Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2014 > A Narrative in Progress

Mainstream, VOL LII No 5, January 25, 2014 - Republic Day Special

A Narrative in Progress

Tuesday 28 January 2014, by Uttam Sen


Swaraj by Arvind Kejriwal; Harper Collins publishers India, New Delhi; 2012.

 This is a narrative that goes to the root of the national predicament. The common man, his agrarian background and marginalisation, are the points of departure for any conventional inquiry into public policy in India. Swaraj, self-governance, was the rallying cry for restoring his place in the sun during the freedom struggle. The author promises (in desire and deed) to discharge the role of problem-solver for what went wrong. There are indications that he and his party will listen to the common man, though this volume was written well before their Delhi triumph when it was easier to pronounce on untrammeled democracy. The pristine aspi-rations are implicit in his invocation of the past projected in an uncomplicated way. Ancient Indian self-government was based on deliberative village councils where decisions were taken after debate on all points of view. Colonialism disturbed that balance and replaced it by administration headquartered in distant metropolitan centres. Panchayati Raj was subsequently the plank of official policy for returning to the fold. But undemocratic functioning and the denial of people’s expectations continue to pose problems.

The author provides examples of latter-day schemes. To his mind (and experience) funds do not flow smoothly from top to bottom, neither do they address immediate issues. The solution is bottom-up planning that has been successfully tried in some parts of the country. But it assumes the commitment of the administration and political parties who must be sensitive to the people they work for and represent. (He would not mind scrapping some remotely-controlled schemes altogether.)

Hence, reversion to the basics, that is, the grassroots, becomes his recurring theme. Gram sabhas should have the right and authority to decide issues related to the village. They should have direct control over water, forests, land, mineral and other resources. In the cities, this process should be replicated by the formation of mohalla sabhas where people shoulddiscuss contemporary situations and send up ideas and complaints for consideration and remedy. Non-performance on the part of leaders and representatives must be penalised. Corruption, even if not instantly stamped out, can be minimised by a collective sense of belonging. The author’s faith in the integrated community of consensus through communication drives him to believe that traditionally disadvantaged sections like Dalits would also be better treated. But if not, social movements and “mass dialogues” should reorient errant members.

Apart from having existed in our midst earlier, the equivalents of the basic self-governing unit endure in other countries, but their composition is more alike, of the same kind, where people feel free to speak up among their own. Even disparate groupings can be valuable forums if effectively organised. But off-the-cuff, mass contact can be a doubtful starter. As very recent experience bears out, people would then have to settle for mobile and conventional telephony, or even social media for communication with administration which must be willing and able.

On the ground, the precise remedy in Kejriwal’s mind is to devolve the appointment of the Panchayat Secretary from the State Government to the gram sabha. He has little faith in distilled participatory governance by the indirectly-elected Panchayat, whose head, the Sarpanch, is too often under the thumb of the District Collector. He provides a couple of telling examples. He and his team visited districts in Haryana earmarked for a backward region’s grant. The money was being credited to the District Collector’s account, to be disbursed at his will, rather than that of the gram sabha. When the Collector arbitrarily decided to construct school buildings in a hundred villages, he summoned the contractor of his choice to collect “fake” proposals with supposed gram sabha sanction from handpicked Sarpanches. Equipment was then acquired and dumped in the Sarpanch’s backyard. The village elder was also made to foot the bill. The sample of Panchayati Raj was palpably devoid of people’s participation. The power and authority of the five wise men representing the entire village was not working. Kejriwal observes that the instances could be multiplied.

The misconception that this form of public referral is in any way either unreal or outworn is corroborated by the hilarious paradox of a US retail giant being rejected at a town hall meeting on the American west coast but welcomed in India because the clearing authorities are the Prime Minister and Finance Minister, unanswerable to any agency and so far removed from the ground that they would never feel the pinch (of the displacement of neighbourhood stores, unemployment etc).

In contrast every house in the American town received notice of the meeting saying that the company wanted to set up shop, for which the consent of residents was required. Their disapproval settled the issue. Yet, to be fair, our political process, or that of any modern government, goes further and elaborately explains the pros and cons through the legislature and media. Entirely delegated decision-making across glaring political differences is not always practical as the AAP-led administration in Delhi may have discovered. But Kejriwal was probably talking of greater transparency and accountability in game-changing cases.

Kejriwal provides the instance of Switzerland where public petitioning by a specified number of citizen signatories can force Parliament to respond to people’s problems. The practice was common in post-Revolutionary, particularly 19th century, Europe. The exercise admittedly dealt with fewer numbers then but the colonial administration, which frequently operated behind the back of enlightened opinion at home, never introduced the practice in India. Continuing unresponsiveness is all the more reason for people’s representatives to be freshly alerted to their responsibilities, either by sharpening secretariats to the urgency of entertaining pressing public appeals for legislative consideration or instilling the fear of recall which has been subsequently mooted by the AAP.

A countervailing inclusiveness was demons-trated on the streets of a Brazilian town where a popularly elected party elicited the requirements of people for the Budget. The result was the fulfilment of such diverse public needs as the provision of potable water, sewer connections and literacy in neighbourhood slums that drew the approval of, among others, the World Bank.

Not unpredictably, counter-inquisition of this questioning is growing sharper by the day. For example, what makes the AAP and its leader so sanctimonious and omniscient when they represent an urban phenomenon whose reach will not necessarily morph into a significant national political force? The people’s durbar on January 11 in Delhi turned chaotic and had to be abandoned, a Minister has gone public with nitpicking internal details and another has pulled up a policeman in public, not to mention a senior member speaking out of turn on Kashmir. (There could be more than meets the eye given Omar Abdullah’s welcoming references to the AAP. But the case could rest for the moment, as Kejriwal has indicated by dissociating the party from the remarks.) In a cut-throat situation, the establishment is being provided the handle to dismiss the emergent dispensation as a rabble and worse. There can be several immediate responses. The AAP is politically green, will have to learn on the job, and fast. But human capital will come out of the woodwork to streamline normative endeavour even if the party secures a nominal presence at the Centre. The large number of high speciality professionals, say in Bengaluru, limbering up for the cause bears testimony to that.

The more searching question is how the repetitive cycle of disillusionment, change, confusion, maladministration and then again adjustment to the status quo for security and stability can be broken. To flesh out Swaraj’s proposition of the dialogic tradition, suspiciously (though unexceptionally) close to some learned exploration on the subject, trial and error could channel versions of mass communication into the interactive public sphere, for example, the media.

For example, there could be a general impression that spending on the poor has exceeded other subsidies. Yet India spends one per cent of the GDP on food security and employment guarantees for the poor and three times as much on electricity, fuel and fertiliser subsidies where benefits accrue dispropor-tionately to the non-poor. These distortions can go full steam ahead and influence people’s choices, for example, to elect representatives or parties who will spend on “other subsides” rather than the poor, or cut down on supposedly unaffordable expenditure. But a vigorously interactive, informed, cross-checking public sphere can rectify them and the resultant decisions.

In the event of a political petering out, or even otherwise, the assimilation of a reformist movement as a broader phenomenon (subse-quently broached), perhaps a takeaway umbrella forum, could make for a viable scheme.

For instance, the chintan shibirs of political parties could have helped the aam aadmi more if they were not by nature restricted to inner councils. All organisations or communities of people have their brainstorming modus operandi, from corporate boardrooms to campus clubs and roadside societies, and Kejriwal’s sabhascan probably be more spontaneous than imagined. Buta knowledgeable approach on provisioning essentials for the aam admi and broadening his/her capabilities and simultaneously preserving the blessings of a strong and integrated national market and economy would create political alertness. The peril of a drift to nowhere would be better appreciated and anticipated, as would the cycle of unaccountability and turpitude that leaves out the basic reference point of governance, the common man, to help indulge governments without liability and the old wine of “non-populist” stability! The colonial legacy of privilege in work and attitude could gradually give way to a contemporaneous empathy for the ordinary person, particularly after well-meaning people find an alternative to sights gutted by a poverty of ideas.

The introduction of an objective system on basic economic and political policy into syllabi at a reasonably early stage could be rewarding, particularly if the reach of education is widened. Mutual understanding would also mean that the little guy would not constantly smart under feelings of discrimination. Extended to the national political stage the design would facilitate smoother political transition and linear progress. Opinion columns are raising the subject in different ways and it is heartening that the previous experiences are being recalled. Unbranded national thinking can also pass as ideology and it is unfair to disregard the present-day aam aadmi’s attempted starting point in Swaraj.

When Swaraj bemoans corruption and the depletion of resources that cry out for remedy the dialogic composites of information and debate almost dispense one instantly, for example, the influential public opinion that debts in Europe could one day be covered by the sale of “government” property, from some-times unused buildings, parks and moribund national heritages. If, for instance, similar transactions were confined to Indians or nationals of Indian origin in India, they could replenish the exchequer and even mine resources from the avowed parallel economy. This is just a rough-and-ready thought from the many doing the rounds in the public sphere that could be refined by expertise.

For the political present, a leading Delhi-based columnist, associated in the reader’s mind with groundedness, has noted that even 30 or 40 Lok Sabha seats would suffice for the AAP to storm the citadel, as it were. The anticipated political configuration as a leading member of a Third Front is perhaps another story. The AAP was not known to aspire for much more, but by January 18 Kejriwal was saying that he expected not a wave but a “tornado” to sweep the impending elections. This is just to say that the AAP’s potential surfacing on the national political stage is no longer out of this world. Like it or not, the thousands of missed calls over mobile phones and subsequent applications for membership provide the very valid promise of translating into votes.

The accusation of exclusive urbanism is discounted by the author’s approach to the man and his land in India, the history of his enforced alienation from the time of colonialism and the subsequent usurpation of land rights for the exploitation and export of natural resources. The author is in point of fact one among a much wider number of people concerned about protecting them by overhauling a legal enactment on land acquisition (which has a colonial lineage) and ultimately passing the Jan Lok Pal Bill. The AAP Government in Delhi intends plugging the loopholes to put paid to corruption at high levels. Equally significantly, the AAP has served notice that while in power it will be constructive rather than vindictive. Political competitors have interpreted it differently. (By the time this appears in print things might well be different. Kejriwal promised a TV interviewer on January 18 that the machinery for proceedings would be ready within a few days. If his “ally” withdrew support he had nothing at stake because he was against assuming office in the first place.)

If the party can get past adverse propaganda on its programme, its acceptability will grow not just in terms of political alignments or absorption, but like-mindedness with people across the board. The analogy with the Arab Spring, wherein agitators overthrew governments but could not facilitate the formation of new ones for lack of an enduring perspective or an overarching consensus, is conceivably fanciful.

The charge of favouritism, for example, the supply of water and electricity to the middle-class urban population seemingly unmindful of the future can be countered by the wider perspective the party will naturally assume in the course of time. Land, water and minerals have to be preserved in sync with national policy that returns primacy to their management and nails the agents of spoilation within the bodypolitik. The author has chronicled the nexuses and their operations quite vividly. Consumers have to pay the entire bill if they exceed the minimum quota given to them and the poor are being persuaded by the gist of events to apply for water connections. The AAP’s good faith in subsidising power to Delhi was underscored in taking time out while getting the service provider around to audit its accounts, a difficult proposition shackled with legal hurdles. But the estimated arrears would take care of the subsidy.

As for an ostensible absence of political differentiation in his approach, the likelihood (or the hope) is that it will grow with time. Diversity and its political representation are liable to continue as impediments to consensus-building, but what such received wisdom overlooks is that the AAP leader has underlined issues that are perhaps secondary to regional elites, but crucial to the ordinary person! Livelihood dynamics, inequality, corruption and national sovereignty could be levellers that bring people together as common stakeholders in an easily definable culture that puts them first.

There can be no gainsaying that regional parties are looming large. Neither will the two principal national political parties lie low for long. A good monsoon and exports can shore up the government and the Congress-led coalition with its emphasis on a relatively pro-poor, agriculturist, “secular” vote-bank, and the traditional support of select captains of trade and industry. The BJP maintains a majoritarian attitude mounted on a platform of a strong man-led “tough” political leadership and experience to steward a national business-led economy that can in turn impress foreign investors. The relatively old school makes no bones about its faith in muscle power, traditional vote banks, and sundry other election-fighting instrumentalities. They present a formidable double whammy to the restrained challengers. But in the text as well as in public rhetoric Kejriwal sticks to his principles.

Long established practices and beliefs die hard and the AAP’s successes have been construed as a maverick’s political arrival over the electronic media with the aspiration to repose the last word in the non-political Ombudsmen. There is a felt or imagined grouse that the political process as we know it is being short-circuited. Classes accustomed to undefined political space are also peeved with what they consider the erosion of the unwritten line between social and political movements. (Kejriwal has explicitly rejected the media projection, recalling its boycott following his corruption charges against a leading industrialist, a sting operation against his party and other alleged falsehoods.)

Nonetheless, the author epitomises the technologically-trained professional who will inevitably lead the young pack. If it is Kejriwal today it could be a Khemka tomorrow. He has thus far rejected the traditional vote-bank. In the Delhi elections the AAP candidates relied on neighbourhood donations and none crossed the Rs 16-lakh election expense limit. They employed no muscle power. But it would be equally rash to dismiss the winds of change in other parties. Legislation on the right to information, employment guarantee, food security and the Lok Pal Bill assumed all-embracing ratification. Nevertheless, the comeback of the common man, however urban, via his rural underpinning, presents the unexpected difference. The thought should occur to all in due course.

But that too is a piquant notion because the dilemma over growth, chronically short of best practices, and characteristically pervaded by inequality and perceived corruption, is not peculiar to India and continues to haunt the world. The exception in India’s case is the exploitation of the hinterland by the coastal centres which has not been reversed despite assurances. Nowhere is business or technology promising to back out, not even when a celebrated Western newspaper (not radical by any stretch of the imagination) warns on the centennial of the First World War that some purveyors of prosperity have been habitually callous to the political danger. In the bargain, a few million in their prime had to march to the trenches.

For the time being, an overwhelmingly youthful, conscientious national demographic profile is working in the AAP’s favour. It remains steadfast with the aam aadmi as its frame of reference, for reasons outlined in the volume under review. The question is how they can develop into pathfinders under the touchtone of competitive politics. The AAP has the ability to negotiate the unfashionable as well as the finer points of electoral politics. Simultaneously, it is an agent of reform and protest. The enrolment of some prominent people of conscience is an augury that popular choice will in some cases be garnered with little or no money power—as in the days of Swaraj! 

The party is work in progress and will evolve gradually. People in search of broader horizons are waiting for the announcement of its economic and foreign policies (promised by March-end). The natural movement through which people and their organisations move towards complexity has endowed our universe with a multiplicity of options. Post-modern thinking of even the last century is skeptical and compounded by diverse features and assumptions rather than definitive simplicity. Trailblazers are exploring issues globally, not unlike the AAP and its fellow travellers at home. The intricacy, on occasional brilliance, of modern technology and finance, social engineering and global inter-relatedness, are at times past us ordinary mortals, but within the faculties of some specialists who are taking the plunge politically. Will the AAP movement as an idea retain the catholicity of being both a political party and forum, exploring up-to-the-minute standards in ethics and development?

The comprehensive political statement must resonate with the diverse ingredients of national life. A hypothetical combination of parties could arguably wrest control, but to sustain it with exacting standards would mean reaching out to civilisational praxes at different junctures of space and time. The idea of primitivism is contested and Kejriwal has done well both to address issues in a traditional idiom and hark back to the period of administration in a natural environment. (His volume could have done with a few more translations.) Discriminating release of the civilised aam aadmi’s mind (not necessarily conventionally educated) to evoke the history of his livelihood and administration over a geographically integrated inter-dependent region can also unbridle the human impulse for synergy across man-made (often economically pernicious and socially disruptive) borders some day. The outcome could be less bewildering than the sophistry we are subjected to. Kejriwal’s optimism on dialogue at the local self-government level to defuse manifold dissension is less than far-fetched for more reasons than one.

There are very live and related dimensions on ecological/environmental preservation and countervailing pressures that presume political consensus rather than competition to hold down. There is no done-and-dusted formula. Nature’s bounty may have to be selectively deployed as an essential resource. Again, undaunted feedback from the gram sabha level can be invaluable. Kejriwal’s message, if allowed to percolate, would cut a swath. Yet, an up-and-coming project would necessarily have to keep in mind alignments, presumptively across political parties, which further such adjustment. These are over and above the conventional calculations of regional and party politics, corporate and local businesses that will continue to hold sway over the near future, barring bolts from the blue. Some elder statesmen could discern a rehashing of their erstwhile hobby-horses!

On the body of ideas that reflect the social needs and aspiration of individuals and groups, a prominent AAP theorist has rejected conventional labels designating the party as either Rightist or Leftist. It seeks to focus on problems. The most prominent one is public welfare and the defence of the poor which is a constitutional mandate. Double standards are nationally ubiquitous. But gradualism gives people the space to adjust. Incremental change through holistic uplift is important and dialogue should inform thoughts of pruning or altering programmes that promote it. The authoritative voice from the Left is well within its stated ideological position to define the party as bourgeois, as one characteristic of the middle class, typically with reference to materialistic values and conventional attitudes. Insult has been added to injury with the bestowed definition of the AAP as the New Left, the refor-mist transatlantic movement of the sixties and seventies that broadened the meaning of political correctness and broke with the orthodox Left. However, even at the level of polemic, the AAP is taken as a homespun brew with a difference.

Or else it would have merged with the others. The Indian polity would be done a world of good if those who have transcended categories of social ordering, or have sought to, and other torch-bearers, respect their common ground, because broadmindedness across the political range can be turned to account. Trust has undeniably been a factor in mustering the numbers for progressive legislation. Without splitting hairs or overreaching themselves members of the new arrangement can be part of the process of reinventing, or at least updating, state and society.

The genuinely scientific minded will question the growing technological deficiency that has led to the import of all state-of-the-art machinery and resultant automation. A Labour leader expressed the view, following agitation and violence at a well-known automobile plant that workers were treated with total disdain because of their expendability. The answer is not so much a sweeping Luddism as an eclectic blend of technological/manufacturing creativity and selective labour-intensive traditional production. The reliance on a second order, dependent technological/service culture can lead to crises, for example, cloud technological innovation in the West making the Indian factor redundant, as is being feared in some quarters. This is conceivably part of the wider affliction. The AAP and its founder have provided the initial cue that the (human) next generation is beginning to think along composite lines, per-haps the most understated hallmark of its advent. Their ilk can precipitate overall changes for productivity.

It was critical to get things started across such a wide canvas. Nobody will deny that they have been and that the effort has trans-formed the author’s field of vision into a some-what resented order of business. Even if perhaps not quite in the patrician league of writing like Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, and An Autobiography, Gandhi’s The Story of MyExperiments with Truth or Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India wins Freedom, Kejriwal’s plain-spoken style has its qualified merits. As the man of the moment equipped to apply scientific knowledge for practical purposes as well as the soul with the mission to redeem state and society, he is hopefully a groundbreaker. He is certainly closer to the aam aadmi and his circumstances than the classicists. His overall perspective is not as politically or historically universal, but his grasp of facts, figures and practical solutions is formidable. Both genres provoke debate, some-times very adverse reactions, but in the end their aggregation enriches opinion and shapes public policy.

The reviewer is a Bengaluru-based journalist.