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#India – AAP is a Rorschach test

Wed, Jan 15 2014. 07 14 PM IST

 

Supporters believe the AAP will transform the nation. The real question is: into what? Switzerland or Cambodia?

Conventional wisdom has it that corporate India is waiting for its messiah, Narendra Modi, to lift India from the (relatively) low-growth swamp in which the country seems stuck—with an indecisive government unable or unwilling to figure out the next steps. The other conventional wisdom is that the Aam Aadmi Party () can’t be good for business, given the populist slant of its early pronouncements—free water to metered homes, audits of power companies, regularizing slums (which would give slum-dwellers the power to say “no” more forcefully the next time a company covets the land where they live).

And yet, in the weeks following the AAP’s performance in the Delhi election, at least four prominent corporate executives have decided to cast their lot with the party—Sameer Nair, former head of NDTV and Star TV, Infosys board member V. Balakrishnan, aviation entrepreneur G.R. Gopinath, and banker and former head of RBS in India, Meera Sanyal. (Disclosure: Sanyal is an old friend, and I actively supported her independent candidacy from South Mumbai in 2009).

To be sure, the AAP has attracted other prominent Indians too, including H.S. Phoolka, the lawyer fighting cases representing victims of the 1984 pogrom of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and Medha Patkar, who has kept alive the plight of those displaced to make way for the Narmada project. To that, add the politics of Prashant Bhushan (whose views on removing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Jammu and Kashmir are rather sensible, and the way to respond is by engaging and debating him, not by attacking him or the AAP’s offices), and Yogendra Yadav. Put it all together, and it might seem that the Centre cannot hold and things will fall apart.

Or, it is the equivalent of a large hall in which articulate Indians have got together, frustrated by the status quo—the party in corner A mired in corruption, tired of ruling, and unable to shake off its dependence on a dynasty (even though Rahul Gandhi appears to be a reluctant candidate for prime minister, and dynastic politics is not its monopoly); and in corner B, a party bizarrely choosing a tainted leader because he can rouse masses with exaggerations and some misinterpretations of history, in pursuit of temporary electoral gains.

Unwilling to side with either, these corporate executives have opted to write their version of what India should do, on this tabula rasacalled the AAP. There’s no guarantee they will succeed. But they have no faith in the two available choices.

What explains the apparent paradox? Why would these men and women opt for a party, whose leader, Arvind Kejriwal has written a populist pamphlet called Swaraj, which reads like the incoherent screed of angry protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Don’t they like free markets? Shouldn’t they back the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, (that’s assuming the BJP is for free markets)?

If you were to list Indian businesses which have donated to the main parties, and name the businessmen who frequent Modi’s “Vibrant Gujarat” summits, you will find one discernible pattern: some of them are owners or part of family businesses. Not all, but a number of them.

Now take a look at the executives who have joined the AAP. These professionals like clear rules, transparency, accountability, and simpler procedures. They are technology-driven pragmatists. And individually they have performed well. (In the tycoons’ case, their companies have performed well). But the tycoons’ success is also because they know how to manage the intricacies of the movement of files within Lutyenstown. Contacts with key bureaucrats are important here, as are phone calls of the sort that Neera Radia tended to specialize in. Know-how matters, but so does know-who. They know how the system works. The AAP, in theory, wants to change that, and so the others see hope in it.

That hope may be misplaced, unless the AAP immediately reviews its economic thinking. The poorly edited pamphlet from Kejriwal complicates the matter. Kejriwal sees virtue in examples like a town in the US saying no to Wal-Mart; a Brazilian city deciding budgets by a show of hands in ward after ward; and a country (Switzerland) where any major decision is made through a public vote or referendum. But certain issues are too important to be left to a majoritarian vote. Take, for example, the issue of revoking section 377 of the criminal code, or strengthening the rights of any vulnerable or disadvantaged group. A show of hands may end up eroding rights, unless people altruistically vote against their narrow interests. Mass show of hands isn’t so far from mob justice, as in the extreme case of Cambodian show trials.

The AAP is a Rorschach test. Major parties see it as a spoiler helping slow the BJP’s march or the Congress’s defence. Libertarians don’t like its subsidy culture; communists are alarmed that corporate India likes the AAP. And its supporters believe the AAP will transform the nation. The real question is: into what? Switzerland or Cambodia?

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at [email protected]. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-

 

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