Recalibrating the Creature called AAP
This article is second in the series from CRI in attempting to understand the turn of events in AAP and what it means to centre right thinkers. The earlier article with the title “Understanding the Creature called AAP” was written in December during the nascent stage of the party, when they had just formed the government in Delhi. CRI is proud to be one of the earliest houses that presented a detailed structural analysis of AAP and many of the predictions turned out to be true.
For example, the previous article had stuck its neck out and made a prediction on how quickly AAP will be able to scale-up its national presence, by absorbing the loosely linked PUCL affiliated activist groups and other left-wing thinkers. Based on the rapid growth of AAP in various states of India, that prediction turned out to be correct. The entourage of left-wing journalists and activists that have flocked to join AAP all have one common link – the man called Prashant Bhushan; just as we had predicted.
Another prediction then was that AAP would be able to scale quickly enough to trigger a 5 to 10% vote split in urban centres across India, although they may win only a handful of seats. The findings of many of the pre-poll surveys are consistent with this. The purpose of this article is to re-calibrate the understanding of AAP, based on the turn of events over the past two months. We once again stick our neck out and make some bold predictions on what the future has in store for the party.
The previous article had critically analyzed the concept of bottom-up hierarchy (Swaraj as called by AAP) and what it means to an organization. Based on existing knowledge available from Organization Theory and Transaction Cost Economics literature, we had explained the pitfalls of decision making under a bottom-up structure. The previous article ended with a word of caution that either AAP is as much a top-down party like others but simply putting up a facade of Swaraj to market itself (or) if it is serious about the concept, then long-term survival will be impossible due to persistent internal conflicts. The turn of events over the past two months has indicated that AAP is no pushover and they are indeed of the former variety. We shall also critically examine how they handled Swaraj.
Decoding the Positioning
One good way to understand what is happening within a black-box is to carefully observe the inputs and outputs. When one isn’t privy to the internal happenings within AAP, one can only go by media reports. But individual media reports never reveal the full-truth and one need to look at the broader pattern to make sense of the black-box. The churn of people within AAP and the kind of statements they make when joining the party / exiting the party is a good indicator to develop such a broader pattern. We use this technique to recalibrate the positioning of AAP, and their people strategy that is at play.
From the group of people that were part of Anna Hazare movement or India Against Corruption (IAC), it was clear that many of the right wing thinkers (e.g. Kiran Bedi, Santhosh Hegde, General V.K. Singh etc.) did not go with AAP. But the left wing thinkers such as Bhushan, Gopal Rai etc. went along with Arvind Kejriwal to form AAP. Early exodus like Surajit Dasgupta (Read his exit report published on CRI here) who quit before Delhi elections blamed the left-wing orientation of the party and its thoughts on “secularism” as some of the reasons for quitting the party. The core team of AAP (read here the list of names) was always dominated by Left-wingers from its inception. Post their success in Delhi assembly polls, the process of nationally scaling up started.
A wave of left wing activists and thinkers joined AAP as they saw a natural fit. The presence of JNU professor Anand Kumar who has a track record of left-wing social activism was a catalyst for several such joinees. One such joinee Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy explained his rationale of joining AAP (read here) as a counter to “the big bourgeoisie that is actively supporting Narendra Modi and the RSS; especially the middle strata of society“.
Another person with an ultra left-wing connection called Sabyasachi Panda (read here) joined the party in eastern Odisha. He parted ways with the CPI (Maoist) in 2011 and formed the red outfit called Odisha Maobadi Party. He carries a 5 Lakh reward on his head and is a suspect in the earlier case of kidnap of two Italian tourists in Odisha.
Anti-Kudankulam activists from PMANE i.e. Uthayakumar, Rev. Fr. Jesuraj and Pushparayan are other new joinees. Prashant Bhushan had approached them as early as December (read here) and they had set three pre-conditions to join AAP viz. AAP will carry a Tamil name within Tamilnadu, AAP will announce its policy opposition towards nuclear power in its party manifesto, and its support for formation of Tamil Eelam. However they joined only in March (read here) and reports explicitly confirm acceptance of first two conditions, while the acceptance of third condition is implicit. Readers who watch Times-Now must be familiar with the likes of Social activists Satinath Sarangi, Chandana Chakraborty, Krishna Kumar Saharan (see here) etc. and their extreme left views. Thus we see a clear pattern where the ultra-left activists are continuing to join AAP in numbers and they are happy with the direction of the party.
If one looks at the people leaving the party and their exit reports another pattern emerges. One of the liberal voices to quit the party after the midnight raid by Delhi minister Somnath Bharati, was former diplomat and ambassador to Portugal Madhu Bhaduri (read here). The reasons cited by her were that “the party has a mentality of Khap Panchayat. There is no space for women. If other women leaders have self-respect, they will quit too“. She also added that “The party has changed for the weight of votes. They just want to win the elections“.
Activist and Danseuse Mallika Sarabhai joined the party on January 8th. She created a storm within the party when she questioned the chauvinistic jokes/poems of National executive member Kumar Vishwas. After that the liberal feminist voice appears to have been completely sidelined within the party (read here). Captain Gopinath the founder of low-cost airline Air Deccan joined AAP with fanfare. But he was upset with the running of Delhi Government and voiced his opposition on TV channels. Like Mallika he continues to remain a member of AAP; but believes in his right to air independent opinions and express freely on the actions/inactions in the conduct of the party (read here). His name has since been blanked out from discussions within AAP and as last heard wasn’t in contention for any Parliament seat.
The emerging pattern is liberal voices and independent thinkers that question the cult behaviour within the party are quickly sidelined. Some of them quit while others have chosen to bide their time. One can only conclude that the party has room for liberals so long as they can keep their opinions to themselves or target it only against their political opponents.
Dumping of Swaraj
One of the USP of AAP was its Swaraj model of bottom-up hierarchy. As discussed in the earlier article, this was one of the important reasons for their ability to quickly scale-up. As argued earlier, when the size of the organization increases and it is no longer homogenous, a bottom-up hierarchy is simply unworkable. Hence we speculated if AAP was indeed serious in adopting this model. A clear answer emerges from the events associated with distribution of LS tickets.
The much touted mohalla sabhas or party primaries never appear to have happened. There are no reports of primaries like the one attempted by Congress in North Bangalore. The LS tickets are clearly being decided by the party high command based on winnability of candidates. The list of candidates announced clearly indicates factors beyond meritocracy in social activism or party fieldwork. Instead consideration of caste, celebrity status and money power appears to have been applied in deciding candidature. This is not very different from the practices of Congress, BJP and the Lohiaite parties.
Former Civil servant and activist Arun Bhatia slammed the party for deviating from the model of Swaraj in deciding party nominations for Pune (read here). He expressed disappointment with the lack of meritocracy in selection. He also slammed Prashant Bhushan for denying him a ticket as Bhatia had earlier raised the issue of land-grab allegations against Bhushan.
If Arun was only a small fish, AAP also lost its National Executive member and reputed social activist Ashok Agarwal for the same reason (read here). He blasted the party for being “directionless and working like a private limited company“. He blamed the lack of Swaraj in deciding candidates (presumably a dig at Ashutosh being parachuted to Chandi Chowk) and the “disconnect the party has started to have with aam aadmis“. It needs to be remembered that the party MLA Vinod Kumar Binny who was expelled in January had also complained about lack of inner-party democracy and authoritarianism of Kejriwal (read here).
Ashwini Upadhyaya who was part of the legal cell of AAP quit the party in March (read here) during the period of seat distribution. He blamed the party for dumping Swaraj, parachuting celebrity members as candidates with complete disregard to social activism and fieldwork experience. He also went one step further and accused Arvind Kejriwal of being a “CIA Agent and a liar who has taken unaccounted funds from Ford Foundation to further their political agenda” (read here). This claim may be stretched, but there emerges a consistent pattern whereby people quitting the party cite lack of inner party democracy and absence of Swaraj in deciding party candidates.
The party has cleverly dropped the much touted Swaraj model of bottom-up hierarchy in favour of a Congress like high command culture. Only the naive AAP supporters would possibly still believe Swaraj is a differentiator of the party from the very opponents it thrashes. But is this bad for the party?
Evolution of Party Structure
There is management literature to suggest that organizations in their entrepreneurial stage should adopt a relatively flat organizational structure (not bottom-up even then) and as it moves into the growth stage should seamlessly migrate to a hierarchical structure. Clearly Kejriwal and his bunch of advisors have done the right thing to dump the model of Swaraj and move to a hierarchical structure. If they hadn’t pursued this option, the party would have collapsed under the sheer weight of difference of opinion between various members, various mohallas, various cities and various states.
By discarding the Swaraj model, Kejriwal has mitigated the risk of collapse of the party from within. However critics may argue that he should have persisted with the original structure (followed prior to Delhi polls) until the end of parliament elections. This was seen as a differentiator for the party and discarding it so close to the elections can trigger disgruntlement and exodus. However Kejriwal and his advisors appear to have considered the scale of rapid growth (from one state to 20+ states within a span of 3 months) in order to take this risky decision. Although one can empathize with the party deserters who are quitting for the lack of Swaraj, I do not believe Kejriwal can be blamed for taking this decision that is right for the survival of the party.
During candidate selection, if the Swaraj model was followed, the most popular guy among the grass-root workers in a constituency would have got selected. However there is no guarantee that such a person would be equally attractive to the voters at large. Hence the AAP high command has given seats based on winnability of candidates. When a strong local candidate exists who has a track record of activism that touches the larger society (and not party fieldwork) they have given seat to that person.
Left-leaning activists in the good books of Prashant Bhushan all appear to have been accommodated. In other seats they have parachuted someone based on their public fame like celebrities, reputed journalists, or ex-corporate leaders. Since winnability is the criteria, they have also considered caste and money power of the candidate wherever applicable. By adopting such a strategy, they have not only met constrained timelines, but also managed to increase their coverage (the number of constituencies contested) nationally.
Overall Kejriwal and his team have been pragmatic in making the right decision as far as the long-term structural survival of the party is concerned. However in doing so they had to sacrifice Swaraj which was any case unworkable. The exodus of disgruntled leaders is the cost the party bears for making an unworkable promise earlier. The timing of the decision can still be questioned, as there was no harm in running the Delhi structure for few more months. They could have conducted mohalla sabhas, followed the Swaraj model and contested in 100 odd constituencies nationally.
However for some reason, AAP has chosen to maximize their coverage; despite their realistic chance of winning is only a handful outside Delhi. One possible explanation is they perhaps over-estimate their conversion rate. Another possibility is their objective is to maximize vote-split across as many constituencies as possible in their mission to Stop Modi; without regard for how many they win. Whichever way, someday AAP had to bite this bullet and make a U-turn on Swaraj. Kejriwal has done that to arrest structural collapse from within. This decision has also re-calibrated the position of AAP from what we took in the earlier article.
What is AAP’s People Strategy?
Based on the analysis above we can discern a pattern of their people strategy. We present this pattern as a 2×2 typological framework with inferences on their people strategy. Please note the axes are continuous, but we have divided them into discrete boxes to characterize the extremes.
The framework uses “position on policies of HQ” as the X axis. The Swaraj voices that “seek to influence” policy decisions of high command are on the left most end, while those that are happy to “comply” with the high-command policies are on the extreme right. The Y-axis represents the sphere of influence of the person. Persons with track record of social activism and party fieldwork are in the bottom-end tagged as “social” sphere of influence. They may still be famous within their limited circle of influence but are lesser known within the society at large. Persons who are famous in the “public” sphere of life i.e. society at large are positioned at the top-end. Based on discretizing these axes, we get four quadrants.
The NW quadrant consists of people who have public sphere of influence but are independent thinkers that actively seek to change policy discourse of the party. We call them Independent Celebrities – and they include the likes of Madhu Bhadhuri, Mallika Sarabhai, Captain Gopinath etc. The SW quadrant consists of people with social sphere of influence and independent thinkers. We call them Swaraj Activists – and they include the likes of Vinod Binny, Ashok Agarwal, Ashwini Upadhyaya etc.
The SE quadrant consists of people with social sphere of influence but happy to comply with line of party policy. We call them AAP soldiers – and they include Medha Patkar, Nina Nayak, Uthayakumar, Raza Muzaffar Bhat and many of the ultra-left social activists that have joined the party across the nation. The SW quadrant consists of people with public sphere of influence but happy to comply with line of party policy. We call them AAP figureheads – and they include the likes of Rajmohan Gandhi, Infosys Balakrishnan, Meera Sanyal, Sr. Journo Anitha Prathap etc.
The people strategy of the party is fairly simple. Retire the Swaraj Activisits as they are not useful in the emerging scheme of things. Their continued presence creates disruption within the party. Such people will either be expelled or a situation created whereby they are forced to quit even acrimoniously. Ignore the Independent Celebrities as they are a pain to the party in the emerging scheme. Such people will be kept OFF news as much as possible and cleverly sidelined.
If they voluntarily speak to the media, the party officials will simply ignore and not react to their comments. They can either stay put or quit without a whimper. Support the AAP Soldiers by giving party positions or LS candidature. They are the ones that are critical for the long-term survival of the party. They will fight elections pretty much on their own track record of social activism and network of local supporters. They will be nurtured to build fiefdoms in their territories; exactly the way BJP encourages its Shatraps to do. Until they continue to comply with the policies of the high command, they will be supported.
If they cross the line, then they will be replaced. Promote the AAP figureheads – as they make the party popular, attractive and acceptable to the upper and middle classes. These faces will get highest media air-time and will be promoted actively by the party. They may not build a good connection with the party grass-root but that is not expected of them as well. Kejriwal and star campaigners of AAP will campaign in their constituencies and promote their presence.
Ashutosh and Ashish Khetan may appear to be parachuted candidates that fit into the quadrant of AAP Figureheads. However they are more at the bottom of that quadrant and can quickly migrate to AAP Soldiers quadrant; if they choose to do so. But doing so will be good for their long term future. Kumar Vishwas and Shazia Ilmi are being treated as AAP Soldiers, while they seem to be unhappy to stay in that quadrant; but where they migrate to remains to be seen. Gul Panag is a misfit and an exception. She has been parachuted into the quadrant of AAP figureheads. However she is known to be an independent thinker. If she follows the Meera Sanyal way and stays compliant she may survive the long haul or else she will soon need to move to quadrant of Independent Celebrities.
Based on where people fit into this scheme of things, readers can work out what the future holds for a particular person within AAP. This strategy will continue to remain in vogue until the party enters the next phase of evolution. If the party wins handsome seats outside Delhi (10+) then this strategy is likely to continue. If the party faces a serious political debacle in LS polls then the strategy may be revised.
The original positioning of AAP (as publicized by the party read here) is characterized by their platform of Anti-corruption crusade, Financial Transparency, Bottom-up decision making structure or Swaraj, liberal and secular view of society and the economic/foreign policies that are “good” for the country. With the turn of events over the past two months, three of these five aspects have completely lost their sheen. The other two survive merely because of lack of sufficient evidence to reject the null hypothesis.
The economic outlook of the party has considerably swung to the left of the centre that they are today positioned somewhere between the Congress and Communists. The policies implemented by the party during their brief rule in Delhi stands testimony to this. This claim is further supported by the evidence from the leaked video of Kejriwal with a TV Anchor where he requested the channel to conceal their positioning vis-à-vis private sector led economic growth. This perhaps explains the reluctance of AAP to release its economic/foreign policy document before the LS polls (read here). The AAP Soldiers supported by the party are all left-of-centre thinkers and the party in the foreseeable future will NOT change this line risking its core.
As discussed in detail above, the aspect of Swaraj has clearly been dropped. The parachuting of celebrities, journalists with repute, and moneybag ex-corporate leaders only suggests that their High command culture is no different from others. The party’s stand on liberalism and “secularism” appears no different from that of Congress. Events such as Somnath Bharati’s midnight raid, their support for Khap Panchayats in Haryana, and the response received by Madhu Badhuri and Mallika Sarabhai reflects their position on liberalism. The pandering of the party to minority community flag bearers and their leader’s statement that “communalism is far more dangerous than corruption” (read here) positions them firmly alongside Congress and the Lohiaite parties.
They did demonstrate financial input transparency in the collection of 20 Crore funds for contesting Delhi elections. But the expenditure part has not been publicly shared. The remarks made by expelled MLA Vinod Kumar Binny that expenditure exceeded 20 Crore remains unchallenged. One can observe several critical comments by AAP donors on their website asking them to publicly declare their expenditure list. It has been 3 months since Delhi polls, but the expenditure list has not been put out.
Now their target kitty of 300 Crore for LS polls is aggressive. As things stand only 13 Cr has been received and party has asked candidates to spend their own money, as opposed to the model followed in Delhi (read here). Such personal spending will further complicate its ability to drive financial transparency. It remains to be seen whether complete financial transparency of both input and output will remain, despite the manifold increase in scale. But until then financial transparency continues to hold certain sheen for AAP.
As far as anti-corruption crusade is concerned, although there are complaints of them being soft on Sheila Dixit during their brief Delhi tenure, they did demonstrate commitment to move the Jan Lokpal bill. Prashant Bhushan in his individual capacity has remained an Anti-corruption crusader all his life; and there is no reason to suspect he will change in the future.
But parties like BJP also have individual crusaders like Hansraj Ahir, Kirit Somayya and Subramaniam Swamy with a pedigree no less than Bhushan. What will truly differentiate the party is its organizational commitment and not the crusades of select individuals. But for now this aspect holds sheen for AAP as they have not been in power for a sizable duration to make a fair assessment. But from the little we have seen on Kejriwal defending Somnath Bharati, this aspect may soon well reduce to a point of parity with BJP.
The latest addition on positioning is their stand on anti crony-capitalism. AAP has been particularly critical on the businesses of Ambani and Adani. Is it ONLY a matter of coincidence that these two firms are beneficiaries from the Gujarat model of development? The answer is not very clear because AAP has refused to take any position on other crony (?) capitalists in the news recently, like Jindals who are charged in the Coalgate scam, Naresh Goyal of Jet-Airways on the irregularities in the approval of Etihad deal and Sahara chief Subrato Roy who has been arrested in a money laundering scam. Unless AAP takes a consistent position on ALL crony capitalists, their commitment towards this cause is suspect. Until then their tirade against Ambani and Adani can only be viewed as a political stunt to target Narendra Modi on his Gujarat model of development.
To summarize the recalibrated position of AAP is not very dissimilar to the Congress. They share the same high command culture and views on liberalism and “secularism”. UPA2 government followed a curious mix of left and right socio-economic policies with the right wing economic aspects brought in by the likes of PM Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia.
However majority of the social policy decisions like NREGA, Food security bill, Right to Education etc. were conceived by the left-wing thinkers filled in the policy think-tank called NAC. The social policies of AAP continue the legacy of NAC; not surprising given that AAP inherited several members from NAC. However AAP has taken a position further to the left of Congress on economic policies. Since AAP’s position on cronyism is too early to judge, their stand with respect to financial transparency and anti-corruption crusade against public servants remains their sole distinguishing factor from that of Congress.
Based on the analysis above one can conclude that AAP has made a transition from the entrepreneurial mode of existence to a growth focused organization. By dumping swaraj before the parliament election, Kejriwal has not only declared his intention to stay on course for the long-haul but also arrested a structural collapse from within. The strategy of the party to rapidly scale-up and maximize their coverage (as opposed a focused approach to maximize their wins) is either born out of over-confidence or out of intent to trigger as much vote split as possible to Stop Modi.
The people strategy of AAP as explained above is in line with retiring/ignoring the misfits they acquired and investing on two core quadrants that will bode well for their future. However by burning bridges on other two quadrants who dare to question the party high command they have eliminated any room for adjustment of policy discourse. They have also heavily invested in AAP Soldiers who are independent thinkers in their own right, but are today happy to comply with party high command due to its commitment on left of centre policies. Since the entrepreneurial stage of the party is over it is very difficult to change its policy discourse.
If the party attempts to change discourse now, they run the risk of losing their complete national core and reduce themselves to a small urban pocket party. That can happen only if Prashant Bhushan and his followers quit the party enmasse; and that is highly unlikely. Three of the five touted differentiators of the party have completely lost their sheen, and they appear to be clutching their claws on the other two aspects in order to stay differentiated. But overall their current strategy appears to be fitting well with the recalibrated position of AAP – firmly positioned as a left of centre alternative between the Congress and Communists.