In the span of a week, two senior leaders left the Aam Aadmi Party this month. Both Ashutosh and Ashish Khetan, who frequently represented the party on TV and played a major role in its campaigning, quit citing personal reasons. They have joined a long list of senior members who have left or been expelled from the party since it came to power in Delhi in early 2015. The departures have tended to put the spotlight on AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and his style of functioning.
Ashutosh, who served on the party’s apex decision-making body, the Political Affairs Committee, left amid reports that he was upset about not being offered a Rajya Sabha seat. Khetan maintained that he left to pursue a career in law though the party had twice offered him a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha election. He said his decision to quit politics should not “be viewed as a reflection on AAP”. In April, Khetan had resigned as vice chairman of the Delhi Dialogue and Development Commission, an advisory body of the Delhi government, citing the “frustrating” tussle between the Kejriwal government and the lieutenant governor.
A number of senior members have left AAP since it expelled Yogendra Yadav, Ajit Jha, Anand Kumar and Prashant Bhushan in 2015. They include Medha Patkar, Mayank Gandhi and Anjali Damania. The party had previously lost GR Gopinath and Shazia Ilmi, who went on to join the Bharatiya Janata Party, in 2014. These departures had led to a flurry of questions about the functioning and future of the party formed as recently as 2013. The questions have returned with the departure of Ashutosh and Khetan.
Pankaj Gupta, national secretary of AAP, denied that Ashutosh and Khetan resigned because they were denied tickets to contest for Parliament. Their exit was a “normal process” in politics. “They left due to personal reasons,” said Gupta, who is leading the party’s campaign for the 2019 election in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk constituency. “Khetan informed us of his decision earlier. It is a big loss to the party, but there is no animosity. I find it laughable…the things that are being said about their exit from the party. We respect their personal decision. Khetan had clearly written he was offered a ticket.”
Ashutosh declined to comment about his departure from the party or that of other leaders.
‘No longer relevant’
AAP spectacularly swept the 2015 Assembly election in Delhi, winning 67 of the 70 seats. The aftermath of the victory, though, saw an ugly internal battle that led to a split as founding members Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan were shown the door. In 2017, the party faced a series of deflating defeats, badly losing the Assembly polls in Punjab and Goa, despite being tipped to do well, and the municipal elections in Delhi, with each defeat raising questions about AAP’s style of functioning.
Praveen Rai, a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said AAP has been on “self-destruction mode” since ousting its founding members. “The anarchist brand of politics practised by AAP with a strong pitch [based] on false propaganda earned some political brownie points initially, but it proved detrimental in the long run,” he said. “It has not only lost political relevance, but created a sharp distrust among people for new parties and alternative politics.”
The impression of AAP has always been of a party in a hurry. Indeed, Kejriwal has acknowledged being hasty in quitting within two months of forming his first Delhi government with the Congress’ support in December 2013. The party then worked hard on the ground for a year and returned to power with a thumping majority in 2015. But AAP’s attempts to expand outside Delhi have come a cropper, most notably in Punjab, where it threw everything at the 2017 polls, only to come a distant second to the Congress.
In Delhi, the party is still lauded for its work, particularly in expanding and reforming healthcare and educational facilities, even as it fights a running battle to actually run the state against the lieutenant governor, seen as acting on behalf of the BJP government at the Centre. But questions have been raised about what the party actually stands for now.
Principles versus positions
Mayank Gandhi, who headed AAP’s national executive in Maharashtra before leaving in 2015, argued the most recent departures have more to do with positions and power than principles.
“There is a need to distinguish between people who have left. We did not agree with the compromises being made after we won the election in 2015,” he said, referring to former AAP leaders such as Yadav, Bhushan and himself. “AAP hasn’t won an election since they started compromising on their principles. We believed in transparency and accountability. But for members such as Ashish Khetan and Ashutosh, it is about positions.”
In an open letter to Kejriwal after AAP lost the Delhi municipal elections last year, Gandhi had accused the chief minister of wanting to manipulate the support to his party to project himself as a candidate for prime minister. “Abandon the agenda of wanting to be another BJP and Cong [Congress],” he wrote. “We had come to fight them, not become another version of them. Follow our original agenda that might get back the respect and credibility that you have completely lost with your foolish and vote bank oriented comments.”
Yadav, who now leads a rival party, Swaraj India, agreed with Gandhi and said AAP is “no longer relevant to the politics of changing India”. “It is just like any other regional party now,” he said. “The truth comes out in tiny bits. Its presence is no longer relevant as it is desperate for survival and trying to fix an alliance with the Congress.”
The 2019 question
Given its recent electoral setbacks, particularly the defeat at the hands of the BJP in the Delhi civic polls, how is AAP positioned for the 2019 parliamentary election? “The defeat of AAP in the municipal polls revealed that the electorate of Delhi has rejected the kind of party politics it ushered in,” said Rai. “The desertion of prominent leaders is creating negativity among the people of Delhi and AAP runs the risk of being wiped out from the political landscape of the Capital in 2019.”
Gupta disagreed, saying the recent departures will not affect the party’s impression “as a strong contender”. “People will keep on leaving and new faces will continue to join,” he said. “But it is our work that speaks volumes for us. We have to fulfil the void they leave behind and create a new push.”