Factional squabbles

Read the controversial emails by Prashant Bhushan's sister that pushed AAP to breaking point

In January, Shalini Gupta tacitly asked NRI backers to halt party funding because she claimed that Kejriwal was backing dubious candidates for the Delhi polls.

The war in the Aam Aadmi Party spilled out in the open last week but the relationship between the two squabbling factions of Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan-Yogendra Yadav had reached a breaking point early in January. Tensions were held in check only because a showdown would have marred the fledgling formation’s chances in the Delhi state elections in February.

This strain had been caused by two emails sent by senior leader Prashant Bhushan’s US-based sister, Shalini Gupta, to members of the AAP Global Group, which consists of 700-800 NRI contacts of the party. In the messages, Gupta tacitly discouraged members from donating money to the AAP’s war-chest on the grounds that Kejriwal had fielded corrupt candidates in the Delhi assembly elections.

Her emails sent shockwaves through the party higher echelons, not only not because she is Bhushan’s sister but also because her calling card described her as the Coordinator AAP Global Supporters and Organisation Development Advisor.

Her emails demonstrate that she was not willing to wait for the verdict of the AAP Lokpal, Admiral (retd) L Ramdas, on the suitability of 12 nominations that were being challenged. AAP’s ombudsman is supposed to be the final arbiter of complaints made by members of the National Executive, which has representatives from different states. On January 4, a committee had been constituted to assist Admiral Ramdas determine whether the complaints about the 12 candidates had any merit. Yet emails sent by Gupta on January 5 and January 6 show she had already made up her mind that Kejriwal was guilty of violating party norms by choosing dubious candidates.

Confusion in the ranks

More significantly, her intervention had come at the time the NRI supporters of AAP were keen to donate money or even groups of them financially adopting specific constituencies in Delhi. At least two NRIs responded to Gupta messages, saying they were confused and wondered whether it was indeed the appropriate time to stoke the controversy over the choice of candidates.

It was Gupta’s mail that convinced some of the AAP leaders that the Bhushan family was attempting to undermine the party’s poll prospects, in the hope of getting the better of the rival faction. For long, this group had ignored the barbs periodically thrown at Kejriwal by AAP founder-member Shanti Bhushan, Prashant and Shalini’s father. They were willing to believe that he was a mercurial old man. However, they couldn’t but see an insidious design in Gupta’s crisp description of the divide in AAP in the email to the party’s global supporters.

This chain of emails, which was sent to this writer by an NRI volunteer, demonstrates that the factional war in AAP had already acquired a destructive intensity in early January. Below are extracts from Gupta’s emails, and also some responses to her. They have been reproduced here without changes.

Gupta’s email of January 6 opens with these candid lines:
“Since all of you are important stakeholders in the party, donating your time and money some straight talk is warranted. Here is my perspective. You will get a different answer to your question depending on who you talk to.”

She went out to outline the divisions as she saw them. She wrote,
“One camp believes that in this game of politics if we have to pick some candidates and employ some techniques that other political parties do. Also the benchmark that arvind is using is even if these candidates have recently been inducted from other political, parties and we all know their reputation, source of disproportionate assets etc, or that they have used money and muscle to win previous elections, they are ok as AAP candidates as long as there is no concrete proof of any wrongdoing that would be evidence in court.”

Gupta goes on to describe the politics of the rival camp. She writes,
“The other camp of leaders believe that even if there is no concrete proof, if they have an unsavory reputation as local thugs, have disproportionate assets and illegal professions, and have used wrong means to win previous elections they do not come up to the standards of AAP candidate and we cannot expect them to work in public interest if they win.  Many such people have a setting with the police and do not allow FIRs to be registered against them.  So to use proof as a standard is not enough for AAP.  These are career politicians just out to make money.  Moreover to fight the election with such candidates is political suicide.”

Gupta did not name the leaders of the “other camp.” However, in an email of January 5, she praised her brother for mounting pressure on AAP for demanding that the AAP Lokpal scrutinise the credentials of “some candidates”. She wrote, “This negotiation has happened because of very strong push by a group of leaders led by Prashant Bhushan who did not want to see the party ideology of clean politics thrown by the wayside.”

Confused reactions

Her email confused and irritated at least two NRIs. One, Motika Anand wrote, in a mail dated January 6,
“I wanted to finalise adopting a constituency as there might not be enough time for elections. I want to see AAP winning the elections and at this point I want to canvass for AAP not a particular candidate. This needs to be cleared up as to what is going on? Whether we focus on candidates or AAP as a whole?”

Another, Atul Anand, referred to the fact that Gupta did not spell out the precise number of candidates under the Lokpal’s scrutiny. He wrote,
“Imho these complaints, dont know how many seats we are talking about, should have been reviewed before announcing candidates. We will be made a laughing stock for these ticket cancellations which media/bjp will only gleefully grab as another uturn [U-turn] by AAP.”

It is debatable how many of the recipients of Gupta’s emails knew of her relationship to Prashant and Shanti Bhushan. On March 3, a good fortnight after the AAP had formed the Delhi government, one Jay Chatterjee wrote to Gupta, “Is that true that you are the same Shalini Gupta who is the daughter of Shanti Bhusan? If that’s true then you should step down as NRI coordinator and get elected through a pre-declared, transparent and due process.” This email triggered a debate among AAP’s NRI supporters, many of whom though commended her for working diligently in the past.

Resignation submitted

On March 4, Gupta sent out another email, asking to be relieved of the “responsibility to coordinate the Global NRI team”. By this time, the National Executive of the party had voted to drop Prashant Bhushan and Yadav from the party’s apex decision-making body, the Political Affairs Committee.

Gupta may have been justified in expressing her concerns about the choice of candidates, but as AAP’s NRI Coordinator she should have been circumspect in writing mails that discouraged potential donors. AAP’s Delhi unit believes she should have waited for the Lokpal’s verdict before echoing her brother’s opinion on the credentials of candidates.

The battle over shortlisted candidates had started in November, with verbal jousts in the Political Affairs Committee each time a slew of names was to be cleared. Prashant Bhushan questioned the credentials of several candidates, arguing, as Gupta did in her emails, that they didn’t have good reputations in their constituencies. An exasperated Kejriwal reportedly shouted at Bhushan in one meeting in November, “You can’t go around distributing certificates of honesty to candidates. You have to furnish evidence.”

Even as the two leaders battled out, the party’s Delhi Complaints Committee, which examines objections filed against candidates, worked overtime to reconcile differences over names. Initially, there was a list of 19 names over which the rival factions disagreed vehemently. This was whittled down to 12. Among them, Bhushan was particularly adamant on not fielding Amanatullah Khan from Okhla.

Ultimately, on the night of Jan 4, it was decided to refer the names of 12 candidates to the Lokpal, Admiral L Ramdas.  A committee of seven members, acceptable to both the warring factions, was constituted to assist Ramdas. Both factions also agreed to abide by the Lokpal’s verdict. Six of the seven members were from outside Delhi. The committee sent teams of volunteers, the majority of whom were not from Delhi, to all the 12 constituencies, to talk to a large number of people and carry out an investigation.

Admiral Ramdas stayed in Delhi from January 13 to the night of January 17. He sought field reports, and all the 12 contentious candidates appeared before the committee to be cross-examined. In addition, both Prashant and Yogendra Yadav made verbal presentations before the committee. Eventually, Admiral Ramdas recommended the substituting of only two of the 12 candidates.

Binding verdict

Since the Lokpal’s verdict was binding on the warring factions, AAP leaders believed they could proceed with the election campaign without any distractions. Their hopes were dashed barely a fortnight before February 7, when Shanti Bhushan hailed the decision of Kiran Bedi to join the Bharatiya Janata Party as a “master stroke”. Bedi had worked alongside many AAP leaders in the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement, but had a falling out with them when they decided to turn it into a political party. For good measure, Shanti Bhushan added, “Reorientation within AAP is very much needed…I think everything is not right in the party and it is not being run on lines it was expected to run or what it was established for.”

Both Prashant Bhushan and Yadav immediately expressed their disapproval of Shanti Bhushan’s statement. But other party leaders were no longer willing to look benignly upon Shanti Bhushan’s politically damaging remarks. This was largely because of the evidence they now had of Gupta echoing her brother’s views. They veered around to believing that there was a conspiracy between the Bhushans and Yadav to wreck the party’s chances in the polls and weaken Kejriwal.

The initial indication of the power struggle in AAP came even before the Lok Sabha elections last year when Satya, who was training volunteers, met with Vijay Raman, who was Yadav’s political manager. Raman was looking for a person who could replace him in Yadav’s team because, as he told Satya, his poor health made it impossible for him to continue with the job.

Raman praised Yadav’s political acumen and sagacity and told Satya of Yadav’s resolve to build a strong team around him. Satya said to Scroll.in, “I was surprised when Raman said Kejriwal’s reading and understanding of politics wasn’t good, and that he would be replaced by Yadav.” Satya claimed he kept the conversation to himself for months until he told Kejriwal about it sometime in July. “He said he would confront Yadav, but I dissuaded him saying it is I who should,” said Satya.

Satya had his chance to do so in August, at an IIM alumni association meet in Singapore at which Yadav was also present. “Yadav expressed his shock and said Raman had said such things to others as well, and that it was the reason why he had been removed from his team,” Satya said.

Mounting suspicion

But Raman’s reported remarks fanned the mounting suspicion in the party. In June, Kejriwal had broken down at a National Executive meet in Delhi. “I can fight Modi, I can fight Rahul Gandhi, I can fight Robert Vadra, but I have not come here to fight Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav,” he told the gathering. His emotional outburst resulted in a truce between the leaders.

But at a National Executive meeting of Sangrur in July, Shanti Bhushan reiterated the one-man-one-post principle, declaring that the party had become one-person centric, and had started to resemble the outfits of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav. At this point, Ashish Khetan got up and reminded Shanti Bhushan about the book he had written on the Janata Party in the mid-1970s, in which he had described how Prime Minister Morarji Desai and Home Minister Charan Singh were perpetually conspiring against each other.

Khetan went on to say that there seemed a conspiracy afoot to turn AAP into a clone of Janata Parivar, and that the only way to pre-empt this eventuality was to pass a resolution to revamp the Political Affairs Committee and drop some members from it. At this point, Kejriwal intervened and took the mike away from Khetan.

Many of these incidents were recalled on February 26, at a meeting of the Delhi-based members of the National Executive. There was a veritable slanging match between the two factions and both Prashant Bhushan and Yadav were accused of, willy-nilly, sabotaging AAP’s Delhi election campaign.

But between Feb 26 and March 1, AAP leader Prof Anand Kumar hammered out a compromise formula between Kejriwal and Yadav. In a handwritten note to Kejriwal, Prof Kumar had said that Yadav and Prashant Bhushan would step down from the Political Affairs Committee and, in return, Yadav would get to oversee Haryana. However, this deal fell through on March 1 as Bhushan refused to step down. Perhaps Yadav could have been still placated but the Delhi unit of the party mounted pressure on Kejriwal to not place Haryana under his supervision.

But the volcano erupted at the National Executive meeting on March 4, when a resolution was adoped accusing Yadav and Bhushan of sabotaging AAP’s election campaign. It has widened the chasm in the party, and unless some wise people intervene, AAP seems headed for a split.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist based in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, is available in bookstores around the country.

Clarification: The strapline of this article has been amended to introduce the word "tacitly".

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