1 April 2014

What is the Alternative?

Disclaimer: I am a donor of Aam Aadmi Party. So, now you know where the 'foreign funding' is coming from. The views expressed in this post - as with all the things on this blog - are solely mine and are not endorsed by the organisation(s) I work for or have worked for in the past. Standard disclosures apply.

Warning: A fairly long post. 

In the same vein as my previous post, I have been planning to write on the rise of Arvind Kejriwal and his brand of politics since quite some time now. I also had something to say about Anna Hazare and his Jan Lokpal Andolan as well, during the time it was underway but then timing is important especially when commenting on political events. Also, in response to my incessant anti-Modi chatter on FB, a friend recently asked me – in the spirit of ‘what is the alternative’ – that why I don’t dwell a bit more on Congress and AAP.

Let me deal with Congress first as most of their sins – and as a result, prospects in the upcoming elections – can be boxed together in a couple of paragraphs. There is little nuance and subtext in the colossal corruption, leadership deficit and incompetence in governance they have exhibited to merit a detailed analysis. Neither is there any point in recaping something which the media has covered extensively and Modi brigade is repeating ad-nauseam as I write this. UPA-I was mostly the proverbial honeymoon phase and I do believe that Congress and Sonia Gandhi’s NAC did some good work like getting the Right to Information Act passed, launching MNREGA etc. (Those who think that MNREGA is a wasteful, populist scheme which feeds fishes to people without teaching them how to fish and subsequently promotes a sense of right based employment, need to visit a few impoverished districts of central India to realize that in spite of massive leakages, corruption, shoddy implementation, it has made a difference to some of the most marginalized of this country. If even 60 days of work prevents a family of 4 to migrate to work in brick kilns of neighbouring states under exploitative terms, I would conside MNREGA successful. Yes, it is not perfect. Yes, it doesn’t address the systemic issues. But it is better than what folks had 10 years back. I will leave the larger debate on state’s responsibility of providing a safety net to its citizens for later.) 

While scams like 2G, security issues like 26/11 happened during UPA-I, they were either not yet out in open or was something which had precedent during BJP’s rule or could be papered over with the feel-good effects of UPA-I’s rule. The result was that the UPA came back with a more comfortable majority – in spite of BJP raking the 26/11 as a national security issue quite well. Messers Kalmadi, Dixit and others did a splendid job of conducting the Commonwealth Games 2010 and managed such fantastic botch-ups and spoils of games that it became a textbook case of corruption in an event the middle-class associates with the prestige of the country. The downward spiral began from there.

Since the time Indira Gandhi established a ‘high command’ driven structure, Congress has more or less followed a similar model which I often think of akin to running of franchisees by brands like McDonalds, Taco Bell etc. So, the Gandhi surname remains the sole custodian of the Congress parent brand and is in a pseudo-contractual agreement with a slew of regional satraps with independent mass bases. The contract allows the regional chiefs to milk their respective fiefdoms in return of which they have to deliver on requisite number of seats during the national elections. These satraps in turn dispense patronage to target groups like sugar barons of Maharashtra and tobacco czars of Andhra Pradesh to assure electoral returns. The fact that most of the today’s regional parties owe their genesis to Congress is a testimony to the fact that Congress is indeed the ‘Grand Old Party’ as well as that a non-Gandhi can’t aspire to reach the pinnacle in a way a non-entity like Modi can aspire to in a party like BJP. So in spite of its drawbacks the franchisee model worked well especially in case of leaders like Ashok Gehlot, YSR and Digvijay Singh till the mid-90s. As Hartosh Singh Bal comments, no new leadership with an independent mass support base has emerged during the last 15 years of Sonia Gandhi’s leadership.

So, while it seems that the franchisee model is not really sustainable in the year of the lord 2014, Congress seems to have laid down the weapons even before the battle has begun. The reluctant dynast who is neither cut out for nor interested in the job has exhibited an intelligence and maturity which may be excusable in a random man on the street but not in someone who may have to don the mantle of running – however unwillingly – this mind-bogglingly complex nation. For all his well-intentioned efforts to democratize Congress party from within he himself is a prisoner of his image – or shall we say his surname. This would have made him a figure deserving our sympathy, if – even after spending more than a decade in the topsy-turvy of politics – he hadn’t displayed such a spectacular lack of grasp of key issues confronting the country; if – unlike his mother – he had shown that power doesn’t come without accountability by being a part of the Council of Ministers in at least one of the 2 governments. His penchant for spreadsheets, analysis and management jargons may have worked well in Monitor Group but have limited utility in the tamasha called Indian politics. While commentators say that he is already looking at 2019, Congress defeat is a forgone conclusion. It is another matter that – given its reach and penetration – even a ‘defeated’ Congress can end up with 100-odd seats and may provide outside support to a ramshackle assortment of regional parties – otherwise known as Third Front – to keep BJP at bay. But this post is not to exhibit my non-existent punditry of psephology or crystal ball gazing so let us move on to what makes Aam Aadmi Party khaas or ‘special’.

Let us first start with who really qualifies as ‘Aam’ in this country. He is definitely not the proverbial mango man. In a country where an estimated 450-600 million belong to that catch-all bin called middle class, most of the people who traditionally identified themselves as middle classes from Nehruvian 50s to Doordarshan 90s have moved up the ladder from the class rung which sociologists have traditionally called ‘middle’. If they still call themselves ‘upper middle class’ then it is due to absence of a better term to identify themselves. In any case, none of the people reading this blog are ‘aam’ just like many cultural celebrities, lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists, IPS Officers whom AAP has given tickets are themselves not aam by any stretch of imagination. In my experience, most of the smartphone generation posting cheeky status updates on Indian politics have no clue how the aam aadmi lives in this country. A well-meaning friend of mine who generally uses his car to get around the city had to one day travel by the A/C Volvo bus. He texted me saying that he is traveling by public transport, albeit air-conditioned, just like the ‘aam aadmi’. I replied back saying that ‘aam aadmi’ doesn’t travel by A/C buses. I admit I was curt.

The unwashed aam aadmi in urban India today has a mobile phone but the hand set may be wound with rubber bands to stop it from falling apart. The aam aadmi on twelve hour shifts as security guard has his lunch/dinner brought in tiffin carrier in the tiny recess of your neighbourhood ATM. The real aam aadmi takes the public transport with his wife holding the newborn kid in a bundle and he carrying two heavy bags with another little kid in tow who tends to fall asleep on his lap. The real aam aadmi’s kid, if lucky, goes to the Government Middle School which, if lucky, has a building where the paint and plaster of the walls are both coming off, carrying a worn out school bag whose zipper has long since stopped functioning and is held together by a couple of safety pins. An aam aadmi’s family is also most probably in his village which he visits twice a year by boarding the insanely crowded “general dabba” of Awadh Express while he drives taxi during the day and shares 9 feet by 12 feet room with 3-4 other guys of his village during the night in one of the congested parts of the city, when he is not staying in a slum.

As Mukul Kesavan very eloquently points out here that it is this aam aadmi which Kejriwal is targeting. To me, while some of these aam aadmis have been touched with India’s liberalization by getting jobs as diverse as Big Bazaar unloaders to Shoppers Stop shop assistants to electricians and carpenters working in numerous high rises but social justice in real sense has eluded them. Rising consumerism and exhibitionist spending by the nouveau riche has in turn fueled a seething resentment and is acting as a pincer to widen of the existent fault lines in Indian society.

This brings us to the question whether a Gul Panag – whose dad Lt. Gen. HS Panag, former Army Commander of Indian Army’s Northern Command has also joined AAP – or a Meera Sanyal are qualified to represent the aam aadmi of this country, however well-intentioned they may be. I don’t know the answer but there are another set of people supporting AAP who have been associated with people’s mass movements long before India’s GenNext discovered Ram Leela Maidan and Jantar Mantar. Here we have stalwarts like Medha Patkar, Alok Agarwal, Dayamani Barla who have at least walked the talk instead of just theorizing about the revolution of the proletariat while sitting in the capital’s cozy cafes with their Marxist girlfriends in sleeveless blouses. These people do have a deep understanding of problems at the grassroots of this county, an appreciation that economics is more complicated than a Amartya Sen-Jagdish Bhagwati duel and a steadfast commitment to social justice. In fact, organisations like Narmada Bachao Andolan had contemplated electoral politics in the past but couldn’t take the plunge due inability to mobilise resources.

I can say that we need people like Patkar and Agarwal in the parliament just like we need a Yogendra Yadav and a Rajmohan Gandhi or a Shashi Tharoor and a Jairam Ramesh or a Swapan Dasgupta in this country’s public life. To that extent AAP has provided a platform to a wide range of well-intentioned activists, public intellectuals, academics who have a lot to contribute to this country in terms of their individual expertise but till now – in absence of a credible platform – had helplessly watched the decline of this country’s institutions from the sidelines. Of course, most of these people are against the sort of capital driven development of which the yuppies have been the biggest beneficiaries and rooters so they automatically draw their ire and end up being labelled as the B-team of Congress. The problem with Congress is while they have harped about social justice for last 65 years they have little to show for results.

However, some people whom AAP has given tickets are indeed as ‘aam’ as you get them – the indefatigable RTI activist, the tireless tribal activist, the courageous whistleblower in government’s irrigation department.

One thing which AAP has exploited well is populism. It started with ‘corruption’ – an issue which is a darling of the middle classes – and smartly skirted the messy business of developmental models, communalism, Kashmir and other such landmines. It also steered clear of issues which don’t impact people on a day to day basis like terrorism and foreign policy. While ‘corruption’ bit was inherited from the Anna movement, it quickly moved to Congress brand of populism like free electricity and water during Delhi elections. A saner thing to promise and do would have been to provide freebies to targeted populations who really need it and simultaneously strengthen regulatory bodies to ensure that private electricity companies don’t jack up their tariffs without setting their own house in order by reducing T&D losses. But then voters find it easier to understand and believe populist policies.

Another brand of populism AAP has exhibited is in selecting candidates. So we have Kamal Kant Batra, mother of Captain Vikram Batra, PVC (Posthumous), from Hamirpur, HP. Does being the mother of a national hero really qualify her to represent the people of Hamirpur? Or the kind of emotions memories of martyred war heroes evoke in this country’s population will ensure her victory?

Let me now address the ideology part of the rise of Aam Aadmi Party. Shivam Vij makes a very valid comment here saying that AAP is a motley group of people of different and often, contradictory ideologies – so you have Prashant Bhushan on the left who takes on the sine qua non of Indian politics by suggesting a plebiscite to let Kashmiris decide whether they want the Army in the valley and Kumar Vishwas on the right whose patriotic nationalism can help taking a leaf or two of Modi’s I-am-a-Hindu-nationalist. Apart from the platform of anti-corruption and good governance with their near universal appeal, Kejriwal and company have also talked about ‘Swaraj’. Beyond some basic outline on decentralization, they haven’t cared to explain what really they mean by ‘Swaraj’ or how similar or different is their ‘Swaraj’ from Mahatma’s Swaraj. I think Kejriwal and others are smart enough to know that real swaraj will be unpalatable to many of their urban, middle class supporters – who are the real beneficiaries of a centralized, capitalist model of development. So, decentralization and ‘swaraj’ gets translated into mohalla sabhas and referendum for anything and everything. The problem with such populist modes of governance is that what is popular may not always be right as we all saw in the recent fiasco involving Somnath Bharti at Delhi’s Kirki Extension. It was just one incident which not only exposed the hypocrisy and fractures of our society but also showed how such a referendum induced governance can make constitutional guarantees a hostage to populist demands. Yes, deferring to people is at the core of participatory democracy. In fact, Ram Manohar Lohia had once remarked that Zinda kaumein paanch saal tak intezaar nahi kiya karti (Thriving countries don’t wait for 5 years). But the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy we have, envisages that people will choose their representatives once in 5 years and entrust them with running the affairs in the interim. The underlying assumption is that people entering public life will be men and women of sufficiently high caliber and a strong moral fibre. It is this assumption which has gone wrong in India’s case and not the absence of participatory democracy. So, deferring to referendums for everything is not really the sort of decentralization we need.

Then, there is some disquiet about the brand of socialist economics propogated by AAP. Critics do overestimate it when they say this is just the Nehruvian socialism of 50s in a 21st century garb. Reverting back to maximal government presence in all areas of production and distribution and a wasteful, behemoth-like public sector driven economy is just not possible today, however hard Kejriwal and co. may try. Yes, he has talked about government's responsibilities towards its most vulnerable citizens. He has also probably pointed out that a government has some redistributive functions. To me, this is a no-brainer. People who think free markets eventually make a level playing field and government has no business to provide even the essential services like healthcare, education should look at how industry lobbies have ruled the roost in the US politics, for the first and how the UK's National Health Service (NHS) has functioned in past 67 odd years, for the second.

Nevertheless, Arvind Kejriwal is the first politician I have seen who encapsulated his vision for India powerfully, cogently, in a well-articulated manner when asked by Madhu Trehan to do so in 3 minutes. (For the Modi fan boys who are ready with their “So did Modi” retort, I have another blogpost for you guys).

AAP has been good at improvising since day one. Recently, they has shown sufficient electoral pragmatism as well. From saying that the idea of plebiscite in Kashmir was Bhushan’s personal opinion to labeling Haryana’s notorious Khap Panchayats – which run a parallel justice system – as a ‘cultural institution’ all smacks of AAP leadership’s pragmatism which at one plane makes them no different from the established political parties but then they don’t have an option either. Similarly, AK knows that 20 Crore rupees collected transparently and spent with high degree of accountability during Delhi elections is a drop in the ocean when it comes to LS elections. So, he recently said at a CII meeting that he is not against capitalism but only crony capitalism. This is fundamentally contradictory to the kind of development models people like Medha Patkar and Dayamani Barla have espoused for decades, as Mr. Banerjee points this out in his incisive post. It seems that AAP wants to hunt with the hounds and run with the hares in this election. So, I guess this reluctance to flesh out the message, especially in contentious areas, loudly and unambiguously is by design. 

Another worrying aspect is Kejriwal’s hyperbole about India becoming “Sone ki Chidhiya” of yore in one or two generations if we can get rid of this menace called corruption. This is oversimplification at its best and misguidance at its worst.

Then there is the question of credibility. Resigning after 49 days of Delhi government has definitely played into the hands of AAP’s detractors however, principled that move may have been. AAP’s one of the greatest advantages over other mainstream parties is that they don’t have any past baggage to haunt them – whether it is scams of colossal figures or acts of omission and commission during communal riots. Only thing which comes close to being a baggage is this turning away from the responsibility of running an elected government and this can prove to be very heavy for them in the coming elections. 

Question of pulling a Delhi like performance in the LS polls is out of question and AAP leadership knows this very well. It is quite obvious that if AAP had proven its naysayers right in the Delhi election then it would have been consigned to oblivion by now and Kejriwal wouldn’t have been making news every other day. Though it may be a bit late, let me put down what I think made AAP put up such a strong performance in Delhi. The fact that most of the leadership had a past connection with the larger government establishment – Kejriwal being an ex-IRS officer and Bhushan being Supreme Court lawyer – helped to have people with knowledge of inner functioning of the government. This I think is one of the reasons why parties like Jayprakash Narayan’s Lok Satta Party or Lok Paritran (a party floated some years back by 5 IITians) failed to make a dent. Another reason was definitely the favourable coverage provided by media right from the Anna movement days. The euphoria enabled them to mobilise a lot of resources both in terms of volunteer manpower and money. I know of friends of friends who took leave from their office to do door to door campaigning for AAP. It is very difficult to garner such a support base for country wide polls in a matter of a couple of months. To give some ballpark figures, AAP fought the Delhi election with a budget of Rs. 20 crores (they stopped further collection once they reached the target they had set for themselves). The net collection for LS Polls till last week was around Rs. 16 crores. This means that most of the AAP candidates in the 400+ constituencies (at the last count) can’t dip into this central kitty and will have to mobilise resources on their own. People like former Infosys CFO V. Balakrishnan may sell a huge chunk of their Infy stock to raise the money but that recourse is not available to most of the other AAP candidates.

In spite of all these handicaps, Yogendra Yadav pointed out recently they feel that they need to ride on the momentum built as a result of Delhi elections. This is the reason for their contesting 400+ Lok Sabha seats and such a rapid expansion in spite of the fact that their candidates may end up losing their deposits in many places. According to this line of thought, waiting for another 10-20 years to build a mass base and increase the reach – most of the mainstream parties even the ones which are cadre based like BJP and CPI(M) had to spend decades in grassroots mobilization to reach where they are today – and then take the plunge may not have been a good idea in this era of short attention spans. However, such a rapid expansion is also fraught with many risks but guess AAP is willing to live with them. Many AAP candidates don’t even have the basic formal education – however well-intentioned and characters of integrity they may be. For many of them, the only qualification is social service which is not always sufficient to run a complex modern day government.

While there is a real risk of malcontents and opportunists joining their fray in their bid to grow faster, even most of the well-intentioned people including volunteers are not in it for the long haul. For some it is a passing fad, the euphoria of sloganeering, an opportunity to grab some spotlight while there are others who naively believe in the Sone ki Chidhiya homily and are in for a rude awakening. (Something which we saw during Anna Hazare’s movement as well.) Nation building is a long and arduous process which takes generations and is not as simple as Kejriwal makes out in his vision especially for a country with such contradictions as India.

In spite of all promises of staying away from all sorts of identity politics, Kejriwal during his recent visit to Varanasi – from where he is challenging BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate – took a dip in the Ganga, visited Kashi Vishwanath temple and sported a skull cap, all front of popping flash bulbs of media cameras. Coming from Kejriwal, who vehemently opposed to presence of godmen like Baba Ramdev on the dais during Jan Lokpal movement, this mixing of religion and politics is quite disconcerting.

However cynical I may have sounded above, I think where AAP has succeeded is in providing an alternative, breaking the binary, changing the political discourse and political competition and – to an extent – breaking the behind the scenes bonhomie of Congress, BJP and their ilk. AAP being an outsider has nothing to lose and has changed the rules of the game which is forcing the mainstream parties to change – however slightly – their traditional tactics. Middle class people are more engaged with politics than they ever have been. I can take my own example. In my constituency of Bangalore South, I am aware of who the candidates of the leading parties and what their credentials are while in 2009 I was barely aware of the local dynamics in spite of my closely following the national politics. Of course, social media has a lot to do with this. 

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta – one of the country’s few public intellectuals I respect today – pointed out in his Devil’s Advocate with Karan Thapar some months back, the biggest problem with the Indian middle class today is absence of engagement with local issues. They think that they have little stake in public services like electricity (my apartment has the backup), education (my kid is enrolled in the international school), healthcare (I have the corporate insurance), law and order (I have private security guards in my apartment complex). What they often miss is that the street light near my home not working affects me more directly than Raja’s 2G scam. If AAP manages to change this outlook – however little – by making an active citizenry engaging more with local issues, I will consider that their biggest achievement irrespective of their performance in the upcoming polls.

For the commentators of the armchair variety like me, you can’t help but doff your hat to folks like Kejriwal and Yadav who jettisoned the option of living off the loaves of power and many others like Munish Raizada who chucked their promising careers and embarked on an uncertain course. You have to admire their steadfastness in face of physical attacks, non-stop slander by media and dirty tricks departments of both BJP and Congress – from throwing eggs and stones to raking mud around their funding sources. Even the leftist 'liberals' and 'progressives' whom you will otherwise expect to be on the same side of ideological divide as AAP have accused them of being Sangh Parivar stooges.

The yuppies who have suddenly become the biggest critic of AAP are the sort of people who want change, wish to be beneficiaries of a positive change but are loathe to go through the painful process of reaching there. So, they wish to transform into a butterfly without going through the caterpillar phase. So, Modi’s homilies of fast and assured results suit them just fine.

After their spectacular show in Delhi elections, Rajdeep Sardesai had, in an interview with Kejriwal, mentioned that Indian politics had seen such mass movements earlier promising to bring about a revolution by bringing down the old order – JP’s Sampoorna Kranti movement in mid-seventies is one of the prominent examples. In this context, Sardesai asked Kejriwal how AAP is different from these earlier initiatives and how do we know that AAP will also not meet the same fate i.e. either becoming just another corrupt political party playing the time tested games of identity politics (like the Janata Party which came on the back of JP Movement and formed the government after the Emergency was lifted in 1977) or being consigned to oblivion and infighting (like the Lok Paritraan Party). The answer which Kejriwal gave was extremely ideal. So, I remain cynical because corruption and poor governance have reached such epidemic proportions that a few good men or women at the top or an all-powerful, Big Brother-like Lokpal will make limited difference.

Finally, if I support AAP today, it is not with the expectation of a great, ‘Sone ki Chidhiya’ like future for the coming generations (AK appeals to people by saying that they should donate for the sake of their children’s future) because I know nothing like that is going to happen in this country. It is also not because they are the ‘best of the worst’ - the logic used by many people supporting BJP. It is not because many left-of-centre people whom I admire for their personal convictions have expressed passive support for AAP.

If I support AAP, it is because in my more than two decades since gaining political consciousness and a decade of reading the politics and history of this country, this is the first time I have seen an outfit which has taken the bull by its horns instead of simply making politically correct noises. I don’t know if I would have still supported AAP if I were old enough to be around during the Naxal movement of early 70s or JP’s Total Revolution days and had seen how easy it is for disillusionment to set in. After all, we still have some people in their 70s and 80s who came of age during the early 1950s with all its idealism about youth’s devotion to nation building only to realize how that idealism turned sour by early 1970s and bitterness set in with failure of many people’s movements of 1970s. These old men and women are today most probably past caring. But even if AAP is a blip on the vast, complex and multi-dimensional landscape of Indian politics, I – looking back 30-40 years from now – wish to be able to say that I did my bit when the opportunity arose to challenge the status quo, I supported an entity which rocked the boat and asked difficult questions about entitlements and privileges. That is the consolation. It is the same bloody conscience, you see.

As someone who is getting increasingly cynical about all sorts of agglomerations or binding forces whether they be a nation state, a hobby club , an organisation, a NGO, an ideology, a religion, I am also getting skeptical about many -isms - nationalism, socialism, communalism, utilitirianism, individualism yada, yada. I am probably most comfortable with the idea of every human being as an island. So, I fully understand the dangers of supporting an ideology, a party and political correctness behind statements like "I support or oppose issues and not parties or ideologies."

Fundamentally, it is about change. Here is something by Yoginder Sikand I read yesterday which made me add this epilogue (sort of). Leftists, Rightists, Centrists, Activists, BJP, Congress, AAP all talk about changing the country, the politics, the system, the world but no one talks about changing himself/herself. If we all change ourselves for better, we may not need a party, a leader or a messiah to change the country. It was a bespectacled, frail old man who had once said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."