Archive for December, 2013

The Trouble with Kejriwal

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

November 2013

First, a frank admission. I always viewed Arvind Kejriwal’s entry into politics with a mixture of trepidation and cynicism. Trepidation, because his entry was also an exit from what seemed to be an apolitical and largely spontaneous mass movement, the biggest India has possibly ever witnessed. I think all of us agree that the Indian political system needs a thorough scrub and cleanse, and I felt that a people’s movement working as an outside agent could serve that goal better than a political party. Politicians in India don’t fear politicians. They fear the people.

Cynicism, because Kejriwal, however big a bull he may be in however large a shop packed with however much fragile china, would now perhaps be forced to play by the transactional guidelines of that shop. He would possibly have to tinker with his stated lofty ideals to accommodate economically unsound populism, caste equations, communal arithmetic, and so on. Would he be able to get anywhere without accepting at least part of the elaborate compromise system that his experienced rivals had worked out so well and were thriving by?

The events of the last fortnight seem to bear my fears out. First, Kejriwal met controversial Muslim cleric Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan and appealed to him for support. Next, the Aam Aadmi Party released its manifesto for the Delhi assembly elections, filled with impractical populist promises and a few bits that are, frankly, disturbing. And now, the sting operation by a news portal that allegedly shows eight of AAP’s candidates agreeing to take cash for favours.

Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan seems to be just the sort of religious leader who a Congress or a Samajwadi Party or the BJP (in BJP’s case, a Hindu equivalent of Khan) would try to cozy up to. In 2007, Khan announced a bounty of Rs 5 lakh on Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen’s head for her views on Islam. In 2010, he was arrested and jailed for allegedly making inflammatory speeches during communal riots in Bareilly. Khan has publicly promised to support AAP. Suddenly, Kejriwal has begun to look no better than any other Indian politician playing the “communal card”.

AAP’s manifesto makes a lot of promises that smell of a socialism whose shelf life was over decades ago. One, the party seems to be against all large private enterprise. It will go after the private power distribution companies (discoms), which, it claims, are overcharging consumers. The overcharging part could well be true—the discoms are after all monopolies—but the threatening tone in the manifesto seems to indicate a broad-spectrum suspicion of capitalism that India and Delhi could do without. AAP is against FDI in retail. The only sort of business AAP likes is small trading, and it has a 1950s-style touching faith in state enterprises. Its solution to Delhi’s water problem is twofold—make the Delhi Jal Board efficient, and provide 700 litres of water free every month to every household. Where the global economic consensus on water—arguably the earth’s most precious and threatened resource—across the world is to levy—however nominal—user charges, and move towards privatisation and competition, to ensure responsible consumption, AAP wants to turn the clock back. Assuring 700 litres free per month is no different from giving electricity free to farmers, as various state governments do. In all these states, this has made the power situation worse and ruined the state electricity boards—because no one, naturally, attaches any value to something given free, and happily wastes it. And of course AAP is silent about who is going to pay for all this generosity.

In all of Kejriwal’s utterances, there is the sense of the harsh cane-wielding headmaster. The theme of severe punishment—often on issues he has only a very shallow understanding of, such as his demand for the death sentence for all convicted rapists—forms the undercurrent of anything he says. This has always vaguely disturbed me, but the manifesto, which says that an AAP government will organize citizens’ security forces in each neighbourhood, is plain scary. Handing over law and order—and consequently, the right to commit violence—to common citizens is a truly bad idea. It can only lead to a deterioration of our already weak police system, random intimidation, a breakdown of the rule of law, and finally, anarchy. One should be afraid of men who actually think this will work.

And finally, the sting operation. Kejriwal has said—as usual, angrily (does the man have any other emotion?)—that this is political conspiracy. Sure, a rival party could be behind the sting operation, but “political conspiracy” does not explain away the extensive video footage that—whether it’s an edited version or not—certainly nails some of the candidates. But, how did Kejriwal ever hope to get 70 squeaky-clean men and women to stand for elections within a month? If he believed that, he must be living in a fool’s paradise. There are only two possibilities here: one, the candidate selection process was faulty, or two, that the party made the compromises it felt necessary to win some seats. In either case, Kejriwal should take the blame, since there is not a single piece of communication that goes out from AAP without a quote from Kejriwal or his picture. In his own way, he has made AAP a one-man show.

Anger only deludes. At some point, Kejriwal’s rage seems to have taken him over, and the exclusive interplay of rage and ambition does not usually lead to positive outcomes. All history tells us that people driven purely by anger have never provided good governance. Angry people are good to have outside the system, who can drive fear into the system and teach it humility. Because enraged and committed outsiders have little to lose, and less to compromise on. We would have been served better by Kejriwal’s anger if he had maintained his independence. For, when you enter the political system, independence is the first thing you have to give up.