More to governance than just populism

| | in Oped

Unless the Aam Aadmi Party shows some policy maturity, it will probably become an undifferentiated political party, much like the anti-corruption crusaders of the previous years. It also risks losing political relevance like the past ones, writes Aseem Prakash

The successful debut of the Aam Aadmi Party in politics has dramatically changed the national political discourse. It has demonstrated that a social movement can successfully establish itself as a political party and succeed in electoral politics. It has showed the political payoffs of symbolic politics: No beacons on cars, no official residences, Ministers travelling by the Metro for the swearing-in ceremony, and the slashing of water and electricity tariffs.

While the Ministers have subsequently begun using official cars, and taking advantage of official accommodation, the media has tended not to focus on these inconsistencies. Indeed, one marvels at the ability of the AAP to capture public imagination. Established political parties are in a reactive mode, and lack a strategy to respond to the AAP.

The pundits debate the longevity of the AAP Government. The AAP has announced its plans to contest the Lok Sabha election. Yet, it remains to be seen extent to which the AAP will be able to replicate its electoral success beyond Delhi. More fundamentally, the ability of the AAP to transform Indian politics will depend on how quickly it can transcend symbolic politics and engage in substantive politics with at least a medium term agenda.

Anti-corruption movements are not new. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Bihar campaign was primarily an anti-corruption movement. It led to the creation of a new political party, the Janata Party. This party achieved spectacular electoral success in the 1977 Lok Sabha election. Eventually, the experiment failed. For one, the Janata Party did not engage in coherent substantive politics: Anti-Congressism was effective to hold together its disparate factions as long as the Congress was in power. But once the Congress was out of power, internal squabbles erupted. Within a few years, the JP experiment was dead.

The student and youth leaders who rose to prominence in the JP movement — Nitish Kumar, Subodh Kant Sahay and Chandra Shekhar, soon became pillars of normal politics. Anti-corruption was submerged in their political agendas. Raj Narain, the giant-killer who defeated Indira Gandhi, and who claimed to epitomise the aam aadmi, quickly became irrelevant in Indian politics.

VP Singh also rose in prominence as an anti-corruption crusader. He successfully converted the Bofors scandal into a potent political issue and secured electoral success. Yet, once in power, anti-corruption disappeared from his agenda. His legacy has got defined by the issue of reservation, not anti-corruption.

The Asom Gana Parishad came to power in the wake of the Assam agitation. While the movement was directed against illegal immigration from Bangladesh and the changed demographic profile of Assam, its young leaders sought to project a simple lifestyle. When the new Chief Minister got married, he refused to accept gifts. Yet, in a couple of years, the AGP began functioning like a normal political party with its share of corruption scandals.

Would the AAP fare differently? Much depends on its ability to translate the anti-corruption agenda into substantive policies. The AAP seems to have two core ideas in this regard. First, it believes that corruption exists because there is lack of monitoring and prosecution of politicians and bureaucrats, and the Jan Lokpal will solve the problem. The assumption is that no effective law exists to check corruption; and the Jan Lokpal will have the resources and incentives to crack down on corruption.

While institutional deficit certainly contributes to corruption, corruption has deeper economic and sociological roots. If land is scarce and, therefore, valuable, as in Delhi, those controlling the use of land will have enormous power to distribute rents. I doubt a Jan Lokpal will be able to respond to such complex economic forces.

The solution lies in reducing demands for land, to regulate urbanisation and create counter magnets so that rural residents do not flock to urban areas in search of jobs. Giving freebies to urban areas actually make urban areas more attractive, increases demand for land, and, therefore, may accentuate corruption.

The second substantive issue pertains to reducing corruption via mohalla sabhas. The logic is that mohalla sabhas will allow citizens to come together, work amicably, decide on and monitor fund use, and eliminate corruption. The logic of this argument is intriguing. It is not clear how exactly these sabhas will be constituted. Who will elect them? Would the Election Commission be involved? What will be the role of councillors, MLAs and MPs in this dispensation?

The AAP has successfully transformed itself from a social movement to a serious political party. While it has fared well on symbolic politics, its substantive anti-corruption game plan is unclear. It has failed to appreciate the fundamental issues behind corruption. Unless it shows some policy maturity, the AAP will probably become an undifferentiated political party, like the anti-corruption crusaders of the previous years.

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