SPEAKING FREELY Arvind Kejriwal grows in light and shade
By Bipin Shah
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows
guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in
A banyan is a fig that starts its life as an epiphyte (a plant growing on another plant), then its seeds germinate in the cracks and crevices of a host tree. "Banyan" often refers specifically to the Indian Banyan or ficus benghalensis, which is the national tree of the Republic of India. Anna Hazare, a former Gandhian "Kishan" farm labor activist came out of retirement almost nearly two years ago to start an anti-corruption movement.
Anna's movement ran out of the steam after few months, deflated by the deft handling of his demands by ruling and opposition
forces. Anna's poor health did not help the momentum. Arvind Kejriwal, now emerging as a political force as leader of the Aam Admi Party (AAP), was at the time an unknown bureaucrat with no political affiliation of any kind, yet became one of the key banyans in the anti-corruption movement.
People who live in autocracy or dictatorship always feel that they are missing the benefits of living in a democracy, where they get their rights for free speech and the chance to elect politicians of their choosing so the people's work is done. But they have to contend with feeling paralyzed from stalled progress, indecisiveness, infighting, jockeying for power, organized disinformation, and corruption scandals while elected officials are not getting any public work done. This phenomenon haunts the voters of many democratic countries, such as India, Thailand, Turkey and even the United States.
As the 2014 national election approaches in India, voters find themselves somewhat in a quandary and their mood reflects the unexpected victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in four states and the victory the AAP in Delhi. Voter frustration has reached its peak as scandals make new headlines. Now they are willing to try something new, while forgetting an important lesson of history is: "Be careful of what you wish for". An unproven and inexperienced politician may provoke the feelinga of voters who have just jumped out of the fire to discover themselves in the frying pan.
Arvind Kejriwal's past behavior of abruptly jettisoning of his alliance with Anna raised no eyebrows. He then started a movement that metamorphosesd into the AAP. Kejriwal graduated as a mechanical engineer from one of the India's elite schools, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), and then decided to abandon engineering in preference for the Indian Revenue Service. We do not know the full story behind Kejriwal's decision to switch career, but he has subsequently also switched from being anti-corruption activist to serve as a full-time politician and chief minister of the nation's capital.
There is a saying that "all the politics are local". In that respect, the Delhi voters surprised themselves and the nation by electing the party headed by one of the luminaries of IIT with no attachment to any other major political parties. India needs good governance, and the AAP promised to provide the required quality of leadership and to exercise control over a bureaucracy intoxicated with corruption.
Many other fellow luminaries of India's IIT have produced successful start-up businesses that now dot Silicon Valley in the United States and also the industrial belts of India. This requires innovative minds with good quality leadership. Kejriwal will be the first one to give India's its first successful start-up in Indian politics - if he does in fact succeed. Public expectations are that he will provide good leadership and set the standard for good governance.
However, differences are starting to appear within his circle and close acquaintances in running the party and government. Different approaches are required for effective leadership in a corporation and in a government. In a corporate culture, it is a lot easier to organize and exercise control over employees because they can be fired. In India, bureaucrats are so entrenched and their selection so tightly controlled that one may conclude they hold the true power, while most of the selected ministers can be seen as generally incompetent and reliant upon the bureaucrats who serve them.
This has allowed corruption to become ingrained in every phase of the lives of common people. The fundamental question arises how a lone ranger like Kejriwal can bring about the necessary transformation in the stormy sea of corruption, filled full with sharks waiting for every opportunity to take a bite. Can he be more successful than Anna Hazare?
Anna took every leaf from Gandhi's book of "fasting" but could not accomplish his objective, since anti-corruption laws are riddled with loopholes. The answer may lie with the people who can support a good quality leader who enjoys no luxuries and live like an Aam Admi (common man). Kejriwal himself has shown some of the characteristics required to gain the people's support, but are his handpicked colleagues willing to follow?
Bureaucracy runs deep
Recent events in the Delhi government indicate that a political "start-up" is far more difficult than a corporate start-up. Key members have different agendas and are close to drifting away from the original objective of eliminating corruption in public life. The mutual dependency and nexus among politicians and bureaucrats runs deep and Kejriwal is showing hesitancy in taking action against his supporters who are running foul of the law.
In spite of the growth and increased transport infrastructure in New Delhi, the nation's capital has experienced a critical shortage of drinkable water, power and staple commodities. Public amenities at the Gandhi memorials visited by foreign tourists have no running water. The city government has not been able to provide this important continuous service for public health. This obviously is shameful for the Delhiite and India's national image.
Generally, the city government runs like a municipal body. Due to its position as the nation's capital, the federal government jointly shares responsibilities on law and order and public security and controls the city's police force. This is not uncommon in many capital cities of the world. In every other city in India, the mayor runs the city with full authority.
The federal government has crafted a special status for Delhi's government as a "state-like" institution and the executive is not called the mayor but has a higher title of chief minister, like all heads of Indian states. The AAP considers Kejriwal's lack of authority over the police force as an affront and would like to see changes that expand its own power over police force. An organized protest against the Home Ministry on the subject of devolving police power was initiated by Aam Admi - then quickly abandoned.
Similar high-profile AAP events have unnerved Indian voters. It looks to many like key members are acting as loose cannons. Kejriwal was force to distance himself from comments made by one of his senior team members, Prashant Bhushan, who called for a referendum in Kashmir to decide whether the Indian Army should be deployed in the valley, in comments designed to appease the Muslim minorities of Delhi but which infuriated many others. The referendum is considered a dead issue and does not even exist in UN or Pakistani vocabulary.
This again reminded India's voters that Aam Admi is politically immature and will probably say or do anything to grab attention. Experience and political maturity are the key ingredients now lacking. Delhi voters are probably suffering a "banyan morning hangover", recognizing now a freewheeling ragtag band of warriors with individual agendas and no room for quality leadership to shine, assuming even that Arvind Kejriwal has the ability to provide that. So why are Delhiites feeling so gung-ho with Aam Admi?
Keeping on mission
It appears that the AAP is not particularly worried about Delhi but has an eye for 2014 national election ambitions. The presence of a new political force can again push India into the coalition politics of economic stagnation. Kejriwal and his colleagues are not spending their time in running the city when engaging themselves in very unproductive exercises of sit-ins and putting their noses where they don't belong.
On the contrary, Kejriwal is risking his own image. Some of his party members, who feel frustrated and left out, are now asking him to take action against another cabinet member Somnath Bharti concerning accusations by the four African women of alleged assault and racial slurs. A number of other claims have been made against Bharti. In his defense of the assault claims, Bharti has said he was doing his job to bust drug and sex rackets that have spread through Delhi. This is the perfect example how the AAP can get sidetracked from it original mission.
New Delhi continues to experience rising demand for power but depilated infrastructure and a political bottleneck on power industry are stalling plans for increasing the supply. The inner parts of Delhi have live electric wires running over the multistoried building crisis-crossing the streets, resembling a stage show for trapeze acts. These are very dangerous conditions for residents. Theft of electric power is easy and no there are no adequate building codes to prevent accidental electrocution. It seems to everyone, that these are the problems that the city's Aam Admi administration should be working on, rather than going after world's oldest profession.
Some consider the AAP to be an American Tea Party, Indian style, and say it has enough deadly poison to paralyze the government. After winning the local election, Kejriwal's first job after becoming chief minister in late December 2013 should be to demonstrate to the citizens of Delhi that he can govern better than his predecessors and fulfill his promises to voters, before he embarks on a more ambitious journey at national level.
It is not very clear how Kejriwal as a founding member screened AAP candidates. Indian crooks of all political persuasion who have mastered the art of predicting the outcome of elections, and form a line for queen-bee favors, may have quickly abandoned former affiliations to stake claims with the possible winner. They could be new opportunists or implanted by other major political parties either to split the AAP from within or create enough public rancor to tarnish Kejriwal's creditability. Most of the AAP's members have no experience in governance and very few probably exhibit the necessary leadership skills.
The BJP wisely decided not to form the government in a local situation but to concentrate on winning the national parliament. The "coalition government formulation" in India is a failure of democracy and appears more as an impossible dream, like having an Indian mongoose and a cobra cohabit.
A dream delayed
Coalition politics for the past two decades have stymied the Indian dream of pulling ahead through economic reforms and job creation to match the growth rates of neighboring China. Economic reforms are blocked by regional partners and the growth rate barely equates to the rate of inflation. This status quo cannot last forever in a competitive international market as foreign investment will dry up and job growth needed to reduce poverty.
The improvement of infrastructure and provision of food staples at affordable prices have become huge challenges as well as opportunities for Kejriwal and his party. Can he succeed in those key objectives? This is a million-dollar question. Everyone is pondering on this issue due to recent public spats and actions by his own party members. He will have to demonstrate to the nation that he can improve conditions for Delhi residents first, before pursuing the national agenda. He needs to crawl before he can walk, and he needs to walk before he can run.
The December vote for his party in Dehli was mainly derived from "No" votes against the Congress Party. The BJP was only two seats behind because of Delhi's sizeable Muslim population. Kejriwal, being an IIT graduate, is smart enough to understand the demographic equation in play.
The real question is concerns whether he can find the ways to control those of his chosen members who seem to have a different agenda to eliminating corruption and improving infrastructure. For the past two decades, coalition politics have breed more corruption and vote-buying on important legislation affecting the national economic and security policies.
According to the most recent census report, India is at a point when almost 170 million voters will be casting their ballots this year for the first time. This demographic change is very important for the political parties. India's youth is a huge vote bank that can make or break the AAP's fortune. New voters will be looking at many candidates - new as well as old - and asking key questions over whether they deserve to be elected.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Bipin Shah is a US-based freelance historian and writer. His primary areas of interest are ancient history of India, geopolitics and national security. He regularly posts his research on his personal Google blog and Academia.edu websites on ancient history and geopolitics.