Any party claiming to represent the common man cannot afford to ignore concerns of business.

Now that it plans to go national and contest over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha polls, the time has come for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to spell out a coherent economic vision for the country. There is no doubt that the party’s anti-corruption platform, focus on decentralised governance and transparent method of fund-raising have struck a chord amongst the public, including professionals and entrepreneurs. Yet, some of the actions by its less-than-a-month-old government in Delhi — from giving free water and halving electricity tariffs to withdrawing the previous administration’s approval for foreign supermarket chains to set up shop — are cause for consternation. Many businessmen, who until now were impressed by the party’s commitment to cleansing the country’s polity, are increasingly feeling alienated.

Of course, the AAP has justified these measures saying they were promised in its election manifesto. But economic policy is not made up of a series of discrete and disparate populist decisions. Closing the doors to Walmart or Tesco, even on the unsubstantiated ground that they will lead to the closure of mom-and-pop stores and cause widespread unemployment, would have carried some weight if it was accompanied by dismantling of agricultural produce marketing committees (APMC). This system, by forcing farmers to sell only to traders having exclusive licences to operate in approved market yards, is patently anti-aam aadmi. By blocking competition from either foreign retailers or new traders unconstrained by APMC rules, AAP has been no different from parties interested in defending the status quo rather than supporting ordinary consumers and farmers. Slashing power tariffs and free water is likewise a worn-out populist measure: One would have expected AAP to offer smarter solutions such as time-bound installation of tamper-proof meters in all homes and subsidising poor consumers through direct cash transfers into Aadhaar-linked bank accounts.

Yes, the AAP is a new party, which surprised even itself in the Delhi assembly election — the springboard for its sudden national ambitions. But it should set an early deadline for coming out with a clear statement on its approach towards fiscal consolidation, subsidies, a nationwide Goods and Services Tax regime, public-private partnerships, environmental clearances, land acquisition, labour laws and the promotion of new agricultural technologies. It would do well to shed what seems like a reflexive suspicion about businessmen; many of whom are in reality hardworking, entrepreneurial and hampered principally by the government from doing business cleanly. Secondly, the aam aadmi’s own progress is linked to job creation, which cannot happen without an environment in which enterprise thrives. The businessman’s concerns are, therefore, very much the aam aadmi’s, something the AAP would do well to realise in its painful but necessary transition from ‘movement’ to political party.

(This article was published on January 19, 2014)
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