On 23 May, Shazia Ilmi held a press conference where she formally resigned from all positions and membership of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Ilmi cited two primary reasons for her departure: lack of inner party democracy and Arvind Kejriwal’s refusal to pay bail, which according to Ilmi, was detracting AAP from focusing on its way forward. Ilmi left on a cordial note as she expressed her respect for Kejriwal and wished AAP well.
AAP’s Shortcomings in Perspective
It is undeniable that AAP does not have complete inner party democracy. Since its inception, AAPs leadership has been consumed with fighting elections. As a volunteer since December 2013, I have observed AAP’s largely fluid structure evolve organically according to the needs of the time. The imperative to stand for elections meant that the party structure evolved on the basis on what was most functional, rather than what was most democratic. Given the lack of funding, much of AAP’s structure is in flux again as AAP finds itself in between upcoming elections.
Looking beyond AAP, from where I stand, the Congress or the BJP do not seem to be any better on many important parameters (e.g. inner party democracy, transparency of funding, the allocation of electoral tickets). AAP is likely the most open and accessible party in India. Congress is characterized by the Gandhi family’s grip over the party, and Modi’s consolidation of power is his way of addressing the BJP’s infighting.
Ilmi also complained of a ‘crony clique’ making ‘impulsive decisions.’ Ilmi seems to have forgotten her impulsive decision to lead a protest outside of BJP’s office in Delhi, which was a response to Kejriwal’s was brief detention in Gujarat. The move diverted from Kejriwal’s Gujarat tour and shed negative light on AAP due to the clashes that erupted.
Reading Between the Lines
While news outlets have been quick to highlight Ilmi’s criticism with AAP’s internal functioning, none seem to have commented on the part where Ilmi said she would return if she were given a position of responsibility.
Setting aside the fact that Ilmi was a member of the National Executive; it is troubling that Ilmi did not consider her role as an AAP Spokesperson ‘a position of responsibility.’ I contend that being a simple AAP volunteer confers important responsibilities. AAP volunteers are citizens who generously donate their time to a cause they believe will benefit the nation. While I respect that other parties have self-less, dedicated volunteers as well, the fact remains that those parties would continue to function without their volunteers due to their questionable sources of funding, because of which they can afford paid staff.
Ilmi’s decision to quit reeks of the politics of self-benefit rather than the politics of service and public-empowerment. Given Ilmi’s public statement that she will not join any other party, but would return were she to gain more responsibility (read power), it seems that Ilmi’s resignation is a play to gain more power within AAP.
The crux of Ilmi’s complaint is that AAP has been directing all its attention towards elections to transform India’s political system. But Ilmi is asking for AAP to change politics itself. In her resignation, Ilmi complained of being marginalized by a ‘crony clique’ that has surrounded Kejriwal. The formation of such patron-client networks is most notable in politics, but exists in all organizations. In the private sector we call it office politics. Is asking to form a party with inner democracy akin to asking for a professional environment free from office politics? It remains to be seen how inner party democracy will manifest within AAP.
Ilmi began her press conference by acknowledging that ‘A lot of [AAP’s] mistakes can be excused by the fact that it is a new party committed to a corruption free India.’ It is clear that AAP has low morale, which started with the revelation that AAP did not win a single Delhi Lok Sabha seat, despite garnering a larger vote share than 2013 election.
I am not denying that AAP lacks inner party democracy. My point is that Shazia Ilmi’s intentions seem dubious given her stature and history with the party. As a prominent member, who has been there from the start and is familiar with almost all facets of the party, Ilmi could have contributed constructively. Nonetheless, if Ilmi’s departure will spark much needed attention towards the internal structure of the party, then I wholeheartedly thank her.
But the question remains, would Ilmi have quit if she had won her Lok Sabha seat?
P.S. I do not comment on Ilmi’s issues with Kejriwal’s ‘bail-jail politics’ as I am not clear on the legal intricacies of the situation. I choose to reserve judgment rather than ignorantly labelling it a ‘drama.’
Digant Raj Kapoor holds an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge, where he was a Cambridge Commonwealth Trust Scholar. He is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow and an Aam Aadmi Party Volunteer.