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AAP’s brave new world

By on December 18, 2013
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In a recently hosted Solutions Summit session on ‘Governance: Towards cleaner politics in India’ held just last week in New Delhi, Piyush Goyal – a Rajya Sabha and BJP member – commented on the fact that it was extremely hard to keep an account of every single source of state-wide election funding considering the numerous constituencies his party oversaw. He added that maintaining the details of funding sources for the lower grant sizes was cumbersome, but that he is more than happy to ‘start taking down names and addresses’ should the law be amended. At this a lady from the audience stood up and shouted at him in the middle of the discussion, slamming him: “Outrageous sir, your comment. You have just said in front of us that when you collect money you find it difficult to keep an

account. What kind of election are you going for? You need to keep an account of every rupee coming into every account from every person! You can do it sir, if you cannot do it, please don’t stand for the election!”. As much as the BJP veteran tried to justify his stand, giving seemingly reasonable objections to the high browed audience, his hearing was drowned in a roar of applause from the gathering on the lady’s interjection. As the session ended, with numerous hearings from similarly livid members, one could not be mistaken in sensing the mood of the evening – a rebellious disdain for the current state of governance in all manners regarding transparency and accountability.

One would be missing the pulse of the nation today if one failed to notice this sentiment expressed across all quarters. On Dec 8, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), borne just a year ago out of an anti-corruption street movement , revealed a stunning debut in the 2013 Delhi assembly elections, creating enough head-turners to take notice of this new kid on the block that had seemingly turned Indian politics on its head. With a record voting turnout of 66% in the nation capital and the result, ripples of AAP’s success were felt across not only the compact boundaries of the Delhi state but the entire country.

An NYTimes article a few days before the election described an anti-incumbency mood on the streets that challenged the fate of the existing Congress party, which had ruled India for much of its history after independence: “Asked why they would use their vote on an untested newcomer, the auto-rickshaw drivers responded with a stream of grievances — over bribe-taking transport inspectors and thuggish police constables, but also over the price of onions, registration fees, potholes and a growing sense of disconnection between the governing class and the governed….Those who have latched on to the Common Man bandwagon include many in Delhi’s fast-growing informal economy — “this vast army of drivers, blacksmiths, locksmiths, cobblers, domestic workers, the guys who sell paan on the sidewalk,” said Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University. Voters like these interact constantly with low-level government officials, and their resentment has mounted to the point at which it trumps other political messages.”

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While the AAP has been able to garner significant votes from the poorer sections of indian society, it has appealed in a large part to the ever expansive Indian middle-class as well as the well-heeled crowd. In that, there is something to laud about the party’s achievement in its ability to communicate a vision that cuts across the traditional barriers of class, caste and identity politics, which have been the age-old hallmarks of Indian electioneering. Shazia Ilmi, a Muslim contender voting in the predominantly Hindu constituency of south Delhi’s RK Puram which comprises of only 4% muslims(as opposed to Delhi’s 12% muslims on average), was a popular candidate who projected herself as a liberal Indian rather than a Muslim woman. Although she lost her seat by a razor thin margin(a last minute framed sting operation by an opposition party is said to have gotten the better of her), she is a representative case of AAP’s evolution as a party with an agenda above the traditional. Also worth nothing is the party’s abstinence from the typical norm of handing out booze and cash just before the elections – a traditional plot used by the established parties to woo the poor. And while many have claimed that the AAP’s caste and religion-neutral politics is a formula that has worked for an urban citizenry like Delhi’s electorate, and that its success in the wider Indian rural outlands is questionable for a population primarily steeped in a centuries-old paradigm, one has to be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by the effects of a breath of fresh air.

The captain of the AAP ship is no aam admi himself, even as he embodies the voice and inspirations of many a common man. With an admirable tenacity and trail-blazing conviction in the party’s civic mission, Arvind Kejriwal’s track record has been far from ordinary – a former IRS tax commissioner he lobbied for the Right To Information (RTI) act demanding greater transparency for which he was awarded the prestigious Magsaysay award (considered Asia’s noble prize). He is also the founder of NGO Parivartan which takes on social issues and assists in informing citizens on matters relating to food ration, income tax etc . He donated all the money from his Magsaysay Award to set up Public Cause Research foundation, another NGO that works for promoting and equal and inclusive society for the marginalized. In giving voice to his thoughts on the formation of the party he said “We need an organisation to implement (the people’s) dreams and policies – an organisation that would look like a political party, but not behave like one”

It is this altruistic and idealistic motto, and its non-conformance with the existing maligned political landscape which has become the reason of the success of AAP – as is reflected in the numerous donations and support it received on a purely voluntary basis both from within the country and outside including the NRI diaspora. Unlike the coffers of Congress and BJP flush with cash, many of AAPs volunteers in fact worked purely on a pro bono basis. What has fired up the imagination of many is that if a party with no name, affiliation, little money or power precedent can make such an impact, purely based on the integrity and honesty of its idealism, there is reason to celebrate that ‘hope’ is still alive for Indian politics.

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A recent opinion piece analyzing the post-ideological nature of Kejriwal’s party even likens his success to that seen by Obama in his first US presidential elections: “Kejriwal’s tone is reminiscent of 2008 Barack Obama. (In fact, he has cited Obama as an inspiration, and his campaign benefited from savvy use of social media, crowdsourced fundraising and a committed group of grassroots volunteers.) He is full of hope and change, ready to clean up the dirty political scene by focusing on solutions, not tired ideologies. Unlike Obama (wisely, given the current political climate in India), Kejriwal doesn’t promise to cross the divide and work with his opponents; he’s more of a pugilist, and delights in hurling accusations at Congress and the BJP alike. Still, his overall approach to governance seems Obama-esque: he wants to usher in a new era of post-ideological, pragmatic, transparent governance.”

However, as much as many admire everything that the AAP stands for, and as Delhi vacillates today between the possibilities of a hung parliament with President’s rule and a coalition government, one cannot be naive in overlooking the very limited experience AAP’s leaders have had in public governance or national party politics. Therefore a closer inspection and full understanding of their policies is mandatory. After all, it is one thing to stir hope and set hearts aflutter for a national cause, or to fight the good fight, it is quite another to govern a state or country, create public and economic policy. And while a corruption-free India is undisputedly of high-priority, all of India’s problems do not necessarily stem from corruption. They lie in the deeper malaise of insidious poverty-cycles, class and caste divides, illiteracy, uneven rates of development between the rural and urban and hair-raising inequalities. Hence AAP’s reductive argument to trace back almost every evil the nation faces today to corruption is sometimes short-sighted, although one must relent that given the party’s initial agenda rose out of a single-track anti-corruption movement, it has not had enough time to take a broader view. But that is where the AAP’s seemingly novice stance on some issues of economics and governance becomes a little troubling.

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The model of swaraj or decentralisation as proposed by Kejriwal makes a lot of theoretical sense, yet there is room for valid skepticism in its nuances. Indeed there have been several voices from the progressive right which have slammed AAP’s decentralisation model. A Forbes writer says:
“Kejriwal wants to change the way Indians govern themselves. He hopes to bring “truly participative” democracy where assemblies of voters called gram sabhas (rural) and mohalla sabhas (urban) will decide what is best for them instead of some Central planner sitting in Delhi. Sounds good until you get down to brass-tacks. For land acquisition, Kejriwal’s solution is to grant the final word to the gram sabha, which in his opinion “is best positioned to negotiate” with the big corporate houses. This will cut down corruption by bureaucrats and ministers. It doesn’t matter to him that most rural folks may not be sophisticated enough to know the “best deal”. Or that the company may bribe the influential leaders of the gram sabha, instead of the bureaucrats, to get a favourable verdict. “Let it be. If leaders fail them, then people will not trust them next time!” he says. But will there be a next time for poor farmers who have lost their land in a sub-optimal deal?”
Another critic writes:
“Forever interested in fixing prices, Kejriwal is perhaps entirely oblivious to the forces of demand and supply in the market. Sample this statement from his party’s website: “People’s consent is necessary for future pricing of critical commodities such as gas, diesel, petrol, electricity etc”. While these arguments may be popular with certain sections of the society, the consequences of enforcing such policies can be calamitous. For instance, enough states have demonstrated that providing free power for a few years ensures severe power shortages for several subsequent years. Additionally, that fiscal deficit could balloon in the event of such artificial Government-enforced price controls don’t bother Kejriwal’s mind. On inflation and RBI’s resultant monetary policies, Mint exposes his unbelievable yet admitted economic illiteracy, quoting him: “Money supply kam kar di, zyaada kar di, kuch samajh mein nahin aata”. India has borne the curse of seeing four decades of ‘Hindu rate of growth’ thanks to the experiments of Nehruvian socialists. Can we afford a repeat of the same for the next few decades with Kejriwal’s economic model, if at all it may be called one?”

Furthermore, the AAP’s promise to reduce electricity tariffs – while well-intentioned, appears yet again only to be a self-appointed corollary of a ‘corruption-free system’, but has been contested for its economic validity, given that discoms in Delhi are currently operating in a loss-making capacity already having sold electricity at heavy discounts compared to the prices at which they were originally purchased.

Therefore the AAP’s promises of 50% cheaper electricity, and 700 litres of free water while manifesting the party’s leftist populist streak, need to be evaluated by measuring the exact means that will be adopted to achieve them. (As an aside, Delhi has always suffered acute shortages of electricity and water, but it is perceived that the privatisation of electricity in Delhi, albeit a non-ideal model of public utility delivery, has still has brought some efficiency to the city from the days of DESU in the late 90s . Remember those long days and hard nights of rolling blackouts or rampant loadshedding and water cuts that lasted from morning to evening at stretch?)

As far as the handling of Big Business is concerned, the party’s populist leanings are apparent, and there has been an perceptive silence from the BJP-aligned corporate sector on AAP’s success. They seem to have interpreted (or mis-interpreted rather ) the party to have a socialist-marxist agenda aimed at taking down India Inc. However, Kejrival categorically denies he is anti-business, saying “The moment we leveled charges against some big corporates, we were called anti-business. I believe private businesses are key to development and growth. We are only opposed to corporates that break rules. I think the government has no business to be in the business. The government should leave business to the businesspeople and ensure that they play by the rules.”

Despite all the criticism, Arvind’s common-sense , level-headedness and pragmatism is hard to beat, and these are traits that are shared by many of the party’s leaders in their public engagements. That is perhaps why he has won over the hearts and minds of so many citizens with his aam-admi-speak. Even as the hard task-anchor Arnab Goswami, known for his ruthless and in-your-face criticism of party politicians at large, confronted him censoriously with his decision to move into politics, the firebrand Kejriwal withstood curve-ball after curve-ball of cynical nit-picking, coming off clear, strong, calm and positive.

This last Sunday saw the streets of Calcutta filled with a procession of containing a non-traditional mix of politically inclined participants – IT engineers, students, entrepreneurs, government servants – groups that have hitherto shielded themselves away from any form of political involvement in recent historical contexts. With brooms in their hands, and an AAP Gandhi topi on their heads they shouted “Bahar niklo makaano se, jung laro beimanon se”. “Bhrashtachar ka ek hi kaal, Kejriwal, Kejriwal”

“AAP is not a regular political party; it reflects the aspirations and the anger of the common man. Their agenda is to cleanse the system, not seek power. This is what we need now in a country where corruption has become the biggest obstacle to growth” one youngster from the procession said.

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So the air is intoxicatingly ripe with optimism. But as much as the rhetoric of corruption is a truism in modern day Indian life, manifesting its permeation to all levels of the social life, one has to remember that a single government change – that is, a replacement of so-called “bad” ministers by “good” ministers, often cloaked in an over-simplified moral self-righteousness narrative is not going to be enough. Besides stamping out the incentive structures, systemically cleansing the greasy corruption-oiled machinery in government, and implementing an effective Lokpal bill, it is essential to complement it with an equally-weighed self-awareness campaign of rooting out the cultural malaise of promoting bribes that has become deep-rooted in India today. Corruption is a two-way street and scapegoating the government alone can only go as far to bring genuine reform. The givers of bribes – corporates, institutions, and the aam admi himself will need to re-evaluate the flaws in their own modus operandi. Placing the blame squarely on ‘corrupt ministers’ is rhetorically a great starting point, but they are not the only creatures who need to shoulder the responsibility of change.

Whether Kejriwal will indeed be able to successfully take his agenda to win seats outside Delhi, and especially outside the urban middle-class following to the rural countryside, only time will tell. But even as AAP, afresh with its victory now braves up to face the real and murky world of politics, grey areas emerge – the widening schism between the AAP and Team Anna, the unified force behind the original anti-corruption movement seems to have already degenerated into a petty tirade. And with AAP buying time despite unconditional support from Congress to form government, it has resulted in much-heated accusations of potential incompetence hurled from all corners, some of which smack of politics-as-usual. But if you take a step back, one outcome is highly positive – that Kejriwal has been able to evolve his seemingly anarchic movement into a structured legal tool of political opposition – is laudable enough in that it will force existing parties to pull up their pants and start making amends, a healthy trendsetter for a democratic process.

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To be effective in government , AAP will eventually, and perhaps sooner than it expects, need to strategize to broaden its single-minded agenda to beyond just tackling corruption, and in that form a coherent and responsible ideology of its own , which need not necessarily be reflective solely of left or right leanings. Also, it will need to grow slowly and organically, first proving itself in a small but significant state like Delhi, reassessing and learning, one step at a time. Aggressive and uncontrolled growth for AAP fueled by what could eminently become a premature nationalistic wave, may result in unregulated chaos for a movement that will dilute its identity and focus, and deliver a failed outcome as vacuous as the promise of the political forces it is attempting to defeat. To this end, it is also perhaps essential that for the immediate short-term for oneself to have more realistic expectations of the fledgling AAP phenomenon and the brave new world it is attempting to envision. Since there is so much hope riding this wave, it would indeed be a let down if it weren’t able to lift the political boat towards the shore of reform. Kejriwal cannot afford that, and neither can India’s hopeful voters who stand behind him.

Posted by Manisha Verma

One Comment

  1. Avatar

    Adil Khan

    December 20, 2013 at 9:32 am

    thanks kejriwall for showing us the hope for change

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