After his tryst with the Aam Admi Party experiment in alternative politics, Yogendra Yadav, along with Prashant Bhushan, is hoping to float a new political party on October 2. In an exclusive interview to THE WEEK, Yadav, who was expelled from the AAP last year, redefines the idea of Swaraj (self rule) in the 21st century, the lessons he learnt from the AAP experiment and how his new party will do things differently to once again change the political discourse in the country.
What’s the trigger for a thinktank like Swaraj Abhiyan to float a political party?
I don’t think we have only been a thinktank organisation, though some of our leaders like Prashant ji and Anand ji are seen as thinktanks. The point is to bring ideas and political energy together, which was the case during the freedom struggle. Our freedom fighters were men of ideas and many of them wrote books. This combination was what generated new direction in Indian politics. Otherwise, politics would remain a mere school. Our founding document too states that our aim is to establish alternative political force.
Over the last two years, we have been into ground level action. We held a tractor march (in Barnala in August 2015) to support farmers, a Samvedana Yatra from Karnataka to Haryana in response to drought (October 2015) and a Sankalpa Yatra (May 2015). We had an anti-corruption activists' meet (February 2016) where we made major exposes on corruption. Our Shiksha Swaraj brought education activists from across the country together.
A political party needs a support base. Where do you start from?
First, we had to create an organisational structure and have a critical mass. So, we duly elected 144 district committees. We have more than 1/3rd representation in seven states of Delhi, Haryana, UP, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Our next priority is to have a structure for transparency and accountability which we demand from others. Our Lokpal has Kamini Jaisawal, Sumit Chakravarthy and Noor Mohammad. Now, we want to focus on mass mobilisation.
Will you contest all seven states?
One thing we are very clear on is that we will not jump into every election that comes our way. We have to be selective and careful. We have to realise what we can and cannot do. In October, we should be able to say where our focus lies. We need to think hard about it. We don’t want to be ticket distribution machine, which other parties have become.
Haryana is an ideal state for white politics—was your comment in 2013. Do you still stand by it?
Yes. BJP is very unpopular in Haryana already. Congress is nowhere. And Chautalas are in jail and their party is disintegrating. It’s time for change.
How will you expand your base? AAP had to take in disgruntled leaders from other parties.
Over the last 30 years, the country has witnessed several social movements – related to protecting natural resources, corruption, right to information and right to food. I would imagine our volunteers would be drawn from these movements. And the idealist youths would also seek our party as they want to change the future of India. But we are determined not to become a party where five top leaders decide. We will evolve a system like the primaries where the potential candidtes will compete with each other and their selection will come from below and not from top leadership. We will go step by step.
What’s your vision for the party?
The idea of Swaraj is not limited to just British left India or we being against anybody ruling us. It is the legacy of the evolutionary politics of the 20th century and provides a vision of radical transformative politics of the 21st century. Swaraj is not a negative idea saying no one else will rule over me. It is positive, a self realisation that I have the capacity to direct and shape my own life. This is not just in politics but at the level of self, society and country. We call it Swaraj 2.0, the new version. A draft document in English and Hindi is now in the public domain.
After the Aam Admi party experiment, how hopeful are you about your prospects? How are you different from AAP?
People will compare us to AAP because it has been the most visible experiment in alternative politics. And I must say it succeeded to some extent as it got young, idealist volunteers and also popular support. But it failed on many counts. So, naturally we will be scrutinised more by the people. It is fair that we are scrutinised and we are prepared for it.
We are different as we don’t believe in personality cult. In fact, Swaraj Abhiyan publicity material does not carry any photographs. We have institutionalised decision-making. Even the decision to form the party was not taken by the national steering committee, the highest body. But it was decided by a convention of all district level delegates and the decision was ratified by all ordinary members. We are creating a system, where everyone can vote either through sms or email. We want the leadership to respect every opinion.
Given the disparity in our society, your system (of everyone getting to vote) seems impractical. Each member is expected to understand every issue he/she is voting on.
Absolutely. As a political organisation, if you cannot educate and empower your own workers, how will you change the society? The Aam Admi Party’s biggest failure was that it gave zero attention to training and education of political workers. We have scheduled a system of training. Another problem with previous experiment (AAP) was, it failed to take a stand on the larger ideological questions of our times – resulting in knee-jerk reaction. We were clueless as to were we stand on key issues like economy, environment, caste issue, foreign policy or national security. Now, our Swaraj 2.0, a policy document, makes our position on every policy clear – agriculture to national security.
You talk of decentralisation of power. But parties thrive on “Supremo” culture. Is it possible to run a political party without a nerve centre?
Every organisation needs a nerve centre, where it is a form of collective leadership rather than one person holding control. Often, we see people who occupy the top positions become insecure and overlook others’ opinion. Decentralisation is the direction that India has been taking for the last 20 years. The regional parties are a case in point. They don’t want to be dictated by Delhi. Unfortunately the national parties have not understood this.
Your Swaraj Abhiyan and the political party are to remain as two different entities. It reminds me of the RSS-BJP combo formula.
I certainly don’t want them to be compared with the BJP or the RSS. But, all over the world, we have seen political parties making a distinction of party organisation and electoral wing. For instance, Pramod Dasgupta was party chief in West Bengal and he never became the chief minister. It was always Jyoti Basu (who was the CM). This distinction is needed if you want to save yourself from becoming an election machine. Checks and balances coming from outside the electoral wing are important.
I have not criticised RSS-BJP formula. Every political party has every right to consult on ideology as long as it is done openly. If RSS is guiding the BJP, the voters have a choice to vote or not vote for BJP. What we need is a model where electoral wing is accountable to the non-electoral wing. It is a fact that some dub it as extra-constitutional. It happened to Sonia Gandhi too when she announced the NAC.
Caste is a big factor in Indian politics. How will you wean people of it?
Caste politics is default of Indian politics. When there is nothing big or exciting happening, people fall back on caste. We have seen that people have voted on national issues in every major election, be it corruption or Babri Masjid. When there are no big issues, people tend to vote on caste lines. They withdraw into their caste shell. The challenge is to raise the real issues and give people an option.
Will your party end up as an urban-centric one like AAP?
Unlike AAP, our most visible and energetic campaign has been in rural India over the last one year. Be it corruption, land acquisition or farmers' issues. But we are aware that to engage farmers takes a lot of effort. Farmers politics takes long-term investments with no quick political returns. But its returns are actually huge and enduring. We want to transform India, so we will take the tougher and lasting route.
Name of your party? Last time, the Aam Admi Party sounded very north Indian.
In fact, I had reservations about the name (AAP) because it sounded very north Indian and excluded women. But I was proven wrong as most women were happy with it. Now, we are having discussions and invite people to propose names.
Your approach to Dalit and minorities’ politics?
Sadly, dalit politics is fossilised in the Congress era of Harijan variety, where symbolic concessions were given to them. I hear the political protest in Gujarat is going beyond the BSP model too (so writes Devanur Mahadev). We wish to align with them. Muslims politics are hostages of secular politics. Today, the community has two ways to go. Either to follow openly the Muslim communal politics being practised by AIMIM or to reimagine secular politics that can address their real life issues. We hope to move beyond symbolism or uniform civil code. Today, they don’t take everyone on face value. That is the challenge for us.