Wednesday, January 8, 2014

What is Arvind Kejriwal’s Real Agenda?

Ideas keep flowing from Kejriwal. His latest idea is to turn abandoned buses in Delhi to night shelters for the city’s homeless, by providing them with blankets and other basic amenities. He has announced that a software for battling corruption is ready, and has called an unprecedented meeting of judges to drive home the message that delivery of justice needs to be hastened at any cost. Mass transfer of officials has been another strategy to bring in good governance. Keeping up with the message on his and his followers caps’ - “Mein Aam Aadmi Hoon” (I am a Common Man) - he has also refused to move in to a 5-bedroom duplex apartment he has been allotted as the CM of Delhi. And so far, he has kept his word on all electoral promises including difficult ones like free water and subsidized electricity. At the same time, he has announced that he won't be contesting the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. So, what is his real agenda?

But before that, how did this 45-year old diminutive aam aadmi upset the entire calculations of the established political class to become the CM of Delhi? In his tasteless and over-sized shirts as well as his ordinary glasses, this common man wouldn’t have attracted a second look from most in a city like New Delhi. So, it was obviously on the promise of rooting out corruption and implementing good governance that he succeeded. But to think that that is all there to Arvind Kejriwal would be a major mistake.

What is Kejriwal’s real message? Is it rooting out corruption? Not really. Is it about better accountability? Again, not really. Is it about extending RTI? Nope. Is it the freebies like free water and subsidized electricity? They were just popular strategies. Is his message Jan Lokpal? No, not even that.

To an extent, even the selection of a broom as his Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) electoral symbol has been misleading. That put too much emphasis on cleaning up, or anti-corruption ideas, even though it helped them a lot in getting votes.

To understand the man’s ambition, one should read ‘Swaraj’, probably the only book he has ever authored. Despite being published in 2012 - during the height of the Jan Lokpal movement that Anna Hazare and he spearheaded - Lokpal is not even 1% of the book.

Swaraj is not a dense read. In fact, if there is one small book that every Indian should read in 2014, it is this book by Kejriwal. In his characteristic style, he doesn’t collect any royalties from the book, and the short work is even available on the web as a free download.

But a word of caution. It is not an interesting read like ‘India 2020’ by Dr. Kalam or ’Imagining India’ by Nandan Nilekani. Those are denser, more passionate works, and they served their purpose too; it is often thought that both these works were instrumental in making the ruling class - read BJP & Congress - appreciate the passion and innovative ideas that Dr. Kalam and Nilekani had for a prosperous India. It is noteworthy that these books preceded both of them being bestowed with high responsibilities - Dr. Kalam as President and Nilekani as Chairman of UIDAI/Aadhar.

Swaraj is of an entirely different genre. Shabbily edited - at least the English version is - the seemingly unglamorous work by Kejriwal doesn’t tout any magical ideas for a Superpower India like Dr. Kalam or Nilekani proposes. The current Delhi CM doesn’t even mine any ideas from his IIT/IRS backgrounds to impress the aam aadmi, unlike Kalam and Nilekani who uses ideas from their uniquely rich professional experiences.

Yet even while being so inferior, Swaraj is the book to be read by every Indian for a simple reason - it challenges the status quo like no other. While thinkers like Kalam and Nilekani starts from the premise that India is now fairing ok, and then goes on to explain how India could be made much better, Kejriwal starts from the position that India is absolutely not ok now. “Is This Democracy?”, Kejriwal asks in the book after demonstrating that it is not. He goes on to call India’s democracy as nothing but a deception.

In other words, Swaraj is not about business-as-usual. It is a bold attempt to turn the political system upside down, and the beauty is that when Kejriwal explains it in his simple style, we realize that it is very much possible. Not in 2020 or 30, but right now, if we all could take a stand.

Rooting out corruption, and bringing in accountability, good governance, Jan Lokpal etc all find mention in Swaraj, but the central premise of Swaraj is, well, as the title suggests, Swaraj or Self-Governance.

Kejriwal proposes a revolutionary way to turn the current administrative system - of Centre-to-States-to-Panchayats - upside down. In the new regime, power will flow from the Panchayats to the States to the Centre!

Yet, the beauty of it is that such a revolution wouldn’t need even one constitutional amendment. In other words, the Indian Constitution already accommodates for this kind of governance. To be precise, the Constitution’s 73rd Amendment Act that came into force in 1993 had formally institutionalized Panchayati Raj or democratic decentralization of power. Though the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee’s recommendation regarding the same had been approved in 1958 itself, it took Rajiv Gandhi to evangelize it again, and sadly it took Congress his death to approve it finally in 1992-93.

Incidentally, Rajiv Gandhi is the only past or present politician Arvind Kejriwal is willing to acknowledge as someone who fought for decentralization of power, post-Independence.

But even after 1993, the political class - be it Congress or BJP or both of their powerful allies - have succeeded in relegating Panchayati Raj to where it always has been since Independence - at the last rung of governance, toothless and spineless.

This is what Arvind Kejriwal wants to change. In fact, this is his biggest ambition, the seminal idea of his book Swaraj, as well as his life. One can only marvel when Kejriwal explains how each and every problem facing this nation - from corruption to poverty to education to healthcare to land acquisition to governance to natural resource allocation to economic development - can be addressed in a revolutionary way through a decentralized democracy.

His is not an armchair theory, but grounded in his activist work, of travelling across India and meeting with a wide variety of people and systems at the grassroots level. In that respect, his work has that feel for the whole of India, much like Nehru’s ‘The Discovery of India’.

Kejriwal has no kind words for the rot he identifies everywhere, spare for the green shoots of hope he cites in Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, & Delhi. He also proves that democratic decentralization is very much possible citing examples from Brazil, USA, & Switzerland.

His revolution is as grassroots as grassroots can be. He even wants to turn the current 3-level Panchayati Raj upside down. Currently it is District Panchayat to Block Panchayat to Village Panchayat, with District Panchayat calling most of the shots. In Kejriwal’s model of Swaraj, he wants the Village Panchayat or Gram Sabha to control everything local, and even contribute to everything at the district, state, & central level.

Kejriwal proposes that Gram Sabhas hold frequent public meetings where everything local can be debated by all villagers and consensus arrived at. The majority of the funds should be directly allocated to Gram Sabhas with no riders, and before making any payment to the contractors, it should have the Gram Sabha’s majority approval. Swaraj aims at controlling the powers of Sarpanch, BDO, and the Collector. By that move, independence from State and Central administrations can be arrived at.

Swaraj is indeed built upon the powerful idea that people knows what is best for them, instead of the status quo idea that those whom people elects - once in 5 years - knows the best.

Swaraj even proposes a powerful mechanism for the cities, where the 3-level Panchayati Raj is not available. Kejriwal proposes that the Residents Welfare Associations (RWA) which are highly active in Delhi and other large cities be given legal status equivalent to Gram Sabhas, and that RWAs should be encouraged in each and every city.

In this context, even AAP's electoral symbol of broom gets rich significance. It is not only the broom of anti-corruption, but the broom of responsibility that all common people should wield to achieve self-governance or swaraj.

Swaraj is not entirely original. It is obviously inspired from Mahatma’s passionate idea of Gram Swaraj or Village Self-Governance that he proposed as the ideal foundation of India’s political system. But as Kejriwal argues, the concept is even more old.

Here is he writing passionately on this history in Swaraj:

“Lord Metcalf, the Governor General of India, wrote in 1830 that the foundation of this country is its Village Sabhas. The people of village meet at a common point and take joint decisions. In 1860 the British brought in a law that destroyed the Village Sabhas because they had understood that until this foundation is destabilized, they cannot rule India effectively. A law was enacted to bring in the Collector Raj. All rights that the people had or the Vllage Sabhas had, were snatched from them and given to the British Collectors. All areas of life and living were now controlled by British through one or the other government department. On top of all the government  departments was a white man who was known as “The Collector” or “Burra Sahib”. It is bad luck that though we got independence in 1947 yet the rights of the people were not returned. The rights of Village Sabhas were not returned. We replaced the British collector with an Indian. We kept all the paraphernalia of the British government as it is: Its arrogance, its un-approachability, its mentality of being a ruler. The Indian collector, nay a bureaucrat, is still the Burra Sahib.”

To those of you who are wondering, the role of Kings, back then, Kejriwal continues:

“King’s son used to succeed the king. There were no election to choose the King but at the same time the King did not have absolute power. All decisions were taken by the Gram Sabhas. Whatever the people of the village wanted the Gram Sabha wanted the same. The King had no options but to accede to the wishes of the people. Today we elect our King once in five years but the King is not in our control. In ancient times people did not choose the King but the King was under their control.”

Kejriwal takes up from where Gandhi left the idea due to his unfortunate assassination. He presents Swaraj not only in its correct historical perspective, but in its nitty-gritty details of implementation that are very much needed for a deployment now. Kejriwal also comes across as a spiritual inheritor of Mahatma, having worked as a volunteer with Mother Theresa, Ramakrishna Mission, and as a practitioner of Vipassana meditation.                    

While Ramlila Maidan played host to Kejriwal’s swearing-in ceremony, a huge crowd of aam aadmis were chanting non-stop, “CM today, PM tomorrow”. 

Yes, shouldn’t we give this remarkable guy a chance at governing this country?

Today, Congress, BJP, and the so-called Third Front led by the Left are researching that secret formula for success in the upcoming Parliament elections. But the best formula is not a secret anymore. Ally with Aam Aadmis and make Arvind Kejriwal the coalition’s PM candidate. It will be a game-changer for any coalition.

But it would require some spine.

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