It is tempting to interpret the squabbling in the Aam Aadmi Party as a clash of ideas, a manifestation of the battle the purists are waging against the pragmatists. But in politics, even in its most idealistic expression, ideas often are a cloak that conceals the vaulting ambitions of its practitioners, their inherent desire to impose their will on others.

This human tendency has become hellishly complicated in Aam Aadmi Party because its nucleus of leaders were all equals once, but now find one of them, Arvind Kejriwal, soaring above the others, in both clout and prestige. Akin to sibling rivalry, the hostility it has generated is likely to tear apart the band of AAP leaders who were friends.

It is never considered analytically sound to trace the provenance of political battles to the emotions of personalities entangled in it. Yet recall the time Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia and Prashant Bhushan, after hiving off from the Anna Hazare movement, would sit at the home of one among them to prepare, over cups of tea, their battle-plan to challenge the might of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Yogendra Yadav joined them a little later.

In those days, to the outsider, they seemed a group of middle-aged friends, all equals, engaged in animated discussions, as so many do in Delhi’s cafes. Yet there was no mistaking who the moving spirit behind these discussions was. It was undoubtedly Kejriwal, the veritable draughtsman of the political blueprint this faction of the anti-corruption movement was preparing.

Kejriwal was unquestioned

None of them seemed to disapprove of Kejriwal’s status of first-among-equals, which remained his at the inception of AAP at the end of 2012. Perhaps his comrades had other fish to fry, as it was decidedly true of Bhushan, engaged as he was in landmark court cases. Ditto Yogendra Yadav, who within months of AAP being formed went on a protracted teaching assignment to the United States.

It devolved upon Kejriwal to structure AAP, a task assigned to Ashish Talwar, who had won his spurs in the Congress. Then again, it was Kejriwal who went on an indefinite hunger strike in early 2013 to protest against the high power and water bills, and hopped from colony to colony in Delhi disconnecting electricity meters deemed faulty. AAP was inarguably Kejriwal’s creation; he was its face.

This isn’t to say Bhushan didn’t contribute to AAP’s astonishing growth. His and Kejriwal’s disclosures about shocking instances of crony capitalism, beamed live on TV, were akin to free advertisement for the political fledgling. The Bhushans also contributed Rs 1 crore to the campaign kitty of AAP, which was, and still is, strapped for funds. But the hurly-burly of politics was not Bhushan’s preference. In an interview to me in 2013, weeks before Delhi went to the polls, he said as much, “It [politics] is certainly not my cup of tea.”

He went on to list names who he credited for building AAP into a grassroots organisation. Ironically, barring Yogendra Yadav, all of them today are arrayed against Bhushan in AAP’s internecine battle. About his own role in the party’s growth, Bhushan had said, “I do provide legal support and other kinds of support. Whatever advice I can give, I do.”

Growing suspicion

Yet, within months of AAP forming the government in Delhi and quitting it in 49 days in February last year, followed by a severe battering in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the charming camaraderie among its nucleus of leaders turned into debilitating suspicion and destructive hostility.

Perhaps Bhushan wanted his advice to be taken a tad more seriously than before, concluding that Kejriwal’s confidence in his own abilities, and that of AAP volunteers in him, had been undermined. It is possible Bhushan thought Kejriwal was guilty of hubris, as was Anna Hazare, who had come to believe the band around him was helplessly dependent on his charisma for their successes. Might not Bhushan prove Kejriwal wrong as the latter had Anna?

Otherwise it is hard to fathom why Shanti Bhushan, founding member of AAP and Prashant Bhushan’s father, openly expressed his lack of confidence in Kejriwal in August. Regardless of the imperative for holding internal elections, war was deemed to have been declared when Shanti Bhushan said, “He [Kejriwal] is a great campaigner, but in my opinion, he lacks organisational ability. He does not have that kind of competence which can spread the message of the party all over India, which can quickly create all elected structures of the party which nobody will be able to blame.”

Shanti Bhushan’s statement subtly conveyed the existence of two schools of thoughts on what the future priorities of AAP should be.

The dominant school of thought followed the line of Kejriwal, who believed AAP would slip into oblivion if the BJP were to cobble a majority to form government in Delhi. Not only did he want the party to counter this possibility any which way it could, he also wanted it to concentrate its energies and finances to prepare for the Delhi assembly elections, in case it were to become inevitable. Failure to wrest the redoubt of Delhi, or even come a close second, would finish AAP for all time, everywhere.

Haryana election strategy

This implied Kejriwal did not want AAP to contest the assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra, then merely a couple of months away.  It was a line opposed to that of Yogendra Yadav, who hails from Haryana and takes a keen interest in the state's politics. Considering the 2014 Lok Sabha election results in Haryana, it was almost a certainty that AAP’s gains in the assembly polls would at best be incremental, apart from ensuring its activists didn’t scatter away.

But were these gains substantial enough to risk AAP’s prospects in Delhi? No, Kejriwal was insistent. It was almost a foregone conclusion what the decision of AAP’s national executive would be. It was Kejriwal who had built the party; it was his endeavour that had catapulted AAP into popular consciousness; and it was he who was perceived to have the daring to beard Narendra Modi in his den, overnight becoming the mascot of the anti-BJP forces. The national executive members were therefore bound to swing behind Kejriwal – and they did indeed decide against contesting in Haryana and Maharashtra.

Against this backdrop, suspicion began to mount in AAP about Shanti Bhushan’s real intent in questioning Kejriwal’s organisational ability. It was thought, rightly or wrongly, Shanti – and therefore, also Prashant – was batting for Yogendera Yadav to become the party’s national convenor. Kejriwal was content to concentrate on Delhi. Others wanted a piece of action elsewhere. But this wasn’t possible as long as Kejriwal remained the national convenor. It’s a truism of politics that party members tend to rally behind the man in the saddle, not his challengers.

Shanti’s statement was consequently interpreted by the Kejriwal faction, overwhelmingly dominant in AAP, to smell a conspiracy for supplanting him. Whether this was indeed the goal of the Bhushans and Yadav is irrelevant. Politics has actors take decisions based on suspicion, or the likely plans of their rivals. In AAP, too, suspicion fuelled the opposing factions to decode every move, or every statement, for decoding ulterior motives.

Things came to such a pass that a large section in AAP began to believe that Prashant Bhushan and Yadav were keener on their principles, some of which seemed incredibly apolitical, than wresting Delhi back, vital for the party’s very survival.

Thus, for instance, Kejriwal was indeed open to the idea of taking Congress support in July, hoping another stint in government would enable him to consolidate AAP’s support among Delhi’s underclasses, which were in thrall to the party because of its 49 days of governance. But the critics in the party argued this would compromise AAP’s earlier promise of remaining equidistant from the BJP and the Congress, in complete ignorance of the changing political reality.

Focus on BJP

For one, the Congress had been decimated and the BJP was AAP’s principal enemy now. Two, in case AAP didn’t form the government, it was feared the BJP might. In such a scenario, AAP’s comeback would have been postponed for another four years, perhaps too long for a political fledgling to survive it. A recently leaked letter of Bhushan accuses AAP of seeking a clandestine arrangement with the Congress to cobble a majority. There’s now a murmur among Bhushan’s liberal supporters, among whom I too am, asking: Really, does he not think of the BJP as a threat to liberal values?

This was precisely the question AAP activists had asked last year, and never, ever doubting his impeccable secular credentials, veered around to explaining his opposition to an arrangement with the Congress as a ruse to ensure AAP didn’t recover lost ground and, therefore, by extension, Kejriwal as well.

The second round of disagreement between the two factions occurred when the Capital was agog with speculation that five or six of the eight Congress MLAs were planning to support the BJP in its bid to form the government. Posters then appeared in the constituencies of Muslim MLAs warning, “Beware of those who want to betray the community.” This was the handiwork of AAP, which believed only popular pressure could scare the MLAs from supporting the BJP. Both Yadav and Bhushan dubbed the move communal, much to the incomprehension of AAP members, who then looked upon it as the duo’s way of sabotaging the party’s do-or-die battle.

These differences turned sharper at the time AAP began to finalise the list of candidates for the Delhi Assembly elections. In the Political Affairs Committee, Bhushan insisted on verifying the credentials of every candidate and raised objections to many names. He didn’t furnish irrefutable evidence to sustain his charges, which he claimed was bandied about in their constituencies. It might have been a principled stand of the zealous, but it was popularly perceived in AAP as a pretext to delay the announcement of candidates and undercut AAP’s poll preparations.

Holding firm

Ultimately, Bhushan refused to relent on 12 candidates and their names were sent to the party’s ombudsman, Admiral (retd) Laxminarayan Ramdas, for approval. A committee under him vetted the list and recommended the dropping of two of the 12 candidates. It seemed AAP had papered over the differences of opinion and was now prepared to wage the battle for its survival. Yet, to the dismay and anger of AAP’s backroom boys, Yadav would unilaterally cancel jan sabhas in the constituencies of those candidates whose credentials he doubted.

The cruelest cut, however, came days before Delhi went to the polls. Then the irrepressible Shanti Bhushan sent the Capital buzzing with what amounted to his open endorsement of Kiran Bedi. Then he upped the ante by questioning the credentials of 12 candidates, and accusing AAP of diluting its norms it considered vital for pursuing clean politics.

Was this an opportune moment to take a principled stand against the party of which Bhushan was the founding member? Many in AAP suspected it was a ploy to trip the party, thus ensuring that it didn’t register too strong a showing to Kejriwal’s advantage.

From this perspective, the internecine squabbles in the party were seen as a game on the political chessboard. The results of the Delhi elections emboldened the patient PAC elements to checkmate Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. In a stormy meeting last week, the duo was openly accused of working against the party’s interests and indirectly assisting Modi and the BJP.

It was then that the confidential letters were leaked, sharpening the divide even further. Until there is a last-minute pull back from the precipice, through a compromise formula acceptable to the two sides, it does seem Bhushan and Yadav are headed towards the exit. When friends begin to suspect each other, no compromise formula can restore the faith and trust forfeited.

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