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Most of last year, until the very end, the conventional and universal belief was that Election 2014 was an old/new two-way fight between Narendra Modi of the BJP and Rahul Gandhi of the
Congress. Ideologies were balanced into their respective boxes but the weight of economic evidence at the centre and the radically different economic performance of Modi in Gujarat meant that the odds were in favour of Modi winning the general election. Most believed that the Congress would be hard pressed to cross 100 seats, a more than halving of their 2009 tally. The BJP under Modi was likely to get 180 seats (upwards of the first opinion poll forecasts of 120 seats) and even with 20-odd seats from its allies in Maharashtra (Shiv Sena) and Punjab (Akali Dal), BJP-plus would be hard pressed to cross 200. Given 73 short of requirement, there was healthy talk of the Third Front leading from behind.
And then, Delhi happened and the Aam Aadmi Party arrived on the national scene. Suddenly, the Third Front idea is no more idle chatter, but a distinct possibility. Forget Third Front, there are many who argue that the AAP will get close to 100 seats. So, Prashant Bhushan, senior member of the Trinity ruling the AAP (along with Arvind Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav) can be forgiven for indulging in a bit of hyperbole when, on the day the AAP announced they were going to contest only 300 of the 543 seats, he proudly boasted that there was no reason why AAP could not get 400!
The AAP has been in power for only three weeks, but they have not been sitting idle. As befits a national party (though at this stage strictly a wannabe one), they have made pronouncements on economics, law and order, foreign and social policy.
The AAP has been busy—but has it been good? The party has several “natural” advantages over the old workhorses like the Congress and the BJP. They are refreshingly young, modern, and media-savvy. The last attribute seems to be part of a well-thought-out strategy—enrol and give senior positions to journalists. Journalists control the media, and the incestuous journalists are extremely loathe to criticise fellow-travellers.
Possibly the most distinguishing feature of the Aam Aadmi Party is its commitment to eradicate corruption. Though eradication may not be feasible in the short run, the goal is clearly a lofty one. Who amongst us does not want an end to petty, medium and large corruption? So, one yardstick by which to assess the AAP is to see whether its policies will enhance or reduce corruption. Two policies enacted by the AAP with much fanfare and bravado deserve comment—free water below 20 kilolitres per month per household, and half-price electricity below 400 units per meter per month. Regardless of the question of who benefits or who should benefit and/or who pays and who should pay, the most important question remains to be answered: will these policies leave corruption unaffected, increase it or decrease it? Given that the pricing of both these services is not on a marginal basis but a lump-sum basis, the room for corruption is greater than that required for an Indian elephant to walk through. Experts throughout the ages, and importantly both within and outside India, have arrived at marginal pricing, i.e., you pay more as you consume more, and perhaps pay a higher charge for higher consumption, but nobody has yet devised the AAP-method of payment for water and electricity. Why not? Because it leads to distortions in pricing which is an economically polite way of stating that behaviour will be (naturally) oriented towards greater corruption.
The social policy pronouncements are also populist and exceedingly against the liberal ethic of the middle-class that the AAP is theoretically meant to represent. And on these issues, the behaviour of the media has been less than noteworthy. When the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra asks for the immigrants in Mumbai (Bombay?) to be sent back to where they came from, how different is it from the AAP call for admission to Delhi University being restricted to 90 % of those residing in Delhi? And how liberal, or reformist, or progressive is the following call by Yogendra Yadav to extend job reservations to castes, the disadvantaged, women and “class”. Who are these women who are not covered under disadvantaged, lower caste, and lower class? Find them. Noticeably, the “progressive” Yadav did not explicitly specify the need for affirmative action, let alone reservations, for Muslims.
There is also a strange obsession that the AAP has with conspicuous austerity. It is that I will practice nobility as defined by austerity and it is my birthright to stuff that “knowledge” down your throat. There have been plenty of chief ministers who have practised austerity in their accommodation, shoes (Mamata’s slippers), wardrobe, government cars, etc. The media never thought it newsworthy to highlight such noble behaviour before. Why the need, or motive, to glorify the AAP?
And there is the audacious and arrogant attempt to pronounce on policies not even indirectly under the purview of a chief minister. Prashant Bhushan (member of the triad ruling Delhi) asked for referendums to both decide whether the Army should stay in Kashmir, and whether some extra police were necessary in Maoist areas. This belief in referendums is strong within the philosophy of the AAP; they seem to have a contemptuous disregard for leadership, and believe that all knotty problems can be solved by a vote, but worse, should be solved by a mohalla vote. The new AAP membership form will state: Only Bean Counters Need Apply.
To this long list of policy actions by the AAP, a new one is added every day. Vigilante justice. Vigilantism naturally arises when the law is deemed ineffective. But civilizations eschew vigilantism because once one crosses that bridge, one falls off the cliff.
There are at least ten questionable policies and/or policy pronouncements that the AAP has taken during its three weeks in power. They have been extra bold in making their presence felt. The fawning and pseudo-liberal media and intelligentsia think they should be given more time. When I directly questioned Yadav about the poorly thought-out nature of their water policy, he very confidently replied that not only had they thought about this policy for a year, but also had inputs from several committees, and well-wishers and mohallas. I believe Yadav is speaking the truth—which is why I strongly believe that the excuse of “too little time in which to judge the AAP” is inapplicable to the policy decisions, direction, and ideology of the AAP.
Make no mistake. What you see is what you get, and will get, from the AAP. Which is why I have come to the following conclusion: If you put a gun to my head and said, “Choose between the Congress and the AAP”, I would unhesitatingly choose the decrepit, corrupt, and failed Congress party.
The author is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company. Twitter: @surjitbhalla