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Monday, January 20, 2014

Re: AAP, dharnas and "Activist Politicians"

Call it my native cynicism, but it comes as no surprise when the AAP continues to resort to popular protest even after coming to power in Delhi.

With our Centre-heavy federal structure, the CM of a state has precious little power in the first place. Delhi is a doubly curious case, where the CM is in some ways truly empowered, but simultaneously faces the most central interference. Further, when it comes to law enforcement, quarrels over jurisdiction and responsibility under national, state-specific and local legislation, as also about the authority of city police vs. state police vs. other forces (RPF, GRP, CRPF, CISF, and so on), have always been par for the course.

Let's focus, instead, on three lessons to learn from this incident:

  1. Winning the election doesn't mean things stop going wrong. The job, really, only starts after you win - when you realise you have responsibility, but nothing approaching commensurate authority. In fact, winning a State election makes you a more credible threat, which makes your job even harder!
  2. Status quo powers *will* do all they can to see AAP fail to deliver on its promises, and call for Kejriwal and his cabinet to resign when it does (or risk losing moral legitimacy). Nobody will change a law simply because Kejriwal requests it (even were it a sensible, legitimate and practical request). 
  3. AAP, in turn, *will* use what leverage it has to fight this, including dharnas. They will mobilise mass support in favour of what they have promised.
This mobilisation may well be in favour of decisions we agree with strongly, but it can just as easily be for ones with which we violently disagree. On this particular incident and investigation, I may well sympathise with the AAP stance (not that they come out covered in roses). On whose control the Delhi police should fall under, I recognise that cogent arguments can be made for at least two options, if not more. On FDI in retail, I'm pretty convinced protectionism is cuckoo - you need to be aligning incentives, not constructing binaries.

That, by way of context. Bear with me here, because *NONE* of that is the point.

THE POINT IS: AAP is setting up a model of politics that promises to deliver substantive performance. Which is a great promise, but one that's set up to fail. It's based on democracy-in-theory, but flies in the face of anyone's experience of how a democracy actually works in the real world.

AAP's promise of "effective democracy" is based on two syllogisms:
  1. I am answerable to you, and the public authorities are answerable to me, hence they are answerable to you.
  2. I am clean (and incorruptible), and I do an honest job of representing my constituents' agenda, hence my proposed policy is right*. 
*(in the specialised sense of being the best a democracy can produce.)

The point is: Do we really believe the only problem a democracy faces is a dearth of suitably noble and competent candidates? Honesty aside, there is an entire spectrum of leadership that ranges from the transformative leader (who executes empirically good policies despite majority opposition) to the faithful agent (who champions the constituency's interests as most sacred, policy implications be damned). Even granted integrity and good intentions, how is Mr. Kejriwal to squat at both ends of that continuum at once?

In practice, ensuring both answerability and effectiveness is a matter of having robust institutions (not individual leaders) - or else an exceptionally homogenous constituency to represent. India historically offers neither, and has never lacked for dissension. Nehru, Patel, Gandhi - our greatest and most popular leaders still had their detractors. Heck, at times they were each others' detractors!

A large and heterogenous population includes spoilers and vested interests pretty much by definition. There will always be someone discontented with any given decision - and they will be swayed by neither dharnas nor opinion polls... How is their disagreement to be handled, if not by a fair process? How is the fairness and sustainability of that process to be assured, if not by institutionalisation?

If the sole guarantee of fairness is personal probity and representativeness, we are left with a narrative that calls every candidate (i.e. other than yourself) corrupt, undemocratic or both. To an extent, this is implied in every political contest, but in India today it has swollen into the dominant electoral plank, displacing any discussions about other relevant qualities by conflating integrity with competence. This culture of delegitimising your opponent ad hominem - even when richly deserved, as no doubt it is in far too many cases - has already rendered our national legislature all but defunct.

Worse, it peddles a fundamentally undemocratic citizenship - one where participation is reduced to casting the "correct" vote, where exit can be passed off as voice - and sets the stage for irredeemably self-assured and tautological debates.

The point is: you can't address structural deficits by protesting their existence.

I recognise that what I'm arguing for is super-ambitious, and I know the change has to start somewhere - maybe it can only start small. I also recognise there may be those who, when setting out on such a path, would prefer to misrepresent the scale of their ambition - the better to avoid early opposition. Especially when it comes to the AAP, I will readily concede that it's too early to judge; if they can gain real power in national elections, they may actually be able to enact some of those policies they've promised.

Whether that would be a good thing is, of course, a separate debate.

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