“You could have done better but I don’t mind/ You just kinda wasted my precious time”
— Bob Dylan, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’
What is the appeal of the Aam Aadmi Party? Can it make a difference? What are its views on economics, politics and social issues? The AAP gets more attention in the media space than all the other parties combined. And it has been doing so for the last three months. This is no mean achievement, and the party needs to be credited for its brilliance, albeit one that Machiavelli would be most proud of.
A nowhere party to now a party with a difference, and a party with a promise of change. The Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP’s rise to power has been a symbol of hope for many. A hope that maybe India could change for the better; a hope that India could be corruption-free. The AAP has selected candidates on a transparent, non-corrupt and non-criminal basis — a huge positive for a criminal- and corrupt-infested Parliament. Thus, there is hope that India will see honest politics and, with it, honest economics. For, as Kejriwal recently stated his version of the AAP’s economic policy: “Our economic policy is honest politics.”
There is no doubt that Election 2014 is shaping up as the most important election, ever, in Indian history. And as the one promising to be different, we need to examine what the AAP’s leaders say and mean when they opine on policy. Until just a few weeks ago, most people assumed that the AAP believed strongly in political freedom. That view has been dented by protests, sleepovers and resignations on the ground that it is “The AAP Way or No Way”.
Does any AAP party member know, or even care, as to the contents of the Lokpal bill that forced the “principled” resignation of Kejriwal’s party? When asked as to how the Lokpal bill would affect the life of the aam aadmi for which it was explicitly meant (The Big Fight, NDTV, February 15), senior member of the AAP party, Ashutosh, went into convoluted contortions to answer this straightforward question. He started explaining that big-ticket corruption needs to be checked and ended with a reference to Lal Bahadur Shastri. I persisted: But how does the Lokpal bill affect the life of a Delhi citizen? His lack of response reminded me of a refrain among the youth of the 1960s: “Ask no questions and you will be told no lies.”
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On social policy, the AAP showed great progressiveness with support for gay rights. But no sooner had the applause peaked than the party opined on the constructive mohalla role of khaap panchayats. When criticism mounted about the anti-social and murderous khaaps (especially in the state of Haryana where the AAP wants to make a dent in electoral politics), the AAP made a hasty retreat and said, of course, we don’t believe in murder, and murder should be punished. Thankfully, AAP leaders did not suggest an amendment to the Constitution regarding the special status of khaap murders. It is getting difficult to distinguish political expediency from the AAP’s actions.
Ditto with another AAP foray into “social policy”, or how to appear all things to all people at all times. Fundamentalism, the antithesis of liberalism, is apparently no bar to the AAP’s policy recommendations. Among all the Muslims in India, the AAP felt compelled to reach out to Maulana Tauqeer Khan, a cleric known more for his fatwa against a liberal Muslim writer, Taslima Nasreen, than for his views on progressive politics. And to round out the anti-liberal picture, the AAP leadership stated that too few of the graduating class from Delhi high schools were finding admission in Delhi universities and wasn’t that a shame? Remind you of Mumbai and the “liberal” Thackeray?
On economic freedom, the jury was out, with many suspecting that the AAP was to the left of the Left. The AAP believed in clean government-dictated licence permit raj — an oxymoron to define an oxymoron. The common belief also was (is?) that the AAP wanted to turn the clock back, way back, on economic reforms. Policy actions and policy recommendations mark the extremes of their anti-liberal position. For example, by delivering on their promise of free water to the residents of the richest city in India, Delhi, and a city that was already receiving water at one of the lowest prices in the world. To compound illiberality, the AAP formulated its water policy in a most ingeniously stupid manner. It postulated that if a household consumed a drop more than 20 kilolitres per month, its free water would be converted to fully priced water! Even an anti-market populist like the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela never dreamt, let alone tried, such a populist anti-liberal measure.
Expectations were high that once the Aam Aadmi economic policy manifesto was released, it would confirm the status of the AAP as a “liberal” progressive party. The document has yet to see the light of day, and even Godot may appear before a liberal economic AAP manifesto sees daylight. Hints about its nature were liberally sprinkled by Kejriwal at a function hosted by industry lobbyist CII. Reading his statements, all liberals would come back enthused by the AAP conversion. Some throwaway and giveaway lines: “We are not against capitalism, but we are against crony capitalism. The government has no business to be in business, it should be left with the private players. Licence and inspector raj has to end…”
Is Kejriwal being real, or is he playing politics in the firm belief that voters are stupid (a belief shared by the ruling Congress party — just look at their actions on Telangana)? How plausible is the notion that Kejriwal is a liberal, economic or otherwise? None of the evidence suggests that he is. You cannot be half-pregnant, or half-liberal, or half-secular. You can, of course — but then you, as an individual or as a party, are just like any other. There goes your Unique Selling Point, your raison d’etre. But then, the AAP might argue, being liberal does not win elections. True. On the other hand, by being so much like other parties, by playing conventional politics, the party with a difference is fast becoming the party with no difference. This has historical precedence — well, almost. In Animal Farm, George Orwell posits a world ruled by Men, and the animals rebel because they believe that “Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever.” The revolutionary anarchist animals, led by the pigs, succeed in overthrowing Man. But soon reality sets in. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
The writer is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’