Why AAP faces self-destruction by forming the Delhi government

The Aam Aadmi Party will quickly lose relevance if it does not move quickly from populism to transparent honesty about its economic ideology.

R Jagannathan December 23, 2013 09:30:04 IST
Why AAP faces self-destruction by forming the Delhi government

Now that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is going to form the government in Delhi with outside support from a wounded Congress party, it is clear that its agenda will be short-term in nature. Neither AAP nor Congress can be under any illusion that this is a made-for-each-other combo. In fact, in the long run they have to become enemies. Reason: the Congress believes it is the real aam aadmi party (AAP), while Arvind Kejriwal has simply stolen the name as the Congress failed to register aap as its political trademark. AAP has scored over aap in IPR at least.

Since this is an uneasy marriage of short-term convenience – in fact, one should see it as a loveless one-night stand – AAP’s agenda will be to keep it simple and quick. It will aim to prove that it can implement its promises in a jiffy so that it can go back to the electorate in a couple of months and say – look we did it – and seek a regular majority.

This means, in the initial weeks it will try to mandate 700 litres of free water supply to every Delhi household, legislate a powerful anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill, try and cut power tariffs by auditing the books of power companies, and start regularising illegal colonies. Among other things.

Surjit Bhalla, writing in The Indian Express, compares AAP to to America's Tea Party, except that AAP is the left version of the Tea Party, but with even less ideological coherence. He predicts early demise for AAP if it continues down its populist road. (Read Bhalla's wonderful piece here). Bhalla hopes that AAP returns to power so that it's bluff can be called.

He's right. Consider how AAP is promising to implement exactly the kind of mind-numbing populist schemes that the Congress is famous for – never mind what fiscal prudence dictates. Since AAP plans to be in power for only a couple of months in its initial run, it may end up doing things that may do long-term damage – again similar to what the Congress party has done in its dying months at the centre.

Why AAP faces selfdestruction by forming the Delhi government

Arvind Kejriwal in this file photo. Reuters

If Congress is run like a feudal conglomerate, AAP is like a populist khap that with no direction beyond populism.

In India, bad ideas are never opposed politically for fear of losing votes in a first-past-the-post system where a one or two percentage points difference in vote share can bring you to power or turf you out. This is exactly what AAP is counting on in the next Delhi assembly elections.

However, that does not make it a politically responsible party that can ever even begin to set things right. Its one simple calling card is its anti-corruption stance, but between the hype and the reality, it has failed to see the connection between theoretically wanting to reduce corruption and doing the right things to get this done.

What we need in Delhi (and elsewhere) is a party that speaks the truth and brings in honest people to govern the state. But the freebies and concessions Kejriwal promises to give are essentially about fooling the people.

Consider the anomalies between AAP’s holier-than-thou attitudes and the sheer non-transparency of its own solutions to Delhi’s problems.

By anecdotal evidence, Delhi is probably the most corrupt city in India. The stinking corruption of the super-rich is matched by the everyday corruption of its ordinary citizens. The only long-term way to bring this down is by steadily increasing transparency in all government purchases and contracts, putting ordinary day-to-day dealings between citizen and government on the web and reducing the need for personal interface, and things like that. This can be decreed, and does not need legislation. It needs administrative fiat, and steady implementation skills, not rabble-rousing on the streets. If AAP manages this, hats off to it. But it is not something that can happen between now and an April election.

The other solution – a Jan Lokpal to police the corrupt – is a vital part of this drive, but the chances are if the Lokpal become too zealous, it will merely increase the cost of corruption. The systemic changes on transparency have to be combined with an intelligent application of the Jan Lokpal law to make things work and people change. This is not something AAP has yet thought through. It seems to believe – exactly like the Congress – that a tough law is all that is needed. India has the toughest laws in the world on terror, rape, domestic violence, prevention of atrocities against SC/STs, et al, but where are we on making our society better?

Next, consider the message being sent if you start regularising illegal colonies in one flourish. I am, of course, not suggesting that people living in them should be uprooted or their houses demolished. That would be simply too inhuman when these people have invested their hard-earned savings to build a home. The point is illegal colonies are built by builders, criminals and the land mafia and facilitated by a corrupt administration, not by the people living in them. Regularising these colonies without making the people who created them pay for it will do not any good. Unless the builders are caught and penalised, they will, in fact, see regularisation as encouragement to build more illegal colonies.

Cutting power tariffs is easier said than done. Power tariffs are set by the electricity regulatory commission, and not the government. Any decision of the commission can be challenged in court, and hence there is no easy way to get the commission to toe Kejriwal’s line. An easier route would be to simply subsidise power and bring the rates down, but this would not only be fiscally irresponsible, but also defeat the very point Kejriwal is making. If he says that power companies are overcharging, and then pays them subsidies, he is then essentially subsidising power companies that are blatantly overcharging.

The only sensible way to go about this is to set up an audit committee, and then offer this audit report to the regulatory commission and hope rates come down. And remember, even this process is not going to deliver immediately – since the power companies can always seek a court stay order.

The worst promise, of course, is the one on free water. This is a moral hazard that Kejriwal will never be able to live down – and any decision like this will come back to bite Delhi permanently.

Let’s assume there is enough water to supply every household 700 free litres. First, there is the question of who will subsidise this delivery? Next, even assuming the subsidy can be paid for by charging more from those who use more than 700 litres, it will mean more corruption since it calls for charging differential water rates. It needs investment in better metering, better collection of bills, and better policing of the water delivery system. The huge leakages enroute will have to be plugged – both the physical leaks and the leaks encouraged by the water mafia which will be covertly supplying “free” municipal water to tankers. This is what happens to cheap rice supply to through the PDS, and water will be even easier to divert.

More important is the moral hazard. Once something is free, it will not only be tough to roll back, but it will be wasted. Charging even a nominal amount for water is the right thing to do even for the poor – who anyway pay for water in their jhuggis.

AAP has many promises to deliver, but even if it delivers these temporarily it is digging its own grave for the future. If it wants to be a party of government, it has to think responsibly.

Its early moves do not give us that confidence. When Congress support enabled it to form a government, the first thing it did was poll its own people to check if it should accept the offer.

Engaging voters regularly with important issues is the stuff of democracy, but asking voters regularly on what the leaders should do is like outsourcing responsibility to the mob. Why not ask them if power tariffs should be cut? They will always say yes.

Democracy is about engaging people, not asking them for their opinion on every small thing. The first job of a real leader is to discuss difficult issues with the experts, develop sensible policy options, and explain why some things have to be done to the public.

It is very easy to tell people you will get free water or 50 percent off in power charges. It is tougher to tell the people why they should pay for water, or why the cuts in electricity charges have to be less than 50 percent because if power companies are not reasonably profitable, no power will be supplied. The power companies may be cooking up their books, but the best way to deal with that is to allow competition in power supplies and instituting regular audits. Promising to cut a tariff by half without a proper audit is plain irresponsible.

The omens for AAP using power responsibly and developing genuine leadership are not propitious. Delivering on promises over the short term without thinking through the long-term consequences of what they decide is plain irresponsible.

India badly needs a left-of-centre party to challenge the decrepit Congress and the more right-wing BJP, but if AAP fails to bring coherence to its ideology it will self-destruct rather quickly.

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