What has been the most important event of 2013? Many in north India and in other parts of the country will single out the stupendous showing of the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi state assembly elections. The main point on its manifesto was to cleanse the political system and to eliminate the VIP culture that dominates every walk of life in the capital. These goals obviously appealed to a large section of the electorate. How else could virtual non-entities defeat established stalwarts?
Most of its supporters, and perhaps an equally large number of those who were watching from the sidelines, must have hoped that the AAP’s victory would have a salutary effect on Indian politics. Surely, the older generation politicians would now gauge the anger and disgust of the voters and change their ways in order to have a fighting chance of getting back their coveted positions in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies?
Of course, in order for any of this to happen, the AAP would have had to prove that it is a viable alternative, able to govern for a long time. Unfortunately, the AAP and its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, have failed to pass this litmus test. Kejriwal had declared more than once that he would resign if his government could not pass the Jan Lokpal bill sooner rather than later. His self-imposed deadline was unrealistic, since there seemed to be several legal hurdles that had to be crossed before the Delhi Assembly could even consider the bill. His attempt to table the bill was defeated and Kejriwal submitted his resignation.
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Where does he go from here? In his resignation letter, he recommended that the Delhi assembly be dissolved and fresh elections be held as soon as possible. It is likely that the elections to the assembly will be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections. Will the AAP come back to power? Perhaps the more important question is, should the AAP come back to power?
Consider the second question first. Consistency, though not prudence, demands that Kejriwal stick to his stand that he will resign again if the Jan Lokpal bill does not find its way into the statute books. But, even if the AAP wins an absolute majority in the state assembly, there is virtually no chance that it will have a sizeable presence in the Lok Sabha — every recent poll gives it only a handful of seats outside Delhi. So, in the best of scenarios for the AAP, the state assembly can “pass” the bill. This will be, at best, an empty victory. Surely, the ruling coalition at the Centre will insist that such a bill needs prior approval of the lieutenant governor of Delhi. And why not, since implementation of the bill would require at least some expenditure from the Centre. So, the most likely outcome if the AAP comes back to power with an absolute majority is a constitutional logjam.
We will know soon enough about voter reactions. But, there are signs that the AAP has lost some support during its short stint in power. The AAP has disillusioned many of its well wishers by demonstrating that it has no intention of respecting established legal processes. Only anarchy can result when ministers behave like stormtroopers, or when the head of government behaves like a petulant child who has been denied his favourite toy, threatening to resign whenever he is not allowed to do exactly what he wants.
There are also questions about whether it has a coherent set of policies. Consider, for instance, its economic policies. These are laced with a liberal dose of populism — one aspect in which the AAP has mimicked other political parties. Its manifesto promised to slash water and electricity charges in the capital. One of its first steps in office was to waive water charges up to a stipulated amount for all households. One of its last acts was to waive half the dues of all those who did not pay electricity charges between October 2012 and March 2013.
It has sought to justify the latter by alleging that the distribution companies have inflated costs by manipulating its accounts. But there is no concrete proof that the extent of manipulation is so large as to allow for a 50 per cent reduction in charges. The AAP’s economics team does not seem to be aware of the grave long-term consequences of such subsidies. First, there is the serious allocative problem that such subsidies will result in overuse — a potential disaster in water-scarce Delhi. Second, someone has to pay in full for the cost incurred. When users are not charged fully, non-users have to pay a part of the cost, perhaps indirectly because other welfare schemes are starved of funds. This can often be inequitable if the latter are poorer. This may well have happened in the case of water, since a large number of poorer households in Delhi do not have access to piped water.
The AAP’s earlier manifesto also lists several schemes such as building new and better government schools and colleges, increasing the number of hospital beds to the “international norm” of five per thousand patients, improving sanitation and so on. These are all laudable objectives, but they do require large sums of money. At no point was there any mention of how these were to be financed, in particular whether new taxes would be imposed or existing ones increased. Of course, the AAP has only followed the practice of other political parties — list benefits but do not mention increase in taxes. But then, the USP of the AAP is to be different from the others.
The AAP has decided to spread its wings and establish a national presence. Good intentions and honesty are desirable qualities in politicians, particularly in a country where large numbers of this class lack both attributes. Many voters rightly continue to believe that the AAP leaders possess both attributes. Unfortunately, these qualities must be combined with knowledge of some basic principles of governance, as well as sound policies. The AAP has scored very poorly on the latter. Unless its leaders realise the importance of overcoming these shortcomings, it will not be a viable option for voters, certainly not at the national level.