The AAP’s success in Delhi is being viewed in some quarters as the beginning of a new kind of politics. Will this new politics deliver results? One could argue that perhaps it is too early to judge this barely one year old party. But with the AAP rushing to Parliament, we cannot afford to suspend critical judgment. Glimpses of the party’s policy orientation offered by announcements made by its government and the conduct of its ministers during the past few weeks provide a useful starting point for a discussion on what to expect of this new party and its new politics.
The AAP quickly fulfilled its key election promise regarding lowering the price of electricity. But the attention-grabbing declarations have left unaddressed a number of issues. It is not clear how the AAP will take its policies off the subsidy ventilator, how will it improve the targeting of subsidies, and if it intends to implement similar policies in states with much weaker financial condition than Delhi. The party also needs to say something about the supply side of the problem particularly because it seems to be justifiably opposed to nuclear energy. To be precise, it needs to spell out its plan to finance the modernization of electricity generation facilities in an age of increasing scarcity of energy resources and growing concerns about climate change.
Reservation is another issue on which the AAP’s position is not clear. Its education minister, who seems to presume that the Delhi University (DU) can be treated as a state university, wants to introduce a 90 per cent quota for the sons-of-the-soil in the University. The proposed policy will penalize students from economically backward states that do not have good universities as well as affect the quality of students joining DU. If the party takes this policy to its logical conclusion, then it will have to impose such quotas in each state where it comes to power. But quotas are not the solution to the problem of supply side bottlenecks in the higher education system. Another AAP leader promised to work for more reservations for lower castes and women without specifying how the Supreme Court mandated cap can be breached. We certainly need better affirmative action policies. But mechanically increasing the quotas might not be a good solution to the problem of unequal access to public resources.
Yet another example of the Delhi government’s ad hoc approach to policy-making is its communication to the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion seeking to withdraw permission for FDI in the multi-brand retail sector. While there surely are good reasons to oppose FDI in this sector, the manner in which permission is being withdrawn in Delhi is arbitrary. It is the responsibility of the government to engage all stakeholders before revising any policy. It needs to be emphasized that an anti-capitalist economic orientation need not be antithetical to a reasonably stable policy environment and also that public spectacles of simplicity cannot substitute sound economic policies.
The confusion over policies is matched only by the party’s ambivalence toward institutions. A bureaucrat, who questioned the desirability of disturbing the existing distribution of responsibilities between the transport and traffic police departments, and another bureaucrat, who questioned the propriety of encroaching upon the domain of the judiciary, seem to have fallen out of favour. The police are under fire for not taking orders from ministers to whom they are not answerable. These cases must have sent a clear signal to government servants that it pays to quietly follow the “new” ruling party. One is reminded of bureaucrats in states ruled by “corrupt” parties, who are penalized if they fail to defer to the ruling party.
This Orwellian turn of events was not entirely unexpected, though. Since the days of the Jan Lokpal movement, the AAP leaders have adopted " my way or the highway" approach to complex problems and have readily branded anyone who draws attention to procedural formalities as an enemy of the Aam Aadmi. A priori we cannot deny the possibility that the party is finding the existing system difficult to work with. But volunteers and vigilantes cannot substitute the bureaucracy and the police. Unfortunately, instead of undertaking the arduous task of understanding and reforming the system, the party is reducing governance to jammed helplines, arbitrary referenda, open courts, and dharnas. These examples highlight a very disturbing pattern. In its rush to Parliament, the AAP is showing lack of patience for careful policy deliberations and institutional niceties. Until the next elections the AAP government is likely to continue to prioritise headline worthy declarations over serious policy deliberations and operate in protest mode instead of focusing on creatively using the historic opportunity offered to it by the people of Delhi. But this short term electoral compulsion coupled with fragile inner party democracy poses a serious long term problem for the party. If the anti-institutional quick fix approach to governance delivers results in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, there is a real danger that it will permanently eclipse serious policy deliberation within the AAP. The party might find itself trapped in a vicious cycle as every year elections are due in some part of the country.
Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.