[Opening Brief: Ever since its inception in 2012 to the electoral impact in the state polls of Delhi, AAP has managed to stay relevant in the news cycles of at least a section of the media for a variety of reasons. Team CRI was privileged to conduct the following interview with Shri Shantanu Bhagwat – who might now be known to many of the CRI readers through this blog. Shri Bhagwat is a former diplomat (IFS ’91 Batch), a onetime venture capitalist and today a political activist and serves in advisory capacity to many start-ups. Shri Bhagwat had joined AAP and later resigned from the party a few weeks back. In this interview we explore this subject with him]
What were the key reasons that motivated you to join AAP (Aam Aadmi Party)?
The key reasons were my belief that they were different, that I could contribute and shape the thinking of the group in certain areas of policy and my belief that someone with my kind of background would be useful for the party.
I was also hopeful that by joining and engaging directly with the party, I could interest at least some AAP members in the ideas of free market economics and liberal beliefs.
As I wrote on my blog back in Dec, I took the “decision fully aware of our differences; fully aware that convergence of views will be a long drawn process”
The fact that AAP had “successfully managed to challenge the “rules of the game” – and long established truisms of current-day politics in India (e.g. caste arithmetic, vote banks, money and muscle power etc)” was something that appealed to me.
I highlighted how, “AAP has given an entire generation hope” and “shown us all another way of doing “politics”. I believed then that as the party’s policies evolve with time, they were more likely to be “influenced by “insiders” than those outside the party”. My hope was I could be one of the “insiders”.
Above all, I sincerely believed that AAP will help in decisively defeating the socialist, populist policies of Congress that has brought the nation at the brink of economic ruin. As I wrote, “…instead of “one man” who has a fighting chance of making Congress history, today we have two. One remains the front-runner to lead India. It is time to work with the other (Arvind Kejriwal).”
There still remains a notion that AAP is a political experiment with no ideological roots, a party which can be influenced to a great degree. Based on your experience, do you find that premise to be true?
Back in December, when I joined the party, I certainly felt this was true. I am not sure this is still the case. More than the publicly articulated positions, it is their actions which give me reasons to believe that this may not be true anymore.
Since December/January, the party has systematically gone about integrating a range of anti-development activists, NGOs, leftist/socialist movements and their leadership. Numerous examples abound including the candidates declared in the first LS candidates list – many of whom have declared socialist leanings. In fact, one of the earliest analysis of AAP’s evolving socialist ideology was on CRI in an article by Sivakumar S titled, “Understanding the creature called AAP“. By March, the pieces appeared to be falling in place
At this moment, what in your opinion appears to be the chief concerns and objectives of the party?
I believe the main objectives are to make an impact in as many LS constituencies as possible and to create an organizational structure for future expansion and growth.
How open are the channels and the leadership within the party to sincere criticism and fundamental disagreements?
In my limited experience, unfortunately not very open.
I sincerely hope this was more due to the time pressures and the challenges of scaling up while also charting an election campaign strategy.
But the “proof of the pudding” will probably come after the elections, when they have some breathing space and time to reflect and think.
What are your thoughts on the various policy and political decisions taken by AAP during their brief stint in power in Delhi?
My first comment would be that the time AAP was in power in Delhi (a bare 49 days) was too short to make an objective assessment of their performance.
There is no doubt that some of the measures they took were commendable (e.g. simplification of the VAT forms). At the same time, there were many which were either simplistic (sting operation to catch the corrupt) or fiscally imprudent and somewhat indiscriminate (e.g. subsidies).
But I will emphasize once again, it was too short a period to conclusively say anything about the party’s ability to govern and their stance on issues of policy.
What were the reasons for your resignation from the party?
As I mentioned in my post, “This was a hard decision for me having spent the last couple of months working closely with the AAP members, volunteers and supporters in Indore. When I joined the party in December, I was hopeful of being able to contribute and; do something substantive and; worthwhile for the party/organization, well beyond the Lok Sabha elections. I was aware of the risks and fully conscious of the (significant) ideological differences but hopeful of being able to influence at least some of the thinking.”
After joining the party, I had formally offered to help, share my experience and contribute in 3 distinct areas. The first was in the area of policy. I publicly committed and offered my time and experience to help develop the manifesto, specifically the sections dealing with foreign policy, national security, SMEs and entrepreneurship. This offer was on the table since the day I joined. Unfortunately, it was never taken up. I had also offered assistance in (institutional) capacity building via training sessions, policy workshops and such. Sadly, I did not receive any response to this either.
Thirdly, I had offered help in fund-raising for the party, in particular, by tapping the NRI networks abroad. Disappointingly, there was no follow-up to this either.
If this was not depressing enough, most of my efforts to engage members and; volunteers in ideological discussions and meaningful conversations on policy or issues of critical national importance were in vain. I was no longer hopeful of being able to influence, much less steer, the party towards the ideas of liberty, individual freedom and free markets.
Under the circumstances, I felt constrained and frustrated – unable to make any meaningful or significant contribution to the party. Worse, I began to worry that the party may become a confrontational outfit with few constructive solutions.
In the long run, I was not sure this was good for a strong and prosperous India. That was what prompted the decision to resign.
And since some of you may wonder whether this was about getting a ticket, allow me to highlight what I wrote in the blog: “Joining AAP was not about the “ticket” – it was about the opportunity to create impact. Leaving it was not about the “ticket” – it was about the feeling of not being valued and not being treated well. I had reached a point where I would have been forced to sacrifice my self-respect. That was unacceptable to me.”
What thoughts would you like to share with other political activists based on your experience? Is there a space for them in the Indian polity outside the electoral arena from where they can function effectively?
My message for other political activists – based on my personal experience over the past six years – remains the same: The “cause” that we are fighting for – a fundamental reform of the political system in India – is easily the most daunting thing that most of us will *ever* do in our lifetimes. It is easily the most difficult thing that I have attempted so far.”
Unless you are an eternal optimist, it would be wise to stay away from this path. As for the question whether there is a space for people like me in the Indian polity outside the electoral arena to function effectively, I believe the answer is “Yes“.
At the very least political activists, bloggers, analysts and those with strong local presence can make people aware of good policies, help them understand the root causes – whether it be corruption, inflation, or the education or the reasons poor. Such voices – if amplified and leveraged effectively – can go a long way in shaping policy and influencing decisions. So “Yes“, there remains a space in the polity for activists outside the electoral arena.
What do you think are some of the main issues the newly elected government will have to grapple with? And, is a party like AAP suited to address those issues?
On the economic front, I believe the main issues are going to be (i) jobs (ii) economic growth (iii) infrastructural bottlenecks (iv) simplification of the tax regime and; (v) unaccounted/black money.
On the political front, the main issues include (i) systemic corruption (ii) judicial reforms (including large-scale repeal and rephrasing of antiquated laws), (iii) administrative reform including inducing accountability in the civil services, rationalizing the pay structure (iv) reforms in the education sector incl. encouraging private investments and (v) national security.
I cannot say whether AAP is suited to address these issues since their policies are still evolving and they have not spoken in substantive terms on many (if not most) of these issues.
[ Team CRI is thankful to Shri Shantanu Bhagwat for this interview]