I have chosen the title of this piece with care. I call the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) an experiment because it is “an attempt at something new or different; an effort to be original,” as one dictionary describes the meaning of the word “experiment.” It also fits the meaning given by another dictionary as “a test, trial, or tentative procedure; an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc”. My understanding of AAP was that it was set up to prove that it is possible to set up and run a political party successfully in a competitive electoral arena. I consider it daring as it is a brave, courageous, and adventurous stuff to do this kind of an experiment. Some might even consider it foolhardy. The qualifier ‘still’ is necessary because it is too early and premature to declare the experiment either a success or a failure. But it is not inappropriate for an interim review.
A second clarification is that I have never made a public comment on an individual political party or candidate for election, so far, because I work for systemic reform of the political and electoral systems. I am making this exception because it a significant experiment on the political ferment.
Why is it too early and premature of declare this experiment either a success or a failure? Because an experiment of this nature requires a much longer time frame than three years to provide even indications of success or failure. Setting up even a so-called normal political party and that too successfully in a fiercely competitive electoral arena such as India, is not, and cannot be, short-term by any stretch of imagination. And when the avowed objective is to set up — and successfully — a political party with the ambition of changing the very fundamentals of how politics is done in the country, it will obviously take longer.
It is likely to take something in the region of 10 to 15 years for setting up, and making an acknowledged success of, even a so-called normal party; it is reasonable to expect the setting-up of a new type of party to take even longer. Of course, such an experiment, like any other, can fail at any time. For example, if the party was to wind up and declare that it is not in the political arena at all, the experiment would end. But AAP is very much a work-in-process. It is in the saddle in Delhi with an overwhelming majority and there seem to be no signs of it going anywhere until its five-year term is over. The party has also given clear indications of contesting elections in Punjab. So, it is still very much in the game and must be given more time before a final judgment is passed.
Straws in the wind
While the fair time-frame may well be 10-15 years or longer, are there any portends to indicate which way the experiment is headed? This is a very difficult question to respond to satisfactorily, but a response must be attempted. It is not feasible to analyse all actions of the party taken during the past three years, but it is worth looking at a couple of what might be considered stark examples.
The first that I have chosen to mention is how the meetings of the National Council have been held over the last couple of years. Holding these meetings in resorts and farmhouses, and not allowing free and open access to these meetings does not seem to be in keeping with what would be reasonably expected of a party that was born out of a campaign for openness and transparency. Though the last meeting seems to have passed reasonably quietly and without the furore that occurred during some of the earlier meetings, the lack of openness seems to have left a jarring aftertaste.
The second example is the way state units are being managed and handled. The only state that gave the party a presence in the Lok Sabha, Punjab, has a lot of dirty linen being washed in full public view. After major squabbles, two of the four MPs are no longer with the party and the state unit is possibly being completely revamped. The situation in another major state where the party did have a presence, again as a result of the anti-corruption movement, Maharashtra, is almost identical. There have been reports of the state unit being dissolved and being set up anew.
Another stark example is the ambivalence of the party towards the Right to Information Act (RTI Act).
This seems very ironic when six national political parties are blatantly defying the law of the land by ignoring the decision of the highest statutory authority that has declared them to be public authorities under the RTI Act. This was one clear opportunity that the AAP had of clearly distinguishing itself from the so-called normal political parties, but its ambivalence in not appointing public information officers has been disappointing. Given that some of the founders had extremely close, almost embryonic connections with the RTI Act, this ambivalence comes almost across as a betrayal. Though the party has made statements about fully supporting the application of the RTI Act to political parties, reports and testimonies of the party not accepting RTI applications abound.
The latest straw is the revision of the salaries and allowances of MLAs. While no one can, or should, question the right of public representatives to lead honourable and dignified lives, the problem with the proposal is that it follows the same format of various itemised allowances as has been the norm for MPs and MLAs in all states all these years. It is well-established by experience in India as well as in other countries that what is mentioned as the maximum limit of an allowance, practically ends up being considered as an entitlement with the passage of time. It is beyond comprehension that AAP members, MLAs, and leaders do not know about the gory workings of how reimbursements are claimed, because they have spoken about these nefarious methods when, as social activists, they used to criticise political parties.
By following the same format, they have again opened themselves to the charge of being no different from the other so-called normal political parties. This was another opportunity to distinguish themselves from other parties. The party could have proposed a radically different format for the emoluments of MLAs. One such possibility is to give them a fixed amount as a lump sum without any additional allowances and facilities which, in any case, is a euphemism for privileges. This would imply that an MLA gets a fixed amount of money and nothing else, no free or subsidised house rent, no car, no telephone, no reimbursement for anything at all, no office rent, no constituency allowance, no free travel, no secretarial allowance. Let each MLA get this lump sum and decide for her/himself how she/he wants to use this money. This way the people will know what each MLA costs them, a ‘cost-to-the-country’, if you will.
Ends vs means
It is possible that the top brass of the party has a plan or strategy in mind which will, in the long run, enable them to achieve their goal of setting up a party that will prove that it is possible to win elections and govern a state and the country by doing honest, corruption-free politics. But this raises several questions, two of which deserve mention. One arises from “top brass”. Several of the original founders have fallen by the wayside. It appears from the outside that there are possibly only two of the originals left in the party. All the others have become fellow travellers over time. Every time action is taken which seems not to be in keeping with the avowed goal, an opportunity arises for the Cassandras to rise and claim “I told you so”.
The fallacy arises in trying to achieve noble ends with less-than-noble means. Those who aspire and claim to aspire for the high moral ground do not have the option of taking paths that are less than those with the highest morality. Proving that elections can be won and effective governance provided with honest, clean politics is undoubtedly an extremely worthy aim, but it cannot be achieved by saying “We are doing the best possible under the circumstances,” or to use a cliché, by saying “the best is often the enemy of the good.” To achieve the highest goal, only the best means are acceptable, not ‘the best possible under the circumstances’.
One hopes for the daring experiment to succeed but as more and more less-than-noble means are followed, success seems less and less attainable.
Only time will tell.
The author is a former professor, dean, and director-in-charge of IIM-Ahmedabad. Views expressed are personal.