Aam Aadmi Party

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Print edition : February 07, 2014

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal mobbed by people during the Aam Aadmi Party's "janta durbar" outside the Delhi State Secretariat on January 11. Photo: S. Subramanium

The crowd outside Kejriwal's residence in Ghaziabad. Photo: PTI

The AAP's membership campaign in Kozhikode, Kerala. Photo: PTI

Kumar Vishwas (second right) and other AAP leaders at the party's first Lok Sabha election rally in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, on January 12. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The Aam Aadmi Party has support from far and wide but what it needs urgently is a set of coherent policies so that people can make informed choices in the parliamentary elections.

IN the fortnight since it assumed office in Delhi on December 28, 2013, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government has received frenzied support from far and wide for its agenda of providing clean and corruption-free government. Encouraged by the trend, the party raised the bar for the forthcoming parliamentary elections with plans to contest the “maximum number of seats” from the “maximum number of States”. But the Arvind Kejriwal government has sent out disturbing signals on issues of governance in the Delhi-National Capital Region with its hasty moves to show that it can deliver in a short time what the previous governments could not.

In its attempts to deal with the day-to-day issues facing the aam admi (common man), the government launched helplines—education helplines to resolve problems relating to nursery school admissions and public utility hotlines to complain about choked drains and delays in providing ration cards or driving licences. But the helplines are jammed.

On January 11, in order to allow people direct access to the government, the Chief Minister convened a “janata durbar”. Kejriwal and his Cabinet Ministers sat outside the Secretariat building to hear the people’s grievances first hand. But in the process of streamlining the multitudes that flocked to register their complaints, the Chief Minister got heckled and shoved in what turned out to be a virtual stampede. He fled the scene only to emerge on the rooftop of the Secretariat building, wave to the crowd, and announce the postponement of the “janata durbar”. A megaphone in hand, he declared that all grievances should be sent online.

Next, he decided to withdraw permission to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail in Delhi, throwing the industry into a tizzy about the possible outcome of “aam admi” politics in a few months down the line.

The AAP’s offers of free water and 50 per cent waiver in power bills are yet to start making an impact. People are now stuck with huge electricity bills because on Kejriwal’s call they had stopped paying power bills.

At any given time of the day, huge crowds throng the Chief Minister’s residence at Kaushambi, in the neighbouring Ghaziabad district in Uttar Pradesh. Crossing this stretch has turned out to be a nightmare for regular commuters. Although Kejriwal has decided not to have security cover, other residents of the multi-storey apartment (the building has 84 flats) have to contend with an army of AAP volunteers and a posse of policemen deployed at the only entrance to the apartment building.

This is just a sample of the “swaraj” that the AAP has delivered so far. Maybe it is too early to pass a judgment on a nascent party and its untested politics, but if the trailer is anything to go by, it holds disturbing portents. All the more so because the AAP is winning wide support for its brand of politics and is set to emerge as the only alternative to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The party began a membership drive on January 10 by waiving the membership fees of Rs.10. As on January 15, the party enlisted 12 lakh new members, a number that is increasing by the minute. The AAP aims to enlist one crore members by January 26, when the drive is expected to come to an end. Seeing the bevy of successful people from diverse fields, such as the banking industry (Meera Sanyal) and the software sector (V. Balakrishnan, a former Infosys top executive, and Adarsh Shastri, an Apple executive), social-cultural activists (Mallika Sarabhai and Remo Fernandes), and corporate bigwigs such as Capt. Gopinath of Deccan Airlines fame), joining the party, the AAP appears set to contest anywhere between 300 and 400 seats in the Lok Sabha elections. “We are witnessing a political revolution. We are overwhelmed by the response throughout the country,” AAP leader Prashant Bhushan said at a press conference recently.

But the upsurge is exactly what is sending out disturbing signals. Political commentators who witnessed L.K. Advani’s first Ram rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in the 1990s recall the frenzy with which people flocked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at that time. There came a stage when the frenzy acquired such monstrous proportions that it swept the electorate off its feet paving the way for the formation of the Kalyan Singh-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. Political observers see a lot of similarities between the popular support for the AAP and the frenzy whipped up by Advani’s rath yatra. What is even more worrying is the lack of clarity on the AAP’s part on issues that are crucial to the country. The AAP still has to outline its policy towards the minorities, women, reservation, liberalisation, foreign affairs and many such issues of national importance. “The fundamental principle on key issues such as reservation and communalism will remain non-negotiable,” Kejriwal told this correspondent in an interview earlier. But ever since the formation of the government, there have been instances of AAP leaders waxing eloquent on controversial issues and then courting trouble. Prashant Bhushan’s statement that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Jammu and Kashmir should be revoked as its provisions gave the Army immunity in cases of human rights violations sparked off a controversy. Right-wing activists attacked the AAP’s offices in the Delhi-National Capital Region. Bhushan had also suggested that a referendum be held on the deployment of forces in naxalite-affected areas.

Kumar Vishwas, poet-turned-politician who plans to contest against Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in the Amethi Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh, has already drawn flak for his irresponsible comments on Muslims and women.

FDI in retail

Similarly, Kejriwal’s objection to one of the big-letter foreign investment proposals in multi-brand retail in Delhi, the $110-million project of the British giant Tesco in partnership with the Tatas-owned Trent, could keep the entire issue in limbo and scare away foreign investors. Incidentally, Tesco was to be the first major foreign investment in retail since the UPA government cleared the way for FDI in retail in September 2012 after a long and agonisingly slow procedure. According to industry watchers, the Kejriwal government’s decision to overturn the previous Congress government’s proposal to allow foreign investment in Delhi's retail sector, has put a question mark on the policy direction of the next Central government on the issue should the AAP have a major role to play in the next Lok Sabha.

Also, people have no clue as to what the AAP’s stand is on equally contentious issues such as reservation, especially the women’s reservation Bill; linking of rivers; sharing of river waters; reorganisation of States; entry of foreign universities; and issues of domicile. For example, it is not clear what the AAP’s stand is on the creation of a separate Telangana State. Since the notification for the formation of the new State has not yet been issued by the Government of India, the AAP’s stand on the issue is keenly looked forward to.

“We had formed 31 committees away from the media glare, and these committees have framed our policy documents on all major issues, which we will spell out very soon,” Atishi Marlena, who is overseeing the party’s manifesto formation, said.

What is also worrying is the AAP’s overzealous outreach programme which seeks to cash in on the simmering anger against the system. But once that anger has been tapped, it is not clear how the party plans to channel it into productive outcomes.

“Our political journey so far has not been on the strength of our organisational machinery; it has been based on people’s disillusionment with the brand of politics which the Congress and BJP offered. In Delhi, too, our organisational strength was negligible but we connected with people and turned that into our strength. The same pattern will be repeated on an all-India basis now. Our reach has already penetrated semi-urban and rural areas and we are getting a huge response from people who have been totally left out of the political system. People who have been feeling neglected for long are flocking to us,” senior leader Gopal Rai, who is overseeing the party’s nationwide membership drive, said. But that is precisely the problem. Political observers pointed out that people who had been feeling left out of the system expected concrete plans of action, which the AAP did not have as yet, and that if the huge following started getting restless, it would have disastrous effects.

“They look like the political counterpart of the World Social Forum at the moment, a huge congregation of failed socialists trying to make an impact. But they need to realise that once you start governing you need to have a set of coherent policies, which they are lacking right now. The only thing that goes in their favour at present is that they seem to be honest and transparent and there is no harm in trying them out,” said the political analyst Shaibal Gupta, who is member-secretary of the Patna-based think tank Asian Development Research Institute. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar tapped the resources of the institute when he embarked on his task of reformulating development plans in Bihar. Gupta said the AAP’s plebiscitary format of governance could have disastrous consequences in the long term though it might have some short-term beneficial outcomes.

In his opinion, one good thing about this is that the other two national parties, which have the required organisational set-up, will be forced to rewrite their political strategy and that can lead to salutary changes in the country’s polity. “But saying anything is difficult now. We have to wait for at least two months to see whether the alternative politics that the AAP is talking about will succeed or not,” he said.

This is exactly what the Congress and the BJP are doing: waiting to see whether the AAP will sustain its momentum or fizzle out. For the Congress, the stakes are not so high although the party, in any case, is aware that it may be forced to sit in the opposition in 2014. “We extended support to them for very specific reasons: we wanted them to carry out their promises. Let people see whether they can deliver. We know the promises are difficult to fulfil, almost impossible to achieve, and people will soon get disenchanted with them and come back to us. The Congress has been around for 128 years. Such parties [the AAP] come in like a gust of wind and go gushing out equally fast. Remember 1977, when the Janata Party experiment went bust in exactly 19 months. The V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal experiment in 1989, too, fell flat in just about two years,” a senior Congress leader, who seems to have enjoyed Kejriwal’s “janata durbar” fiasco, said.

The BJP, however, hopes that the prevailing confusion and cacophony of the “aam admi” and “swaraj” will force the people to see merit in its talk of good, strong, efficient and mature governance and help people make up their minds with more clarity. An effect of that has already been seen in the case of Kiran Bedi, the former police official who was with Kejriwal during the India Against Corruption campaign but has since parted ways and announced her support for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. “Governments are not run from rooftops; for heaven’s sake, take time out to understand and absorb,” she said shortly after Kejriwal called off the “janata durbar”. She declared her support for Modi soon after witnessing the chaos and confusion outside the Delhi Secretariat during the “durbar”.

But the AAP remains unfazed. It says the naysayers will be ultimately proved wrong. “We are here to change the Congress-BJP brand of politics and that is why they are feeling threatened. The days of mandal-kamandal politics are over,” said Gopal Rai. He said it was wrong to draw a parallel between the 1977 and 1989 experiments and now because those were based on a morcha (campaign) by various parties, while this time it is a single-party experiment. “At that time different political parties had come together in a morcha for specific purposes, and once differences cropped up among them, the parties went their own individual ways. This time it is different. We are one single party and our movement is based on our own cadre, so we will last. True, there is some initial confusion, but things will stabilise in the next few weeks,” he said.

It would be in the best interest of the country if the party in power in Delhi is able to stabilise and spell out its agenda more clearly so that informed choices, bereft of frenzy, can be made at the opportune moment.

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