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7 Jan, 2014

Indian Rising Star AAP: An Asian Alternative Paradigm in the making?

The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, or Common Man Party) in India is another strong indication of a rising Asian Century. Having come from nowhere to assume governance of the Indian capital of New Delhi, the party’s revolutionary platform has all the hallmarks of an emerging Asian Alternative Paradigm (the other AAP).

In the new world order, when political and geopolitical developments have far more impact on travel & tourism than economic and environmental events, the AAP may have the same game-changing impact as low-cost carriers on Asian aviation. Just as LCCs enabled everyone to fly, the AAP is pledging that everyone can, should, will and must have a say in deciding their destinies. Indeed, the latest in a long line of well-known Indians signing up under the AAP banner is Capt G.R. Gopinath, a former CEO of Deccan Air, often called the pioneer of low-cost aviation in India.

Set up by the Magsaysay Award winning social and political activist Arvind Kejriwal, 44, a mechanical engineering graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology (Khadakpur) and former income tax-officer, the newly-established party won a defiantly high 28 of the 70 seats in the New Delhi legislative assembly, upsetting the long-standing dominance of the Congress Party and challenging the ascendancy of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr Kejriwal has become Delhi’s chief minister in a coalition with Congress and now faces the challenge of implementing his manifesto. His Cabinet also includes a Minister of Administrative Reform, Law, Tourism, Art & Culture, Mr. Somanth Bharti, a 39-year-old lawyer and activist turned politician. That appointment opens the door for the AAP to chart an equally revolutionary “Aam Admi” manifesto and game-plan for tourism, too.

The party’s website says: “Every civilisation reaches a plimsoll line of tolerance. India’s common man has had enough of oppression, inequality, injustice and unkept promises. For the last two years the anti corruption movement has galvanised the country from end to end into one common voice – a voice that is demanding a complete rehaul in the way political parties and their leaders function. This national demand for a change in the way our political system works has forced our anti corruption drive to enter the political arena to clean it from the inside. Politics itself is not a dirty word – it is our current breed of politicians who have made it dirty. Aam Aadmi Party wants to make politics a noble calling once again.”

In essence, the AAP’s vision statement says that the India of today has failed to honour the ideals and sacrifices of its freedom-fighters and founders; the system is stacked in favour of the rich and powerful who bilk it to become even more rich and powerful; the Common Man cannot start a business, get a job, health-care, education or justice without paying a bribe; this cancerous system must be overhauled; undertaking such surgery successfully will need talented and committed people, especially the young; the AAP itself must lead by example and remain free of corruption, cronyism and nepotism.

While “the system” has generated extensive economic growth, it has lost the trust of the majority of Indians because it is unjust, unfair and imbalanced. The AAP offers hope that this vast majority, mostly poor, can regain some control over their own destinies and fulfill their needs and aspirations. While Mr. Kejriwal works to implement his mandate to walk the talk, it is certain that the AAP platform will resonate in Indonesia, Asia’s third most populous country, which is also facing a national election this year, and then gains traction in other countries.

Some of his most important views, of noteworthy relevance to the Indian and Asian economies, and by extension to travel & tourism, are contained in the AAP vision statement and Mr Kejriwal’s book “Swaraj” (Self-Governance). They decry the role of multinational corporations and their ability to undermine democracy. This is what Mr. Kejriwal writes in his introduction to Swaraj:

“I was working for the income tax department earlier. At the end of the 90’s, the income tax department carried out a survey of many MNC’s. During this survey, these MNC’s were caught red-handed evading income tax. They accepted their crime and paid the entire amount without an appeal. Had these companies been in other countries, their senior executives would have been jailed. During the survey one chief executive of an MNC threatened the income tax team by saying that their presence in (India) boosted its economy; that they were here to help a poor country like India but if the income tax department continued to bother them they would pack up and leave. His boast did not seem an idle one when he said that he had access to the parliamentarians at the centre; that he could get his bills passed and could even get personnel who bothered them transferred. The threat rang true when one of the senior officers of our team was actually transferred.

“At that time I did not give much importance to the talks of these foreign companies. I thought they were venting their anger, frustrated with the process of survey. But I started to see the truth behind their talk by many incidents that happened in the last few years. I started to (probe) the truth of their claim; “Did they really have control over our parliament?”

Mr. Kejriwal cites numerous other instances of how the nexus between corrupt and conniving corporate giants, bureaucrats, politicians, judges and police leads to major problems downstream and the amassing of “unlimited wealth by fraud and deceit.” He writes, “When a business house buys 2G Spectrum license at Rs. 1500 crore from the government and then sells it 10 days later at Rs. 6000 crore, making thousands of crores in profit, is it correct? Is this kind of earned wealth right for the society, country or democracy? With this money they can buy any leader, officer or institution.”

He describes how “a few industrialist families are openly indulging in pillaging the country”, how villagers are losing their land as the rich and powerful buy it up in the name of development, change the land use rules and sell it for enormous profit, how contracts are rigged to benefit corporations, how subsidies and pricing policies are altered and fixed. All this exacerbates the growing rich-poor income gap and skews India’s socio-economic progress. The poor and marginalised suffer most, even though, ironically, they are supposed to benefit most.

He also blasts many of India’s social, cultural and ethnic anomalies, including the creation of vote banks based on communal and ethnic lines, the playing of religious cards, the scourge of female foeticide and more. He names people and politicians, describes how the system works against the people and how it is manipulated.

What has changed since the days of colonial British empire, Mr Kejrival asks. “Even 65 years after Independence, India of today is totally contrary to what was imagined. Why? Because the framework designed to run the country was totally inappropriate. We wanted an independent India, but continued with the rules, regulations and laws from the British era. Before Independence, this framework was answerable to British rulers and not to public. After independence, it swore allegiance to indigenous leaders and stayed anti-public. Hence the tyranny of the rulers continued — first by the Britishers, and later by our own people.

“Aam Aadmi Party wants to totally upturn the system. First of all the systemic structure carried forward from the British era has to be changed. The structure has to be loyal and accountable to the public and not to the leaders. Being accountable is not limited to changing of guard once in five years through voting. The elected Government should also be answerable directly to the public. The Public should have authority to remove corrupt and ineffective leaders and officers. This Dream of Golden India lies unfulfilled.”

Not tainted by corruption scandals, nor in the pockets of big business groups, Mr Kejriwal earned the Person of the Year title by the Times of India newspaper and Indian of the Year title by the TV network NDTV.  He is now seeking to expand AAP’s electoral success in Delhi to a nationwide level. Social media and the website are being extensively used to invite clean candidates to stand under the party banner for the upcoming national elections, and also using the website for fund-raising. It is also promising total transparency in who is providing it with funds.

His book and the vision statement are of direct relevance to many aspects of the travel & tourism industry. The sweeping changes he is promising will eventually have a trickle-down effect and force industry conferences and events to shift away from their preaching-to-the-converted agendas, which are mainly driven by the need to advance the interests of the multinational corporations. Instead, they may now have to focus on addressing the needs of the Common Man, the millions of at-the-coalface workers who deliver the services the industry brags about.

The AAP’s biggest problem will be the people who benefit from the status quo. Its list of potential enemies include corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, corporate executives, judges, the media, security people, and more. Mr. Kejriwal also opposes the privatisation of water and electricity utilities and has already moved to provide low-income households with a minimum level of free water. This would be anathema to the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and other international financial institutions which are known to favour a privatisation agenda, supposedly as a means of conserving water usage.

Most affected is would-be prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the controversial Hindu fanatic chief minister of Gujarat, under whose watch nearly 2,000 Muslims were massacred in the Godhra riots of 2002. Campaigning on a “development agenda”, Mr Modi has become the darling of the Indian corporate houses and big-business groups. Mr Kejriwal’s vision statement is a total anti-thesis of Mr Modi’s agenda. By offering an alternative paradigm, trust and hope, the AAP’s victory has gained saturation media coverage nationwide and wiped Mr. Modi’s anti-Congress rants off the map. He is now looking like a tired, third-rate politician peddling the same old discredited theories on “development”.

The AAP victory is a clear sign of an emerging grassroots backlash against the “system”. Even more surprising is that none of the experts and pundits took it seriously, until it gained a powerful mandate in a free and fair election. Now, everyone is waking up and signing up. As the Aam Admi Party gains traction, 2014 will prove to be a game-changer in advancing an Asian Alternative Paradigm that may change the course of history.