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POLITICS AND ITS PROMISES

- Politicians will not change, so India must find checks for them

The Anna Hazare movement was very effective in stimulating the nationís conscience and voice against corruption. The jan lok pal bill, the related legislation and institutional changes, were tangible steps towards tackling corruption. Media support, and the quick learning by Arvind Kejriwal about the effective use of the media, gave the movement visibility and public support. All political parties, and principally the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, after giving apparent support, acted in apparent unison to sabotage the initiative.

Kejriwal, because of his proximity to Anna Hazare, his superior command of both Hindi and English and speaking skills, quickly learnt how to use the media to project himself. He gained a visibility in a few days that might have otherwise taken years of agitating and hard work.

Kejriwal had been a social activist. His work on the right to information won him the Magsaysay award. He was impatient to improve the social ethos and the quality of governance in the country. His link to Anna Hazare and the vast crowds and visibility put his ambition into overdrive. He thought that now was the right time to transform the Anna movement into a political movement that could sweep the country. He campaigned in the Haryana and Uttar Pradesh byelections, but with no perceptible impact.

Kejriwal is now forming a political party. It is a good time to examine what the old national parties are doing and whether Kejriwal or anyone else can transform Indian politics. Both the Congress (earlier) and the BJP in the current and earlier two Lok Sabhas have shown scant respect for Parliament and regard for the cost of each session. All political parties (except perhaps the communists) buried the lok pal bill, acting in pre-arranged concert.

The BJP smells blood and thinks that the scandals, economic decline, the ineptitude of the Congress leadership, and the inability of the United Progressive Alliance government to correct any situation will lead to this governmentís downfall. We can expect continuing non-cooperation on any government measure, and the seizing of any opportunity to discredit the government and the Congress. Already the Congress allies in the UPA and those supporting it from outside have distinctly begun to distance themselves from the Congress.

The Congress has tried to paper over the many charges of corruption levied by the media, activists and others (except when pushed to the wall as with A. Raja and Murasoli Maran, both from an allied party, not the Congress). Another response has been to field a barrage of ministers, and not merely Digvijay Singh, to diffuse the allegations against their now acknowledged leader, Robert Vadra. Others try to discredit the comptroller and accountant general, or question the Supreme Courtís credentials for questioning government policies.

The Congress president, whose word is law for the UPA, has, through her decisions, pushed the fiscal deficit to record levels. With a rising current account deficit, foreign exchange reserves made up of volatile funds, rising government and external debt, the country is in a declining macroeconomic position, and, having been in danger of being downgraded by the rating agencies, has now been so downgraded. Growth has spluttered and we are no longer the worldís Ďtigerí economy after China. The party leader has no regard for the link between rising government social expenditures and rising government deficit, uncontrolled subsidy expenditures, inflation, rising interest rates, reserves which include increased round tripping of black money, and a volatile rupee.

The BJPís refusal to allow Parliament to function for a whole session or the hullabaloo created by Narendra Modi based on a wrong newspaper report about the Rs 1,880 crore spent by the government on Sonia Gandhiís travel and medical expenses are two of the more disgraceful acts of the BJP. There will be many more as it tries to capitalize on the Congressís vulnerability while diverting attention from the misdeeds of its national leader or other leaders as those in Karnataka.

The BJPís hostility to the raising of petroleum and oil product prices or foreign direct investment in retail demonstrates a singular shortsightedness. These are related to the revenues of government. The BJP, if it forms the next government, will possibly have to take similar decisions on such matters. The duty of an Opposition party is constructive, not destructive, opposition, not opposition merely because the proposal is from the ruling party.

P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were shrewd and experienced politicians who were not above political opposition to issues they would otherwise agree with. Both were willing to take shortcuts and engage in unsavoury actions (for example, the bribery of Shibu Soren for his support, or the lack of firm action after the Gujarat riots). But a Congress government and its successors have not punished any of the ringleaders (some of them alleged to be eminent Congress politicians) who led the massacre of 5,000 Sikhs in Delhi following Indira Gandhiís assassination. The BJP also did nothing to punish the ringleaders in the killing of Muslims in Gujarat after the burning of the train of returning Hindu kar sevaks at Godhra.

Civil society activists succeeded in pursuing the Gujarat killers. No such activist emerged for the Sikhs. The UPA I also saw the unprecedented display on the floor of Parliament of cash allegedly used for bribing members of parliament to harvest favourable votes. The matter was buried, and the Opposition acquiesced by not protesting.

Ruling parties have for some time now, and especially in the last decade, shown little regard for propriety or public opinion. People hope for political leadership that understands the complex issues in our very diverse society, is not corrupt and can bring the country together. That hope has been belied for almost a decade. So Kejriwalís initiative in forming a political party was welcomed by many hopeful Indians.

But Kejriwalís speech when he launched his party at Jantar Mantar shows how far he is from becoming the hoped for political leader. His speech was undiluted populism. Impossible-to-keep promises to reduce prices of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and electricity came with threats to break laws. He promised to implement a discredited and disputed order of the chairman of the Delhi electricity regulatory commission to reduce electricity tariffs. Kejriwal approvingly quoted the previous regulatorís nonsensical order and promised to personally disconnect electricity to the chief minister if she did not reduce tariffs.

For a former income tax officer, Kejriwal makes promises of what are utopian prices for services that are dependent on other inputs whose prices are going up. It is either an incredible level of ignorance or a deliberate irresponsibility in making promises.

Kejriwal is no longer a private citizen expressing frustration but a politician wanting to govern. Building a political party demands a huge support base of volunteers and funding, adherence to principles, the truth, and abjuring excessive promises. Kejriwal, by his first speech as a politician, has proved that he is not of a new breed. There will never be such a new breed of politicians.

We need independent institutions and procedures that prevent the misuse of national resources while ensuring efficiency and effectiveness. We have older political leaders in the Congress and Trinamul Congress who believe that the government should keep spending for social welfare but not raise revenues (through taxes or tariffs) to meet those expenses. They must not be allowed to damage the macroeconomic balance in the economy.

We will never get a different breed of political leaders. We must have a structure that will keep them on the straight and narrow path of economic and social rectitude.