Aam Aadmi Party is like the Tehelka of politics

Last Updated: Mon, Mar 24, 2014 06:46 hrs

Hope works best when it stays. It destroys when it leaves too soon. Right now, this won't make sense to the Aam Aadmi Party as the momentum of a frenetic election campaign carries it forward. But this is a core discovery it could make if it is not careful.

In several ways, the Aam Aadmi Party resembles an Indian story from over a decade ago. Tehelka blazed a trail in the world of the media with its fearless journalism. The mainstream media had grown too fond of itself in India and this generated anger, frustration and distrust.

The Indian public was ready to lap up incisive independent journalism that promised to do more for India than all the mainstream media put together. Tehelka benefited from this surge of goodwill. It delivered too, initially.

Over the past year and a half, the Aam Aadmi Party has etched itself in the minds of the Indian public in pretty much similar fashion. It has torn apart the smug facade of mainstream Indian political parties too full of themselves.

Many Indian voters appear to be in love with an outfit that has sworn to punish hitherto untouchable corporate and political heads, whose material and monetary greed is disgusting. The Aam Aadmi Party has benefited from this surge of affection.

This is where it gets uncomfortable. Tehelka died too soon, undone by a leadership crippled by megalomania. Over the recent past, the Aam Aadmi Party has been on an unmistakably similar trajectory. A bubble is forming. Here are the signs.

1. A cult forms around the leader.
In Tehelka, they treated Tarun Tejpal as if he was god. He began to see and hear himself everywhere. His narrative of the organisation, and of India, was always the same. Yet, his followers behaved like they heard it the first time, each time.

The Aam Aadmi Party treats Arvind Kejriwal as if he is lord. They fawn upon and pamper him. His report of India hasn't changed in years. His followers behave like they have never seen a crusader previously in India. Self-generated mythology didn't save Tehelka. It won't help the Aam Aadmi Party either.

2. An intolerance of internal debate begins.
Tejpal had no space for anything he didn't wish to hear. He had a strong mental filter that enabled him to register only what he liked. Seniors began to leave in two years after which Tejpal had basically a couple of people he trusted. Kejriwal seems to possess a similar mental sieve.

Only those things pass which he approves of. This can be ruinous in a political party. Seniors have begun to leave Kejriwal and his party. His response has been to shut people out. His sidelining of Mallika Sarabhai in Gujarat is striking.

3.  A belief takes root that outrage is enough.
Tejpal used to whip up anger at the system. He constantly played on the theme that mainstream Indian media was detrimental to the cause of the nation.

The Tehelka newsroom was given the sense that it hosted a collection of Robin Hoods. Kejriwal lights a fuse each time he speaks. He makes it seem like an assortment of Davids has arrived to rid India of its Goliaths. Like Tejpal, Kejriwal uses the emotion supplied by people. It's his only card.

4.  An ability to attract young hero worshippers develops.
Tehelka and Tejpal were like magnets that attracted impressionable journalism students. Willing to do as commanded, they lived by the belief that Tejpal was the only option.

Soon, Tejpal filled the newsroom with interns. Kejriwal also draws youngsters who see a hero in him. Hundreds of Indians in their 20s assist the Aam Aadmi Party. They seem to place career, life and belief in the care of Kejriwal and his party. Many times Kejriwal is able to mesmerise the young like he cannot the older.

5.  A lack of respect for organisation structure grows.
Tejpal loved chaos. He used to believe that confusion generated creativity. He was allergic to systems and structures. It was either boot camp or free-for-all with him; he always chose the second.

Tehelka was run by a coterie and interns. It disintegrated because they had no skills. Kejriwal seems to run a one-man show with two seniors possibly the only ones within sight. The Aam Aadmi Party has no workers; it has bosses and volunteers. It could rapidly feel the strain of its hierarchy.

6. A reliance on crowd-funding sets in.
Tehelka had close to 200 founder subscribers who contributed Rs. 1 lakh each to start a weekly newspaper. It was the only time the organisation wasn't nervous about money.

Tejpal subsequently had problems each time he raised money. Kejriwal runs his party almost entirely on crowd-funding. Barring an initial Rs.1 crore from Shanti Bhushan, it's mostly friends on the run. They donate and move on. The trouble is that this doesn't last. Poor financials helped kill Tehelka. The Aam Aadmi Party could suffer as well.

7. A strong sense of self-righteousness takes hold.
Tehelka and Tejpal lived by an attitude of superiority, generally described as a holier-than-thou approach. They were the only ones with morals and skills; everybody else was scum.

It wasn't true but it was unshakeable. Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party are equally preachy. They convey a sense that they own all ethics. This is not true but it has seeped into the DNA of the party and its followers. Sanctimony alienated and eventually maimed Tehelka. It could do the same to the Aam Aadmi Party.

All these traits may be inevitable with crusaders. But they become toxic if not spotted in time. Tehelka couldn't survive Tejpal; it exists pitifully only on paper. The Aam Aadmi Party and Kejriwal could do better, if they wish to.

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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi.

Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at vijsimha@gmail.com.

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