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VISION AND GRIT

- Delhi under the AAP could show the way to the rest of the country

It would be the best new year’s gift for India if the fresh breeze of the Aam Aadmi Party were to gather enough force to rescue us from the grip of jaded, scheming, corrupt or obscurantist political organizations whose manipulations have made people impatient with democracy itself. But we have been here before. Not only wading through blood and carnage to keep Jawaharlal Nehru’s tryst with destiny, but also waiting for Jayaprakash Narayan’s promised sampoorna kranti before it erupted into violence and was snuffed out in Tihar jail. Not many may choose to recall either the bliss that it was to be alive in the two successive West Bengal dawns of 1967 and 1977 that ended in nightmare darkness.

It does Arvind Kejriwal credit that while he betrays no intimation of historical voices murmuring caution, he does admit to feeling “very scared” about the magnitude of public expectations. Even he may not understand the immensity of the task of going beyond a difficult enough 18-point charter to usher in an egalitarian elysium bridging the gulf between aam aadmi and amir aadmi. China may have inspired Hegel's famous claim, “the East knows that one is free; the Greeks know that some are free; the Germans know that all are free”, but it is equally applicable to hierarchical India. Gimmicks like instant water and cheap electricity won’t achieve even the only less impossible aim of good governance. With his finger firmly on the public pulse, Kejriwal should know that bribes are as counter-productive in the long run as Narendra Modi’s ploy of stealing some of the Congress Party’s clothes with a 182-metre statue of Vallabbhai Patel.

Nitin Gadkari’s charge of a Congress-AAP “conspiracy” to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power is even more imbecile. It is imbecile not because the Congress and AAP wouldn’t indulge in such stratagems, but because they would be failing in their duty if they did not. If Gadkari doesn’t understand that it’s also the BJP’s duty to find appropriate allies and prevent a repetition of Delhi’s electoral outcome, his colleagues should get rid of him altogether. A political party’s only raison d’être is to fight and win elections, take office and provide good governance. Kejriwal’s plans for offices in some 300 districts in preparation for the Lok Sabha polls confirm his national ambitions. But, first, he must learn from Mamata Banerjee’s failure and convert a rumbustious street movement into a disciplined instrument of change. If that happens, the AAP might arguably emerge as a rational bulwark against the obscurantist forces that threaten to overwhelm India. The Indian History Congress lamented recently that the Archaeological Survey of India’s gold-digging operation at Unnao Fort on the basis of a dream by a bare- bodied, white-haired, white-bearded village mahant had “exposed the entire country to shame and ridicule throughout the world”. The charge echoed Winston Churchill’s grim warning about independent India sliding back into medievalism.

The road ahead is beset with difficulties for an administration living on Congress grace and favour. Even without looking back to Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral, Kejriwal knows that outside support is always motivated. Even without being a former joint commissioner of income tax or having a wife who is still in the Indian Revenue Service — which needs looking into for privileged insights into private and corporate finances should play no part in future policymaking and fund- raising — he must know that India Inc is more insidiously powerful than the Government of India. And India Inc has convinced itself Modi alone can promote growth.

Big business is not too fussy about communalism or corruption. It sees parliamentary democracy as an unnecessarily time-consuming process. It pays obeisance to traditional gods as an additional investment in prosperity, but its real backing is for executive government. The little man’s concerns leave it cold. If businessmen nevertheless courted Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and applauded his populist fads, it was at least partly because of their expectations from the strength the Mahatma drew from his mass following. Kejriwal’s metro rides may produce the same effect one day. A genuine preference for simplicity probably also explains his injunction against beacon lights and car pennants. But the decision recalls for me Lee Kuan Yew’s shrewd advice to a gathering of Bombay dignitaries that it was in their interest to abjure emblems of rank. Ruling parties whose leaders are recognizable from special number plates, flag cars and red lights tend to lose elections, he warned, “Familiarity breeds contempt. So in Singapore no minister goes with the flag and our cars are not specially numbered. We share the trals and tribulations of the populace.”

That advice would have been dear to Kejriwal’s heart for both practical and philosophical reasons. It also highlights what businessmen see as the fundamental difference between Modi and Mamata. She is anxious not to alienate the poor; he believes that only strong-arm methods can deliver. The AAP will have to work out its own via media. It’s not the only area where it might find compromise unavoidable. Traditional vote-banks can’t be ignored, especially with Modi’s henchmen wooing other backward class voters in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh with the prospect of one of their number becoming prime minister. Even a seemingly innocent and desirable reform like ensuring that no court case is adjourned if the Delhi government is a litigant would at once raise bureaucratic and judicial hackles. Kautilya would have approved of sacking and jailing corrupt public officials but confiscating property can lead (unless demonstrably acquired through corruption) to human-rights violations and endless litigation, and create an even more powerful incentive for benami holdings. I am not certain either whether a citizens’ security force would provide security or further endanger the public. In fact, the most easily fulfilled of Kejriwal’s 18 points is probably building 200,000 public toilets unless that, too, treads on the corns of some vested interest.

His promise to set up 3,000 “mohalla sabhas” for Dilliwallahs to decide what they want — parks, street lights or dispensaries — recalls Jyoti Basu’s insistence that the civil service was a colonial conduit and the ruling party would communicate direct with the people. But he was thoroughly disapproving when told after winning the 1977 election that Sirimavo Bandaranaike had appointed a political agent representing her Sri Lanka Freedom Party in each district and that the Colombo authorities operated through these PAs, bypassing district officers who were civil servants. “That will lead to duplication and confusion!” exclaimed Basu in outrage. The ghost of Napoleon in Orwell’s Animal Farm continues to haunt politics.

The AAP’s strength lies in its composition. Unlike the Trinamul Congress, it isn’t a dumping ground of Congress rejects and rebels. Unlike the Congress Party, it does not squirm under the burden of an ideological legacy that no one believes in. Unlike the BJP, the AAP appears to be universal in its outlook. It is not a cozy sectarian club of Hindus or Muslims, Tamils or Jats. Its foot soldiers are not savage bigots who butcher missionaries, attack dance halls and discotheques, ransack shops that sell Valentine cards, encourage widow-burning or prop up brutal khap panchayats. Viewed from outside, the AAP looks like a bunch of amateurs high on idealism whose soaring dreams invite a literal rendering of those famous lines — “Koi deewana kehta hai, Koi pagal samajhta hai” — by Kumar Vishwas, who calls himself “an iconic blend of a Performing Poet, an Author, a Social Communicator and a Motivator”. But that would not do justice to the vision and grit that have propelled the group into governing the capital. Delhi under the AAP might yet show the way to the rest of the country.