One does not have to be an admirer of Arvind Kejriwal to appreciate what he has done. The social activist has taken on some of the most powerful people in India. He has energized at least some portions of the urban middle class out of its apathy. He has ensured that corruption remains a prime concern in public discourse. He has created a media feeding frenzy to keep his movement in the news.
Kejriwal unveiled his new political party on Monday. Its website (www.aamaadmiparty.org) has a section that tries to explain what the agenda of the party is. A look at this section shows that the Aam Aadmi Party has little to offer other than sermons on corruption—at least till now. The party seems bereft of ideas on what it wants to do about important national issues.
Take the discussion on rising prices, for example. Economists have been scratching their heads about why India has had such persistently high inflation in recent years. There have been many explanations, but to suggest that it is because of a conspiracy is incredible. “Government has deliberately inflated rates of many commodities just to ensure that corporate giants make more profit. This is direct corruption. Aam Aadmi Party feels that the price of critical commodities should be determined with people’s consent,” says the manifesto.
One wonders which critical commodities the new party believes is produced by evil companies. Rice? Wheat? Milk? Fruit? This is where inflation has been most severe in recent years. And one wonders how their prices will be determined by people’s consent. That is what a market usually does, but one doubts that Kejriwal is talking about more robust markets for agricultural produce; in fact, he wants a ban on forward markets in such commodities.
The confusion worsens when one goes to another part of the manifesto, about ensuring that farmers get fair prices for their produce. The crux of the argument here is that farmers should get higher procurement prices from the government. Read the two suggestions together, and you get a composite demand of higher support prices for farmers and lower prices for consumers. Who and how the gap will be funded are questions left to the imagination.
Of course, these are early days. The thinking of the Aam Aadmi Party may evolve in the coming months, as it seeks expert advice on various policy issues. But right now its agenda is more an echo of its anti-corruption crusade, with all its certainties and moral anger.
The overall tenor of the Aam Aadmi Party is populist, with anger against the establishment, a strong belief in the people, fear of big business, a yearning for direct democracy, and much else. Some of the discussions are reminders of the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) in the 1970s. The aim was total revolution. “The objective of this movement is not merely to change the government, but also to change the society and the individual. That is why I have called it total revolution,” JP wrote.
JP was a towering figure, having led the underground movement in 1942 and then throwing himself into the Sarvodaya movement after he got disgusted with party politics. His movement attracted the youth, but he also had several thinkers with him. His agenda was similarly populist, though he was more concerned about the decline of the education system as well as caste oppression than Kejriwal seems to be.
It is hard to judge what impact the Aam Aadmi Party will have in the elections, but it is an experiment worth watching, even though its policy ideas seem vacuous.