Elections are to a large extent partly popularity contests and partly driven by narrowly defined individual self-interest expressed in a group setting. The popularity contest is peculiarly of the kind what is known as a Keynesian beauty contest where the individual votes not on her own assessment of the suitability of the candidates but instead on her beliefs about the others’ assessment of the candidates. That makes it quite possible that the winner of elections is not really the most competent but instead is one who has been able to mold public perception in his favour. This is true of all elections in general but more so in so-called developing countries where personalities matter more than issues. Personalities dominate over issues primarily because issues are harder to evaluate than personalities. Note it is personality and not character which drives the calculus of choice. That fact is illustrated by unending examples of characterless elected officials.
I make these general remarks to provide the context for my assessment of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party. To me, Kejriwal epitomizes all that is wrong with Indian politics. That is saying something when you consider that Indian politics is riddled with stupidity, dynastic succession, public corruption, insane populism, crude factionalism, blatant pandering, naked dishonesty, extreme selfishness, myopia and other repulsive features. The major concern that I have with the AAP and its leadership relates to its agenda.
It began as a coalition of people fighting against public corruption. Public corruption, we must remember, is a phenomenon that is directly linked to the government. There cannot be public corruption without an active involvement of the government. Public corruption arises out of a combination of power that wields control, and a lack of accountability and responsibility. If this basic feature of the problem of public corruption is not understood, all actions to eradicated corruption or even to curb it is going to be not just futile but could make the problem much worse. That lack of understanding by the group called “India Against Corruption” was the glaring problem with it. It led to the quite mindless proposed solution of creating yet another layer of government with even more control and even less accountability to fight the problem of public corruption which, as I note above, is because of too much government, not too little. It is akin to bringing more gasoline to put out a raging fire.
Regardless of motivations good or bad, all do-gooders are at some level people who want control over others. The desire to control and direct others is present in all to some degree but it reaches saturation levels in those who are convinced that only if they had greater control over people would the world become a better place. This tendency finds its most potent expression in politicians. It is cynically said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It can also be that the first impulse of an over-controlling person is politics. They want power but they justify it by claiming that personally they are not power-hungry but want it only as a means to fix the problem.
As if it was not evident during the IAC days, Kejriwal’s ambition and motivation became obvious when he and his cohort of hangers-on decided to start AAP. His basic mindset is not too different from the mindset of those whom he appears to be fighting against. The ones in power got there on the same promise to people — deliverance from the misery of daily existence — and here was AAP going to deliver the people from the control of a rapacious government. AAP will fight the monster by becoming a bigger monster. To make such a promise and be believed requires a lot of guts, and of course a gullible public that cannot see through even the most blatant of deceptions.
The public is gullible. There isn’t a nicer way to say it. The public has been electing venal politicians for decades and I don’t see any reason to believe that suddenly it has become smarter and is not going to be taken in by glib promises made by fast-talking charlatans. Certainly politicians do get voted out but the ones that get voted in are no different in any meaningful sense. It is a different bucketful but it is still drawn from the same cesspool as the one before.
Ambitious, opportunistic, manipulative, authoritarian, self-aggrandizing, controlling: these are descriptive of people you don’t want to share a table with perhaps. Yet those are the characteristics of all successful politicians. But a good politician is more than that. A good politician is one who fundamentally understands what the public good is, knows what needs to be done to achieve it and is motivated to work for it. It is a matter of objectives, intelligence and diligence.
I don’t see Kejriwal as a good politician. He is clever and evidently very shrewd but not intelligent enough to understand the nature of the problem that he proclaims he will solve. Part of this inability arises from his background as a civil servant. Bureaucrats are trained to believe that controlling others is the key to solving problems. More rules, more regulations, more controls – these are the instinctive reactions of bureaucrats to any and all problems.
It was a bureaucratic mindset that created the notorious license-quota-permit-control raj, much beloved of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty led Congress. It created the monster of public corruption that devours the poor and keeps the economy shackled. Kejriwal does not understand the root cause of public corruption. To my mind, that’s the first strike against him.
The second strike against him is closely related to the first. Not being content with just fighting corruption, he expanded his horizons and set a socialist agenda. Every time socialism has been advanced as the solution for poverty, it has only deepened poverty. This generalization is without exception. Why has socialism failed? Because it denies people freedom, and without freedom people are unable to produce what is needed to live decent, productive lives. Socialism imposes the will of a small set of people on the rest. Socialism is a recipe for disaster.
India had the double misfortune of first being entrapped by British colonialism and then escaping it only to fall into the deadly embrace of Nehruvian socialism. India went from British Raj 1.0 to British Raj 2.0. The transition was easy since the state machinery of extractive and exploitative policies was created by the British and readily adopted by Nehru and his descendants. The rulers of post-independence India continued the dysfunctional rule of India. It was not as if they were unhappy with the way things were; their major concern was that they themselves wanted to rule instead of the British.
The same type of transition is what India has in store if, god forbid, Kejriwal and AAP are able to come to power. The transition will be this time from Nehruvian Socialism 1.0 (aka British Raj 2.0) to Nehruvian Socialism 2.0 under the new AAP dispensation. The entire machinery is in place, waiting for new operators. Once again, it is not as if Kejriwal is unhappy about the way things are done – total bureaucratic control of the people – but rather he would like to be the one in control.
Truth be told, there is no danger that AAP will get to govern India at the centre, even as a coalition partner. The danger is that it can spoil India’s chances of moving out of Nehruvian socialism. AAP has nuisance value and the Maino-led UPA/Congress is well aware of that. It will now attempt to use AAP to scuttle India’s chances of getting out of poverty. They know that a segment of the middle-class urban voters are seduced by idiotic notions of a “clean government by sincere people.” This segment will not vote for the UPA/Congress but to prevent it from voting for a Modi-led BJP, it would promote Kejriwal.
Here’s how that strategy would work. The UPA/Congress has bought and paid for a significant chunk of the mainstream media journalists. These will be instructed to talk up Kejriwal and provide him wall to wall media coverage. This will deflect attention from the prince and his little band of merry men. Voters have a short attention span and even shorter memories. Since the Modi versus Gandhi has already been called in favour of Modi, the new fighter the Congress will push into the ring against Modi will be Kejriwal. The Congress is a past master of the game and will fund the AAP to make sure that the BJP loses even if the Congress does not win.
Kejriwal is the willing useful idiot that the Congress/UPA was looking for and the Delhi voters have obliged. It is all karma, eh?
How is AAP different? No Way!!!
When Anna Hazare held rallies against corruption, I was there with my children and extended family in tow. I was not naive enough to think that a Jan Lokpal Bill would magically eradicate corruption. Like many others, I went because someone finally gave voice to our frustrations. Someone said that we needed to unite and fight against a terminal, all pervasive ill. Someone was brave enough to lead the way. That someone was called Anna Hazare, not Arvind Kerjiwal. This is a critical distinction to make, for while Anna’s world view may have been idealistic, his intention and commitment was never in doubt. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Kejriwal anymore.
Kejriwal was a creation of Anna’s movement. He broke away later to set up the Aam Admi Party (AAP) and fight the battle on the electoral front. At that point, Anna, Kiran Bedi and others distanced themselves, but he still enjoyed the support of many passionate and well-intentioned people, who dreamt of a corruption-free India. I believe that many of these people continue to work in good faith. However, my belief does not extend to their leader and many of his key aides. I no longer trust either their motives or their affirmations. In the following sections of this article, I will explain the reasons why.
The beginning of disquiet
As the Aam Admi Party started it’s public outreach, it was like a breath of fresh air. Volunteers went from house to house, reaching out to constituents. They telephoned citizens and introduced themselves. Not surprisingly, many citizens were bowled over.
Unfortunately for AAP, with outreach came heightened interest and scrutiny. Thus, when Kejriwal told Delhi residents that he would halve electricity tariffs and provide free water, the alarm bells rang. Where was the money for the promised goodies going to come from? Were they going to increase taxes to pay for these or were they planning to cut back on certain public services? Were there any practical solutions to problems, or a roadmap for governance? There have been no convincing answers to date other than vague promises on introducing Jan Lokpal or worse, promising things that can only be implemented by the Central Government.
Most supporters admitted that while these aspects were troublesome, they did not dent Kejriwal’s or AAP’s image. The party was new and there were bound to be initial teething issues. People hoped that AAP would learn the nitty-gritty of governance as they went along. After all, Arvind Kejriwal was a committed man of conviction.
The onset of disillusionment
Further scrutiny of his worldview brought out other worrying things. For instance, Kejriwal has made a statement that the Batla House encounter was fake. This was strange since the Delhi High Court and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) gave clean chit to the Delhi police. Moreover, the issue had already been long exploited by vested interests and had no connection to Kejriwal’s core issue of corruption. With this unnecessary meddling, the anti-corruption crusader suddenly seemed like a vote-bank player rather than an inexperienced idealist. Many began to accuse him of appeasement politics.
Next, there came a bigger shock that confirmed the suspicion. Kejriwal went to Bareily to solicit support from Muslim cleric Maulana Tauqueer Raza, who is infamous for issuing insane fatwas, including a bounty for beheading Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen. He has also been imprisoned on charges of fanning communal flames. The move caused a furore. Kejriwal then claimed that he was unaware of the cleric’s history and had merely met him since “he is a respectable person in the town”. Meanwhile, his party members refused to appear on TV debates to discuss the matter.
Were people to believe that Kejriwal went to Bareily to meet a man without basic research? Is this how he will run Delhi? Was he not playing vote-bank politics by soliciting support on the basis of religion? By avoiding debate, was his party not being undemocratic (a charge they have leveled against other political parties)?
At the end of the controversy, Kejriwal opted to stand by the cleric. Thus he transformed from crusader into a glib, seasoned politician. Yet, for some, Arvind Kejriwal remains a man of conviction.
Usual politics begins
As citizens started asking questions, there were also murmurs from within the party. AAP member Rakesh Agarwal held a Press conference to air his grievances about his party’s functioning. The meeting was stormed by slogan-shouting AAP members. Was this the signal for how democracy was going to function under AAP?
Then abuses by party members made headlines. In an election rally, AAP member Rajeev Laxman abused Home Minister Sushil Shinde, while their candidate Shazia Ilmi stood by and laughed. After the video went viral and there was an outcry, both apologised. Recently, at an AAP concert, singer Vishal Dadlani used abusive lyrics for rivals as leaders looked on. Was this pattern the party’s blueprint for decency and decorum in politics?
Now, the party is besieged by a spate of stings, which raise questions on their methods of fund raising. While I am not entirely convinced about the stings, the party’s response to the matter has been disappointing. This has led AAP member Nutan Thakur to resign. AAP has also been accused of giving tickets to tainted candidates. Is this an auspicious start to ethical politics?
Where is the difference?
One could argue that once Kejriwal chose the political path, he and his party had no choice but to play by the general rules of Indian politics. That is a fair point, but it then destroys the claim of being different from the rest. It no longer allows AAP to pretend that they are some kind of goody-two-shoes, social service organization. Kejriwal becomes just another politician, heading yet another political party. Perhaps this is what his mentor Anna Hazare and his erstwhile colleagues from India Against Corruption had feared and why they have publicly distanced themselves from him.
The gradual erosion of differentiating factors is a critical problem. As the new kid on the block, AAP is high on enthusiasm, but low on experience or a clear agenda. It’s appeal lies primarily in a perceived higher moral ground, and its credibility rests solely on trust. In his eagerness to gain power, Kejriwal has pushed his party into murky waters. That has raised questions on credibility. Once AAP is bereft of credibility, does it really have anything left to offer? In the absence of trust, can Kejriwal still claim to be a committed man of conviction?