On 17 June 2015, Atul Dev spoke to senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan over the phone while the latter was on a family vacation in Kashmir, about the first few months of the Delhi government. Dev had sent Bhushan his questions prior to the conversation, through an email. In April this year, Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav—among the founding members of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)—were unceremoniously ousted from the party for indiscipline. Since then, Bhushan has been observing the developments in Delhi and the trajectory of the party that he helped found, as an outsider. During the conversation, he spoke about the allegations of corruption against the AAP cabinet ministers, the party’s ongoing fight with Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, and the evolution of Kejriwal into a “hardboiled politician."
Atul Dev: Being a founding member of the AAP, you have had the unusual vantage point of evaluating its second term in office as an outsider, how do you see the AAP government’s first few months in Delhi?
Prashant Bhushan: It has not been an auspicious or inspiring start. Much of the time has been consumed in this dispute with the lieutenant governor [Najeeb Jung] and the central government, dealing with which, I think, they have shown immaturity. With this tendency to keep on fighting without understanding what the correct position is, they have created the risk of President’s rule being imposed in Delhi. Then there are the charges of corruption against its law minister. Perhaps there are some MLAs [Members of Legislative Assembly] trying to do good work in their constituencies, but the confrontational fight with the LG and charges of corruption has overshadowed all that.
AD: Where do you stand on the ongoing tussle between the chief minister and the lieutenant governor in Delhi?
PB: See, legally Delhi is still a union territory under the Constitution; a union territory that has been given an elected government which has some authority. The final authority, however, is still with the lieutenant governor and the union government. So therefore, Kejriwal and the AAP have been on the wrong side of the law in this fight.
It is true that the cause of giving full statehood to Delhi is an important issue that needs to be fought for, but the manner in which Kejriwal and his government has been fighting for it will only make the process more difficult and rigid in the future. They are setting a bad example.
The advice that I would give to him will be to come back to the founding principles of the party. I would urge him not to seek convenient legal advice. In this case with the LG, I believe he had gone to Mr [Fali Sam] Nariman who had given a contrary opinion, but that advice was suppressed. Then they went and asked for the advice of some people who don’t understand the Constitution—people who are being paid huge sums of money by the AAP—and they gave him the opinion he wished to hear. He wanted to get convenient opinions, and there are people who will give you that. But these are incorrect legal opinions about the powers of the Delhi government.
AD: You had raised questions about former Delhi law minister Jitendra Tomar, who has been accused of forging his law degree, as a candidate for the assembly elections. However, Mr Kejriwal had ignored your objections. Was this an indicator of the structural problems that are ailing the AAP?
PB: Yes. He was not willing to listen to disagreements about candidate selection. I told him that, “We need to have some transparency about the procedure. Earlier we used to put the names of shortlisted candidates on our website, we used to check their backgrounds thoroughly, and any kind of allegations that would come up were referred to the internal Lokpal. We are not doing that anymore, this is not proper.” He didn’t listen.
Other than Yogendra Yadav, and me, nobody in the Political Affairs Committee [PAC] had the stature or the guts to oppose his ideas. We had unfortunately agreed, to prevent a fallout within the party, that he be given charge of the Delhi elections; but the other side of the bargain was that he would not interfere in the running of the party in the rest of the country. What it resulted in was a campaign spun around one person, sometimes even without the party name or the party symbol. He himself decided that only his name and his face will be projected. The party campaign was reduced to "Paanch saal Kejriwal, Kejriwal, Kejriwal." He became the only face of the party and the party came to be identified with him. He started believing he is the supremo.
We were never consulted about any of the decisions regarding the Delhi elections. The only thing that was left to the PAC was the candidate selection, and that’s when the flashpoints occurred. People like Jitendra Tomar were shortlisted despite warnings, and I am sure there are a couple more corrupt ministers in this cabinet.
AD: Do you feel vindicated?
PB: It is vindication that is accompanied by a lot of sadness. This party was founded with the efforts of a lot of young people who were very idealistic. They wanted to create a different kind of party that would not just be after power, but the kind that would practice a different kind of politics. They wanted to change the corrupt electoral system, the political system, the judicial system, etc. Instead of that, unfortunately, the party that was supposed to practice transparency, internal democracy, swaraj, etc., has become a one-man show—which I had been warning of since, at least, last November. I could say that all my warnings have come true, but this is not something to rejoice about, it is something to be saddened by. This party has belied the hopes and expectations of so many people and made them disheartened and cynical. This is a very sad thing.
AD: At the national council meeting of the AAP, Arvind Kejriwal dismissed you and Yogendra Yadav from the party in what you later referred to as a “farcical way.” Had there been any signs of such autocratic behaviour from Kejriwal before the NC meeting?
PB: I am sure these signs must have been there earlier as well, it is hard to see these things when you are agreeing with what he says. See, he has two very strong tendencies that I have had the occasion to tell him about as well. One is that he wants to have his own way—wants to push his own decisions and his own views—regardless of what others might want. So one problem is that he is not very democratic in his functioning. The other is that he is willing to use all kinds of unfair and unethical means to achieve what he wishes to. For example, it happened when he wanted to form the government with the support of Congress after the 2013 Lok Sabha elections. We were opposed to it but he went ahead and did so nonetheless.
I think we failed to recognise some of his traits early on. At least I did not, for a long time, see his dictatorial tendencies, his willingness to be unethical and unfair. I failed to see all that but I think he has evolved even further; he has become even more brazen, even more disdainful or contemptuous of public opinion or intellectual opinion or middle-class opinion. Gradually, he has become a hardboiled politician.
AD: What is going to be the direction of Swaraj Samwad (a platform for open dialogue that was created by the exiled AAP leaders)? Is it reasonable to expect that it will turn into a political outfit in the future?
PB: The Swaraj Abhiyaan will not become a political party. We have made it very clear that the Abhiyaan, as a non-political or non-electoral entity, would continue to exist even if a political entity is spun out of it. And even that won’t happen before we clear the two hurdles we have set in front: first, we need to ascertain and demonstrate that the Swaraj Abhiyaan is being run in a democratic, transparent and participatory manner; and secondly, to show that it has been able to engage a large section of society or at least a couple of campaigns. Only thereafter, we can begin to think of a political party emerging out of it.
AD: The Swaraj Samwad rallies ended up giving a mixed message as you said you have formed a new outfit, but aren’t breaking away from the AAP as well. Do you still stand on that fine line?
PB: As far as we are concerned, the Aam Aadmi Party chapter is over.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.