At a time when most political debates are predictable, with battle lines drawn between rival political parties and issues centered on specific statements made by personalities or triggered by some violent emotive issue, a recent TV programme last month witnessed a rare, sharp and brief exchange on the economic ideology of a political party. The issue was FDI in the Indian retail sector.

Even more surprisingly, the two debaters were from the same political party and had joined it a few days earlier; each took a diametrically opposite view—one supporting FDI in retail sector and the other opposing it. It is perhaps no wonder that this rare disconnect and open debate between members of the same party was seen in the Aam Aadmi Party, the new kid on the block attracting hordes of supporters.     

Rooting for a corruption-free India and local self-government, the victory of Aam Aadmi Party in the recent Delhi elections triggered the aspirations in many Indians who want a better India. Surge in this desire can be entirely explained given that AAP is not just idealistic but also evolving as a viable alternative to the established political parties.

AAP’s overt focus on ideologically-neutral issues has attracted supporters from a wide spectrum of economic leanings. While on the one hand, the supporter base among entrepreneurs and corporate executives could be seeing in AAP a vehicle for providing less-government with more-governance, academicians and NGO associates joining the party would see it as an instrument to realize a less commercial and more humane society.    

Given this diversity in support base, it was not surprising to witness the clash between a former journalist educated at JNU, the citadel of Left ideology in India, and a successful entrepreneur who used the markets to make it possible for many middle-class Indians to travel across the sky with his pioneering low-cost airlines initiative, connecting smaller towns.

A moot point that came out of this crisp exchange is the flexibility of political parties on their economic ideology. Is it rigid and set in their DNA or can it be a subject for discussion and debate in internal party forums evolving over short time periods with the introduction of new members?  

Pic: India Together files

AAP’s vision outlined in a detailed twenty-nine page document provides a clue to the social and economic ideas they endorse. As a party targeting to garner mass support, the vision document rightly shies away from using rigid labels that could reduce its attraction among sections of the public. This reluctance to use standard labels of left and right was explicitly spelt out by AAP-icon Arvind Kejriwal in an interview after he became Delhi’s Chief Minister. However, for the interested reader wishing to know AAP’s ideology, their preferences are distinctly visible when viewed through an ideological lens.

Political parties since inception have been driven by ideology. A party without an ideology is like decaffeinated coffee—good only in form, without providing the ‘kick’. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European parliaments saw the emergence of political parties organized around the question of where to vest supreme political power, in the Royalty or the parliament.

In the 19th century, the focus shifted to economic issues, with the birth of socialist parties and their agenda of creating a class-less society of equals by withdrawing hereditary rent-earning privileges given to a few in the society. The 20th century saw the economic debate shifting to the issue of free markets. This pitted its proponents, who viewed markets as the universal solution to all human challenges, against the ‘subsidy’ providers, who either undermined free markets in favour of the poor and the needy or pressed the State to provide services at a cost to the public exchequer.   

Classifying political parties based on their ideology today is a challenge as clear distinctions have been blurred in both the economic and social axes. Social liberalists uphold the right of individuals to make personal choices in contrast to traditionalists who opt for status quo and quote hoary traditions to defend it. In India, some pertinent debates have centered around the Supreme Court’s decision on IPC Section 377 and stands taken on the validity of Khap panchayats in enforcing law and order in rural India.

On the economic front, subsidy for food security and affordable basic amenities such as power and water have provided recent flashpoints. In addition, FDI in retail is another contest point, as the employment of around 3 crore Indians engaged in retail are seen to be at stake.

Given this backdrop, a few highlights from AAP’s vision statement are revealing. The section on economic outlook starts with the growing inequality in Indian society where it focuses on wealth concentration in the hands of a few business houses even as 70 percent of the Indian population live on less than Rs.20 a day. It argues that concentration of wealth does not augur well for the Indian democracy.

Further, on the issue of contract labour their stand is distinctly pro-worker as it opposes using contract labour to dilute social security provided to them. AAP’s position against the Supreme Court judgment in the case over Section 377, and its nuanced stand on accepting Khap panchayats as a historical social institution providing useful service, while at the same time being critical of its anti-women decisions reflect its liberal views.  

We cannot rely entirely on a vision document, of course, as actions speak louder than words. Hence the first two major decisions of the AAP government in Delhi - to provide a fixed quantity of water free and subsidize power tariffs - only support the view that AAP is rightly favouring the poor and needy, even if it means potentially interrupting power for some.

Given their strong pro-market ideological leanings, entrepreneurs and corporate executives flocking to AAP should ask themselves if the DNA of a political party can be radically transformed by internal debates and discussion, or if it's rigid and unalterable. Their answer will determine if this section will continue to flock to the party or ‘fly‘ away  after lying low for some time.