The Aam Aadmi Party must spell out its ideological framework. Its vagueness is not sustainable.

The Aam Aadmi Party will soon have to come out soon with its position on a range of political and economic issues. Its leaders have so far said that their positions are evolving through internal discussion and debate. But with the party’s plan to contest as many Lok Sabha seats as possible, the time for ambivalence may be running out.

The confusion over AAP leader Prashant Bhushan’s statement on Jammu & Kashmir — with the party distancing itself from his views — is an indication to that effect. The Congress, the BJP and the media have missed no opportunity to pile on the embarrassment.

Here are some issues, political, economic and philosophical, on which AAP must articulate itself better.

The political

Is AAP a socialist party? The general perception is that it is a socialist, vaguely Left-leaning force. The view stems from its campaign against Delhi’s discoms and Reliance, and its 18-point charter for the city.

The latter, of course, includes free distribution of water, cheaper electricity tariffs, not demolishing slums, slashing the privileges of ministers and, yes, cracking down on corrupt officials.

But all this leaves us with only an inchoate idea of how the party believes politics, economics and society should be ordered — as vague as our impressions on the leanings of newspapers and television channels!

What people need to know at the outset is whether the AAP makes a distinction between types and levels of corruption.

To make no distinction between big and small fish, between sarkari and corporate graft, would be very unfortunate and unfair. That would mean it does not wish to define the power hierarchies in economy and society.

The AAP has not overtly linked itself to any political tradition, ‘ism’ or personalities of the past — save Kejriwal’s occasional references to swaraj and decentralised governance. These Gandhian themes need to be spelt out for the public benefit.

The AAP’s ahistorical approach, perhaps, worked well for it; it is seen as an utterly fresh force. But retaining this vocabulary of newness can be a challenge as one moves from isolated issues to frameworks. In that event, history cannot be evaded. The AAP cannot pretend it is a wave like none before it. (V. P. Singh happened 25 years before Arvind Kejriwal.)

If the AAP at all calls itself ‘socialist’ (there are many old socialists in its ranks), it will have to deal with an avalanche of questions.

How is it different from the ‘socialist’ parties in the circuit such as the Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal (United), Janata Dal (Secular)? These parties would trace their lineage to the anti-Congressism of the JP movement. The AAP cannot do that, having joined hands with the Congress in Delhi.

So, does it go back to the Socialist Party of the 1950s, with the likes of Acharya Kripalani or Ashok Mehta? Or to Ram Manohar Lohia who believed in the ‘equal irrelevance’ of all other political forces of his time?

Or does it take its inspiration from the last successful anti-corruption campaigner, V.P. Singh — a remake of Lohia with his Third Front, backward class politics?

The 70s’ socialists, after their run-in with Indira Gandhi, have been wary of the excesses of State power and robustly defined notions of nationhood, akin to Bhushan’s views on Kashmir. But the AAP’s vocabulary seems too shrill to fit in here.

Kejriwal’s rise mirrors the V.P. Singh wave over Bofors. Like VP of the 1980s, Kejriwal is the darling of the urban middle class.

But after Mandal, VP fell out with the middle class and ploughed a lonely path, supporting causes of not just the backward classes, but nonviolent struggles in various parts of the country. Does this stuff matter for the AAP, or is it just a governance party? If it chooses to be more eclectic like VP Singh or Lohia, it stands the risk of alienating the middle class. Kejriwal’s rhetorical vagueness has kept everyone together, but for how long?

The economic

The AAP’s position on a number of economic policy issues is eagerly awaited. And there is a laundry list of questions waiting to be answered.

What are its views on pursuing high growth (the Sen-Bhagwati debate)? Will it opt for lower growth, with more environment checks on industry? Will it raise taxes if it is to retain middle class support?

Its most explicit economic policy position is on corruption — that it is the principal cause of inflation. The AAP cites the example of high electricity tariffs in Delhi and hoarding and blackmarketing in foodstuff to make its case. Perhaps, the same could extend to asset bubbles in real estate and the ‘wealth effect’ caused by them.

Therefore, inflation would be seen as the obverse of the black money problem. The simplifying of inflation to a political economy issue rather than one caused by arcane global forces, would enhance the AAP’s political credibility.

That would, however, compel the AAP to spell out steps against black money. Will it crack down on real estate?

The socialists, unlike the Left, have been critical of the public sector. The AAP, therefore, may not be dogmatically averse to disinvestment. What it would insist on, however, is transparency of method. The AAP may be clear-headed on how such proceeds should be used.

The AAP would perhaps also be keen on making India Inc more accountable, which includes bringing its actions under the CAG lens. It may also push for a stricter patents regime in pharmaceuticals and royalty payments by multinationals.

The perception is that if, say, US multinationals are under pressure in their parent countries to cough up more tax for having benefited from State support, the principle should apply here too.

However, the AAP’s socialism may not have anything to do with the return of inspector raj. It seems to believe that small and medium scale businesses are tied down by taxes and regulations, a view that Kejriwal has expressed at various forums. Therefore, MSMEs can expect a positive policy environment. It also appears that the AAP will not brook cutbacks on social sector spending. But could we have something definite to go by?

The philosophical

Political movements have risen in huge expectant waves and fallen into ordinariness or worse. The Congress party was the vanguard of the Independence struggle.

The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the socialist offsprings of the JP movement are more recent examples of decline. Does the AAP have anything in its toolkit to prevent this from happening? It should delve into the concerns of JP when he took a break from politics to focus on the individual for more than a decade.

Even Mahatma Gandhi would step back from time to time to reflect on the question of the individual. They felt a sound individual alone would lay the foundation of a better society and politics.

This is a great political tradition to fall back on. It’s been forgotten all these decades.

(This article was published on January 7, 2014)
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