Are Anticorruption Parties Doomed to Fail?: Purity, Pragmatism, and Reflections on India’s AAP

In February, I wrote a post about India’s first official anticorruption party, the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party or Common Man Party) and its landslide victory in the Delhi elections that put its leader, Arvind Kejriwal at the helm of the capital’s government. In my earlier post, I was cautiously optimistic about the potential for the AAP’s electoral success to lead to a major breakthrough in the fight against corruption in India. My optimism was based on the palpable excitement among voters, the outpouring of support for Kejriwal, and the AAP’s zealous promises to deliver on its anticorruption platform.

It’s now been a hundred days since the election results were announced. I was hoping, at this point, to do a post reviewing the AAP’s progress in instituting meaningful anticorruption reform and pushing for more fundamental changes in Indian politics. Alas, although the AAP has been getting a lot of attention in its first few months in office, it’s not for the reasons that I (or most of the AAP’s supporters) had hoped: the party has been consumed by infighting, allegations of dirty politics, and a general perception of dysfunction. And while the AAP’s struggles have been particularly dispiriting, it turns out that the general pattern is not that unusual: many anticorruption parties (ACPs), or parties with primary anticorruption platforms, have emerged all around the world in the last decade or two; these parties often gain power through strong rhetoric and popular support, but very quickly stumble, splinter, and often fail to make any real headway. So was my early optimism (and that of millions of Delhi voters) misplaced? Are ACPs, the AAP included, ultimately destined to fail as governing parties?

Before turning to that more general question, here’s a quick rundown of the turmoil in the AAP since its electoral victory in February:

Shortly after the AAP’s electoral victory in Delhi, members of the AAP’s Delhi unit accused two founding members of the party, one a lawyer-activist and the other a political scientist and academic, of “anti-party activities”; this resulted in an emergency national executive meeting, at which these two founders were ousted from the party’s political affairs committee. Another member of the AAP accused Kejriwal and his associates of engineering this ouster, apparently to consolidate more power in Kejriwal himself by eliminating rivals within the party. The ousted members further claimed that during the party conference thugs were brought in to physically beat dissenters who disagreed with Kejriwal regarding the ouster. The Kejriwal camp shot back that the ousted members were the ones who were engaged in inappropriate machinations, that they were in fact trying to dislodge Kejriwal as party leader, and that there was no physical violence or intimidation at the meeting.

In an open letter to Kejriwal and the AAP, the ousted members asserted that their dissent was due to a number of legitimate factors, including Kejriwal’s discouragement of the AAP contesting elections in other states, his decision to form a new government with the Congress party (despite Congress’s well-known corruption), his approval of candidates with prior red flags, failure to investigate allegations made by other party members about sources of campaign funding, liquor being distributed during campaigning, and ranking members not following proper structural procedures when making decisions. These concerns seem legitimate, so the media is portraying the removal as Kejriwal’s Machiavellian moves to remove dissenters and maintain a firm grip on the party’s decision making.

While some good has come out of this in the form of active public discussion on the matter, this party splintering has been mostly bad for the AAP. With the AAP’s acrimonious squabbling airing the AAP’s dirty laundry in public, the citizens see what they have seen time and time again with other parties, even though the AAP had claimed to be different. Several AAP volunteers have taken to the internet to express deep disappointment at seeing the same power politics play out with the AAP.

It is indeed dispiriting, and perhaps makes my earlier optimism seem misplaced, but it’s hardly unusual. As noted above, many ACPs have achieved encouraging electoral success, only to disappoint their supporters once they actually start to govern. Although it’s always dangerous to try to generalize across very different countries and political environments, and there are many different factors may contribute to the success or–more often–the failure of ACPs as governing parties, one common theme appears to be the “purity vs. pragmatism” tension that, while a concern for most parties, may be particularly challenging for ACPs.

ACPs deploy–and many of their supporters likely believe–strong, uncompromising rhetoric about integrity and “zero tolerance” for corrupt practices. And ACP electoral success is often due, at least in substantial part, to this zeal. But it can be challenging to govern effectively while maintaining such an uncompromising stance. Even if parties or leaders genuinely want to make good on their anticorruption promises, sometimes they are unable to get buy-in. Once elected, these officials need support from not only opposition, but also businesses and civil society. For example, the AAP’s inability to get the opposition’s support last year was the main reason Kejriwal resigned after the AAP’s first successful showing in the Delhi elections. This time around, he has been working more closely with other parties–but this was a reason for the party’s splintering, as top members saw this as traitorous to the cause. Indeed, making pragmatic deals or concessions may be particularly damaging to an ACP, precisely because its claim to legitimacy is its staunch opposition to all forms of corruption. In Delhi, the ousted AAP members and their supporters continue to accuse Kejriwal of not being staunch enough on certain policies like not working with corrupt individuals or opposition parties. And this is not unique. Hungary’s anticorruption party, for example, also split over ideological differences between members.

Again, these sorts of purity vs. pragmatism tensions arise in all sorts of parties, but niche parties, and perhaps ACPs more than others, may be especially prone to this problem since their ideologies are more narrow, a much bigger part of their identity, and therefore less adaptable. Does this mean that ACPs are simply doomed to fail, at least as governing parties rather than opposition watchdogs? That might be going too far, but it does suggest that the anticorruption cause might be better served by more integration of anticorruption platforms and initiatives into mainstream parties than by the emergence of parties organized exclusively around anticorruption.

3 thoughts on “Are Anticorruption Parties Doomed to Fail?: Purity, Pragmatism, and Reflections on India’s AAP

  1. Interesting read but can we generalize this purity vs. pragmatism tension simply by observing one sample or a case?

  2. I am disappointed that AAP Is off course for different but not commendable reasons. Latest controversy on ‘appointments’ is only to divert attention from the controversy arising out of the treatment meted out to a few senior n founding leaders who were virtually thrown out of the Prty.

    No results are perceptible, as yet even though it is more than 3momths since they assumed office, on their anti corruption agenda or othe promises. Being always in confrontation mode, not much can/will be achieved even over a long run uNless there is change in the style of functioning at all levels.

  3. Pingback: TI: CORRUPTION AND INEQUALITY: HOW POPULISTS MISLEAD PEOPLE – Transparency Now

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