Think of the current Aam Aadmi Party slanging match as being an internal primary – a chance for party members to decide who should lead them – and see if it changes the way you look at the controversy. Imagine Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal as one candidate and senior leaders Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan on the other side, in a not-so-civil battle to take the reins of the party.

Right now the AAP rift is being covered as a messy, chaotic, ugly battle within a party that should have been united in its approach to taking on the establishment. If the battle between what has come to be known as the Kejriwal camp on one side and Yadav and Bhushan on the other side fitted into a prepared structure that allows AAP's members to influence its future planning, it wouldn't have been quite so messy. Yadav could just have been the Hillary Clinton to Kejriwal's Barack Obama: Putting up a tough but unsuccessful fight to take charge of the party, and then falling behind the winner once the votes are in.

In one sense that is what is happening. All of the infighting of last week, including the warring press conferences, was essentially a prelude to Saturday's National Council meeting. This, the "highest policy-making body in the party," features representatives from each of the states and districts as well as 50 other members under a certain set of categories. The National Council will vote on Saturday, and get to decide whether Bhushan and Yadav's objections or even their very presence is important to the party.

But the tenor of the fight over the last few weeks isn't the same as a primary. Instead it has been ugly to the point of exit, which is what most now expect Yadav and Bhushan to do after they have been censured at the National Council. AAP was supposed to be the party that made internal democracy work. What happened?

Fight to the death

A group of political scientists writing in The Hindu last week tried to explain why political parties in India end up falling back on "supremo" culture, with centralised leadership and minimal dissent. Their answer: "most political parties do not have independent organisational bases, a large section of citizens depend upon India’s mai-baap state for their general well-being, and the nature of financing election campaigns in the country."

Essentially, in their piece, Pradeep Chhibber, Harsh Shah and Rahul Verma argued that without a larger organisational base to ground politicians, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for the Bharatiya Janata Party, power tends to flow through personalities and not ideals. And since power and patronage go together, it doesn't do the second-tier leaders any good to take on Kejriwal, even if they disagree with him.
"Currently, most leaders within the AAP have no independent political base. Their political careers are tied to the success of the party. Those eyeing positions of power – either for enhancing their political career or for carrying out genuine political reform – align their interests with that of their leader and suppress any challenges to his authority."

Anti-party activities

And that's how internal party democracy goes wrong. Yadav and Bhushan have argued that their objections to the way Kejriwal has run the party are motivated by a wish for AAP to stick to its principles. The Kejriwal camp, however, sees every action as a sign of personal ambition and so has labelled them "anti-party activities."

"It was unanimously decided that internal matters of party should not be discussed publicly," Kejriwal camp leader Ashish Khetan said at a press conference on Friday. "When party was fighting an existential war, two party leaders were trying to weaken the party and malign its image."

Even if Yadav and Bhushan were pushing their own internal ambitions, the very idea that "internal matters" of the party should not be discussed publicly misunderstands the concept of internal party democracy. At the same presser, Kejriwal camp leader Sanjay Singh also asked why Yadav and Bhushan were taking all of this to the public.

What is the alternative? Lobbying to the 350-strong National Council members behind closed doors? That would in effect be the same approach that every other political party takes in India. Yadav might be trying to score political points but his call for the National Council meet to be webcast, so that the members of a party that seeks to represent the "ordinary man" seems just about right.

Until then, simply resorting to slanging match press conferences without a way forward will not only annoy the public expecting AAP to get working, it'll do something worse for a political party meant to change everything: it'll become boring.