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Mainstream, VOL LII No 9, February 22, 2014

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Saturday 22 February 2014, by Uttam Sen

The event of the Aam Aadmi Party’s resignation was a political football to the degree that people and parties tried to bring it around to their own terms. The AAP’s patronage was turning out to be a double-edged sword for the underprivileged element of the common man. Fairly unexceptionally, the interim budget pampered the urban up-and-coming a bit. In electoral battle all competitors will try the balancing act in their own ways. But if the other half’s composure appeared to hang by a thread it was not because of one or another person or group’s newly unearthed corruption either. It was the attitude that had developed over time. There was a touch of determinism in Yogendra Yadav’s post-resignation thinking when he suggested that AAP’s agenda was decided more by the flow of events and the public mood than its own preset preferences. Settled habits of thinking or feeling can, however, lead the other way as well, as when people respond to a changing state of affairs they have come to accept as irreversible. The premonition is that in a period of flux, the wrong streaks will gain ascendancy. The aam aadmi himself had been caught unawares by the ebb and flow of political activity.

Fortunately, the attribute that permeates the idea of India is the human factor. Its limitation is therefore the threat. Major political battles have been fought in the past without the visceral denominator. Proficiency in national and humanistic values aroused an appreciation of contrasting, even adversarial, positions. There are multiple approaches to pluralism that the diverse flavour of India recognises. Yet the traditional and the established are crossing swords with the modern and the novel, to mention just two sets of categories, in the small-minded idiom.A political new-born is condemned for “lies”—which have been discussed in a widely different light—and insidious networking, with a rival legislator claiming at a press conference that they were under official scrutiny.

The cycle quickly extends to the social discourse, predictably reducing the supposed brainstorming to the dialogue of the deaf. Invidious distinctions between classes or divisions of people are being blown up, tangentially giving credence to hearsay that the AAP’s popularity among the putative underclass is peaking. We have an insufficiently regarded tradition of service to the poor (our daridra narayan) that is being nullified by the wannabe component of political conservatism, intriguingly contrasted by the compassion of reform. The condition of being stretched so tight has to be considered exceptional

We are made to wonder whether votebanks are in peril, at times whether the political class is unaccountably losing faith in itself. We do not live by bread alone and the direct resort to the provision of material basics may not always suffice. For better or worse, the benchmarks by which most of the political class have been identified and written off by the new kid on the block can mean different things to different people. To be sure, undiluted corruption and discrimination exist, and need to be sorted out, but they can also be sticks to beat people with. Voters sometimes see through the ruse. Steam-rolling modern governance on reluctant benefi-ciaries can be counterproductive (as the AAP itself says about certain welfare schemes). Despite its undeniable impact (incredibly accen-tuated by a rival) a political wave translating into a phenomenal electoral tally outside Delhi will be against all odds. Suffice it to say though that some, even among the non-partisans, are ready for an upset. The numbers of the underprivileged support their contention, but not either the current reach or infrastructure of the AAP. However, symbolic giant-killing is very much on the cards.

On his part, Arvind Kejriwal has made full use of the multiformity that turned him into the darling of some sections of the media. He has projected his case as the painstaking people’s representative. He had reduced, at places eliminated, the customary exploitation of small shopowners and auto-rickshaw drivers by venal policemen (surely he did not mean all policemen, some of whom would be relieved to be dutiful and honest), and had sought to audit Delhi’s privatised electricity providers’ accounts, before addressing the slated gas price rise. In essential services, law and order etc. the government was proactive. One could even make a case for the wisdom of lesser mortals backing out if Kejriwal’s exposition of the hurdles is any indication of the lengths to which one has to go to keep up with work.

In a refrain unmistakably reminiscent of the US anti-trust (read “anti-corporate”) pedagogy, he has argued that the scheduled rise in gas prices is indefensible compared to the cost of production, recalled the concerned company’s role as the government’s agency to acquire the gas (not to be confused with the ownership of a national asset that it subsequently wanted to sell at market prices). Strictly speaking, we are used to hearing both sides of the story. The veracity of his outlook is beyond the aam aadmi. The agency of referral is the court which should put the record straight in good time.

Kejriwal has since rationalised to a chamber of commerce that he is against the wanton, invidious association between business and government (crony capitalism), not capitalism itself, which would gain in the long-term by the transition from patronage to professionalism.

To revert to the text, he had acted following complaints by eminent citizens and because the price rise would snowball into inflation of national proportions (when it could be averted). His statement came across as consistent in a general view of the situation. On an equal footing, one could reckon that the accession of Delhi to a State entitled the AAP to table the Lokpal Bill despite the Lieutenant Governor’s objection.

The layman’s reading of the law raised the question of redundancy with Central legislation; a noted lawyer’s opinion on procedural flaws leading to the restriction on the Delhi Government and its later rumoured repudiation had the makings of a witches brew. In the end, it was the Congress and BJP closing ranks that made such constitutional nitpicking superfluous. Eradicating corruption was Kejriwal’s raison d’être and the Bill his meansto that end. In the circumstances, the next step of resigning and going to the people before the next elections seemed the rational course of action. To him, when one door shut another opened with the election platform. But labelling is by definition restrictive. Working to one person’s disadvantage could be another’s advantage and mass management is not quite seen the way it is in textbooks that do not take into account the difficulties of organising colossal constituencies. Functional probity is best vindicated by subsequently staying the course in office.

It is axiomatic that to err is human, but on balance, prescient columnists in the mainstream media are welcoming a brand of leadership which can belong to anyone with the goods. Our processes of government and Constitution are also adequately informed and much of the content in terms of equity, growth, freedom and rectitude was already there. We are probably rewinding when the world is adjusting to holistic change with a human face. Nothing  bad or unlucky is about to happen. There is no reason to shoot the bearer of glad tidings either.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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