progressed, most were of the view that sacking him would let the party claim the high ground in the controversy. Within half an hour, Kejriwal announced Sandeep Kumar’s removal from the Cabinet. The next day, Kejriwal released a video message justifying Kumar’s suspension and took a dig at other parties that try to hide such incidents. Despite all this, the clip gave more ammunition to opposition parties such as BJP and Congress, which took to the streets in Delhi. While all this was going on, Ashutosh’s column on NDTV’s website added fuel to the fire. He compared Kumar with Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Vajpayee, saying there was nothing wrong in consensual sex between two adults.
With one skeleton after another tumbling out of its closet in quick succession, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) faces its biggest image crisis ever. After an emphatic victory in Delhi in 2015, the party had set its eyes on states like Punjab, Gujarat and Goa. But the current turmoil and interference in state affairs by Kejriwal and his team has irked party cadres across these states. What once looked like a party with a bright future is today struggling to keep its flock together, marred by new allegations every day.
“Had it been any other party, such incidents would not have mattered much,” says Sanjay Kumar, professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi. “But since it is AAP, things which are becoming public knowledge are not acceptable to anyone. Indeed this could be the worst phase for a party which always talked of an alternative politics.”
Anand Kumar, retired professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former AAP leader, considers it a crisis of its own success. “The people of Delhi were so desperate for an alternative politics that they gave an absolute majority and thus absolute power to AAP,” he says. “So much faith of the people can either make you a monk or a monster. AAP chose the latter.” Within a few months of Delhi’s new government taking office, AAP had its first big embarrassment in the form of its Law Minister Jitender Singh Tomar, who was arrested in June 2015 for his fake law degree. Rather than taking corrective measures, Kejriwal and party alleged the Central Government was trying to unsettle them. But once Tomar accepted his wrongdoings, Kejriwal sacked him from his cabinet.
There was worse to come. The same month, a case was filed against party MLA and former law minister Somnath Bharti by his wife Lipika Mitra, for domestic violence and attempt to murder. The party blamed Lipika, accusing her for working at the behest of BJP leaders to embarrass AAP. Bharti played hide-and-seek till September 2015. But once the Supreme Court ordered his arrest, Kejriwal retreated from his earlier position and advised Bharti to surrender. He went on to say that Bharti was an embarrassment for the party. “This is one big difference between Narendra Modi and Kejriwal,” says Deepak Khosla, Bharti’s lawyer. “While Modi stands by his loyalists through thick and thin, Kejriwal discards them too quickly.”
That’s not true, says AAP spokesman Dilip Pandey. “The difference between Modi and Kejriwal is that while Modi protects perpetrators, Kejriwal takes action the moment he comes to know about wrongdoing of any party member, be it a minister or a small leader.” He adds: “Time and again we have proven that we follow a zero-tolerance policy on corruption and other criminal activities.”
For all his failures, Kejriwal and company have continually blamed only two people: Prime Minister Modi and Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung
But quick action in itself doesn’t prove the party’s integrity. There are also incidents to show that the party uses ‘corruption’ charges as a weapon against those who don’t toe the line of its central leadership, which includes Kejriwal and his core team of half- a-dozen loyalists. Dr Daljit Singh, a Padma awardee and renowned eye specialist of Punjab, is one such victim. “Kejriwal, Sanjay Singh and others came to me several times and requested me to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Amritsar in 2014. Initially I refused, but after repeated requests I agreed,” he says. Dr Singh stood third with a decent tally of over 80,000 votes. He was later made the disciplinary committee chairman of AAP Punjab. In July last year, at an executive committee meeting of the state unit, objections were raised against the appointment of Sucha Singh Chhotepur as the party convener of the state. “That was not my own opinion, that was what the executive committee expressed unanimously,” says Dr Singh. But the central committee of AAP sacked Dr Singh within a week. “I am a doctor with no interest in politics. First they forced me and then they humiliated me,” he says. The party denies his allegations. Says Ashish Khetan, who heads the committee that expelled him, “He was found involved in anti-party activity and the entire Punjab unit was against him.” Ironically, on 26 August, AAP sacked Chhotepur as Punjab convenor on charges of selling party tickets for the state’s upcoming polls.
There are others as well who blame the dictatorship of Kejriwal for the downfall of the party. “From an ‘aam aadmi’ party, it has become the party of one man with supreme power and a team of sycophants,” says Anand Kumar, who was ejected along with Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan in April 2015, two months after the formation of AAP’s government in Delhi. “Kejriwal has now become a strange combination of ambition and deep insecurity,” says Kumar.
In a mere one-and-a-half years of AAP being in power in Delhi, more than 12 MLAs of the party have been arrested on charges varying from assault to molestation and attempt to murder. Apart from that, three cabinet ministers have been shown the exit on charges of corruption, fake qualifications and now, in the latest case, rape. Last October, Delhi’s food and environment minister, Asim Ahmed Khan, was sacked by Kejriwal over an audio tape in which Khan asked a builder for Rs 6 lakh as a bribe.
When AAP came to power, a vocal Kejriwal promised from the ramparts of the Ramlila Maidan that the party would make Delhi a role model of good governance and development. In March 2015, he said in Bangalore, “I fight a lot with my party members when people say, ‘We have won Delhi, we can win elsewhere too’. I am not Napoleon who has entered [the arena] to win. I want to change the system.” A year later, he seems to be playing a different game. Rather than focusing on Delhi, he has been visiting election- bound states to consolidate his party’s position. “Of course he is ambitious,” says Sanjay Kumar, “That’s why, if you notice, he targets Modi and not BJP.”
Kejriwal doesn’t meet people now, except a few of his team and some officials. Many workers who once took pride in their leader now say they feel dejected
Kejriwal has identified a leadership vacuum in the opposition against Modi, and wants to present himself as a national level contender for power in 2019. For that, AAP needs to strengthen its position in states headed for Assembly polls. “Is there anything wrong if the party president or our tallest leader goes to campaign in other states?” asks Pandey. No, there is nothing wrong in that, but the confusion is: Kejriwal wants to be both a street fighter and an administrator. In Delhi, he has handed over the reins to his deputy, Manish Sisodia, and doesn’t hold direct charge of any department. But even without any portfolio, he is top boss and Chief Minister both.
Just after coming to power, Kejriwal held a series of Janata Darbaars. But after one or two such public meetings, he abandoned the idea. He doesn’t meet people now, except a few of his team and some officials. Many workers who once took pride in their leader now say they feel dejected.
On the afternoon of 6 September, the AAP office at 206 Rouse Avenue in Delhi is abuzz with activity. The crowd is full of ticket- seekers from Punjab, activists and workers from Delhi. Those from Punjab are waiting to pitch themselves to Sanjay Singh, who is now in charge of the state. Some from Delhi, like 31-year-old Vikas Nahar from Janakpuri, are only here to meet senior leaders. “As a worker, I face the biggest challenge,” says Nahar. “With so many unsavoury incidents in the recent past, no one likes to talk to us. The party leadership doesn’t meet us. Where should we go?” He met some leaders a week ago and requested them to shut a newly opened liquor shop in Janakpuri, but nothing has changed.
Women in the party seem especially disgruntled. Swati Maliwal, chairperson of Delhi Commission for Women appointed by the AAP government, is not happy with the recent events. “I believe those in public life should have a clean private life. Despite being a Women and Child Development minister, Sandeep Kumar sexually exploited women,” she says, “This is a big crime and he should be given maximum punishment.”
Rajgiri, a 65-year-old resident of Pradeep Vihar, Burari, was once an ardent fan of Kejriwal and AAP. She is now fighting a different battle. A liquor shop has come up at the gate of her colony. “This new shop is creating a nuisance in our daily life. Now we need to come to the market before noon. Even older women are not safe here,” she laments. She says she regrets voting for AAP. “I thought [Kejriwal] would do some good work, but he has created hell by opening liquor shops at our doorstep.”
Former AAP leader Yogendra Yadav, who now runs the political organisation Swaraj Abhiyan, says that around 400 new liquor licences have been awarded so far. “The average comes to around one shop per working day of the Kejriwal government. There is a provision that residents should be asked before opening a liquor shop in the area, but no rule has been followed.” Jyoti, a school girl, also expresses concern over the liquor store in Burari. “Delhi is already unsafe for girls,” she says, “By opening more liquor shops, it has become worse.”
FOR ALL HIS failures, Kejriwal and company have continually blamed only two people: Prime Minister Modi and Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung. “He takes cover for his non-performance by blaming others,” says Anand Kumar. “He doesn’t realise that his honeymoon with the media and middle-class is over.” In June this year, when traders in Ghazipur area complained against Sisodia’s ill-treatment of them, a dramatic Sisodia led 58 AAP MLAs to the Prime Minister’s residence, demanding that they be arrested. A day before that, AAP MLA Dinesh Mohania was arrested on sexual harassment charges. Still, AAP keeps playing the victim card. “Several bills were passed by our government and sent to the Lieutenant Governor, but he has returned all of them saying the right procedures were not followed. Isn’t it vendetta politics?” asks Khetan.
The promise of opening 500 new schools seems to have remained just a promise. The same applies to offering homes to the poor and making Delhi a free wi-fi city. Discord within the party and a non-performing government, say observers, will certainly affect the national ambitions of Kejriwal negatively.
The party is still widely favoured in Punjab, where it won four Lok Sabha seats in 2014. However, recent events have thrown the party on the backfoot even there. “Had (Navjot Singh) Sidhu joined us, it would have been different,” says a senior AAP leader from Punjab. Instead, Sidhu, who quit the BJP, has launched his own party, Awaaz-e-Punjab, which expects to attract ex-AAP members. “Now with Chhotepur’s removal, many workers are annoyed,” adds the AAP leader from Punjab. On 5 September, 86 office bearers of the state unit quit in protest against the convenor’s sacking. Sanjay Singh, however, says he is confident of winning the state. “We will get more than 100 of Punjab’s 117 seats. All these fronts are just to help Akali Dal and BJP by taking away some votes,” he says.
Dissent in the state is so wide and deep that Kejriwal, on returning recently from Italy, headed straight to Punjab to quell it. “When I took charge of Punjab, there was no organisation,” claims Sanjay Singh. “After our hard work, we have been able to achieve a lead in the state. Now those who are not happy are making all sorts of allegations without any proof. It does not rattle me.”
Observers, though, can sense AAP lose its stride. “The more dirt that comes out, the worse it will be for AAP and Kejriwal to change the undercurrents,” says Sanjay Kumar of CSDS. “Those who voted for AAP are certainly disappointed, but rather than looking for a new one, they will go with existing parties.”
The alternative called AAP has failed to impress. There might be some charisma left in Arvind Kejriwal in places far away from Delhi, but that is also fading. The leader who started with a movement to change the politics of the country has given it up for arrogance. Perhaps he can still recover and reclaim his moral posture. But for that, he may have to give up chief ministership of Delhi and play party builder instead.