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AAP on the rise but is it on the right path

North India has never seen such a thing as the AAP. However, the changes that it seeks are to be found in society and not in politics. The party believes otherwise and so it will fail, writes Aakar Patel.

ht view Updated: Jan 01, 2014 16:33 IST
Aakar Patel
Aakar Patel
AAP,Arvind Kejriwal,aam aadmi party

I wish the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) well. North India has never seen such a thing as the AAP, which has won a major election without a caste base. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal's movement has triumphed on the strength of issues and a new philosophy of governance.

The AAP's belief, briefly put, is that the system is bad, and that the people are good. Politicians are mostly bad, but even when they are good, the system is so bad that it corrupts them.

This is how Kejriwal described it in an interview after his victory: "If we think that we can provide good governance in the present system, that's not possible. The system will soon overpower us and we will get sucked into it. So, we will have to change the system completely and for that our solution is Swaraj."

We'll come to Swaraj later, first let's examine his diagnosis of the problem in India.

There are two examples Kejriwal often uses to arrive at his 'people are good, system is bad' theory. The first is the behaviour of Indians abroad, where they pay their taxes and behave in traffic, and the second is that of Indians not littering the Delhi Metro.

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In the first instance, Kejriwal assumes that it is fear of punitive action that ensures compliance. If they can do this elsewhere, they can be made to do this everywhere in Delhi. The solution is, therefore, to be found in politics and governance.

Perhaps this diagnosis is true of the Indian abroad, but it cannot be said to be true of the foreign population he is amid. It is not fear of the State that coerces the American or the Japanese into paying his taxes, not misbehaving in traffic and not littering. It is the idea that he is part of a society towards which he is responsible. The rule of law in those parts comes from the consent of the governed.

If I remember it right, Kejriwal himself paid his own taxes tardily and after a stern notice.

The second example, that of Delhiwallahs behaving on their Metro and not littering, is echoed elsewhere. For instance, Indians in five-star hotels and on airplanes. It is true that these are not littered by us and the reason is, as Kejriwal concludes, that we are conscious of how we are perceived in these places. And also that we are proud of them.

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But if this sentiment does not extend to our neighbourhoods, is the State responsible? This seems the incorrect conclusion to draw, and the solution here doesn't appear to reside in the State but in society.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal shakes hands with Comptroller and Auditor General of India Shashi Kant Sharma during a meeting in New Delhi. (PTI photo)

But having diagnosed the problem in this manner, Kejriwal and the AAP then arrive at a solution. In Kejriwal's words, the AAP will "have to implement a system that no longer depends on individuals but works by itself. Why do we have to approach MLAs for ration cards, cleaning waste or improving roads? These things should happen on their own. When there is decentralisation, when governance is in the hands of the people, at least colony-related issues like water, power, parks, medicines and schools will get solved."

This will also take care of corruption, because the politician is bad but the people are good. The idea that they should be allowed to legislate and govern themselves is what the AAP calls Swaraj. Here is how Kejriwal says it will be implemented: "Delhi has 272 wards. Each will be divided into an average of 10 parts. That gives us roughly 2,720 mohallas. Demarcating the mohallas on the map will be a huge exercise. Assets like roads, lanes, dispensaries, primary schools, etc, will have to be transferred to each mohalla. Each mohalla will have a small secretariat with one or two employees after which there will be local elections to chose a representative. His only job will be to convene monthly meetings and to get decisions implemented through the local mohalla sabha secretariat. This entire exercise should take us six to eight months."

Direct democracy, as the AAP sees it, is actually democracy's oldest form. Aristotle described it in his work, The Athenian Constitution. Basically, every decision, whether executive or legislative, was taken locally by direct vote.

Athens was a direct democracy because with only 50,000 citizens, it had little diversity and was manageably small. But even there, since it wasn't practical for all citizens to vote every day, only a few voted on a given day. These were chosen by lot (picking out a number or a colour from a pot) and by neighbourhood in rotation. Every citizen was equal and equally qualified.

Aristotle described how government servants, military generals and court jurors (there were no judges) were elected and picked randomly by lot.

Socrates had a problem with this. "In a storm, would you decide a ship's captain by lot?" is his constant question in Plato's dialogues. The answer is obviously no.

Plato detested direct democracy as much as Socrates did. He had no faith in the mob's wisdom. His work The Republic dreams up a State that was the opposite of direct democracy.

Direct democracy is also susceptible to demagoguery and the passion of the mob, which is quick to form in India. The comic playwright Aristophanes had a favourite target, the demagogue Cleon, who kept pressing Athens into continuing its ruinous war with Sparta.

Will India resist her Cleons, of whom it has many? The evidence suggests otherwise. Gujarat's voters continue to cleave to a party whose ministers are being convicted of mass slaughter.

The khap panchayat is a very local, very democratic institution. Is it better at arriving at good decisions? According to the AAP philosophy, yes.

As the AAP ministers experience power and figure out what is going on, they will find the system compromised for several reasons. Among them will be a lack of resources and a slippage of rules that has come in time because of the chaotic environment the system operates in.

Systems, especially those that work efficiently in other nations, are rarely in themselves good or bad. If they are seen to have failed the diagnosis must be sought elsewhere.

The sweeping change of the sort Kejriwal seeks is to be found in society and not in politics or the State. It is there that the solution ultimately resides. And it is because of this that the AAP movement, noble and well-intentioned, but incorrectly aligned, will flounder.

Aakar Patel is a former Gujarati newspaper editor and a columnist for Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Dec 31, 2013 23:27 IST