An economically socialist and politically parochial party cannot provide an attractive alternative to Indian voters
The barely disguised glee of some in the commenting class on the meteoric ascent of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)—both in its stunning debut in the Delhi assembly election and in its preparations to contest the upcoming national election—reflects, in some measure, a sense of relief at having a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) political party to root for.
Those who wish to see the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) punished at the polls for a range of legitimate reasons—including its poor track record on economic policy and corruption, to name the two most obvious—and who are, equally, uncomfortable with the return of a muscular Hindutva to the national stage, as represented by a Narendra Modi-led BJP, have now, it seems, found a new mascot in Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP.
There are good reasons to celebrate. It is a tenet of economics that, for the most part, more competition is better for consumers than less. Likewise, one might reason that, in the electoral sphere, a more competitive political space is better for voters than one that is less. More competition not only gives voters greater choices, which in itself is presumably good, but it also forces incumbent parties who have grown stale in office (or in the expectation of office) to think anew about their policy platforms and may give them reason to refresh their roster of leaders in the bargain.
Much as in the US, with its entrenched two-party system, the Indian polity, until the advent of the AAP, seemed to be congealing into a de facto two-party state, with, presumably, the Congress and the BJP taking turns being in government (episodes of which might be punctuated by messy and short-lived “third front" governments in the event of an indecisive mandate from voters). This, in a sense, is the sign of a mature, if boring, democracy, in which mainstream political parties have coalesced on various sides of the preferred choices of the “median" voter over a range of issues.
The AAP has unsettled the serenity of this unfolding narrative and now, it would appear, is poised to provide the Indian electorate with a viable and genuinely distinct alternative to the Congress and the BJP: committed, on the one hand, to a Congress-style buy-in of historically disadvantage groups (such as women, SC/STs, and OBCs) which differentiates it from the BJP, while, on the other, committed, self-evidently, to tackling root and branch the rot of corruption, and pitching for “good governance" (ill-defined and nebulous though that concept is), which heretofore has appeared to be a Modi monopoly.
What is more, as has by now been widely commented upon, the AAP appears ready to poach the BJP’s natural constituency—urban, middle class voters—and may, therefore, be in a position to play spoiler, or kingmaker, in the event that neither the Congress nor the BJP and their respective allies win a majority of seats in the next Lok Sabha.
This is where three notes of caution are in order amidst all of the current euphoria.
First, on matters of economic policy, where the Congress since 2004 has retreated atavistically into its pre-1991 socialist mould, the AAP does not offer voters anything better, on current evidence. Indeed, they may, if that is possible, try to out-Congress the Congress when it comes to ill-conceived, albeit popular, redistributive schemes such as its free water and subsidized electricity programmes in Delhi.
Further, their first few weeks in office suggest a possible parochialism in government (if not in their philosophical ideas, as loftily expressed by party ideologue Yogendra Yadav) which might even impress chauvinistic political parties such as Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena. The scheme, recently mooted, to reserve 90% seats in Delhi University colleges for local students will be enormously damaging to the well-earned cosmopolitanism of one of the nation’s premier university systems as well as be entirely unfitting for the nation’s capital region.
Yet in keeping with the propensity of some in the media to give the AAP a free pass, this outlandish proposal (not originating with the AAP, but one which they have made no attempt to squelch) has surprisingly elicited little opprobrium apart from one or two newspaper leaders pronouncing a mild rebuke. Imagine the media reaction had a similar proposal been suggested elsewhere by the BJP.
Finally, with the real possibility that the AAP may eat into votes that the BJP (prematurely, it turns out) had assumed were in the bag, and therefore that the general election may deliver a hung Parliament rather than a decisive outcome, one does have to ask whether a protracted period of political uncertainty under the aegis of a fractious “third front" government, with or without the AAP, would at all be in India’s best interests. This question, surely, answers itself.
Thus, while the rise of the AAP is certainly to be welcomed as providing a fresh voice in our national discourse, voters should not be misled by gushing commentaries portraying this event as an unalloyed boon.
An Indian electorate looking for a viable alternative to the Congress may yet decide that an established national party such as the BJP is a better bet than the green and as yet largely untested AAP.
Vivek Dehejia is a professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.