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Corporate Nov 25, 2012

Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party: Heart says yes, but head says no

By Venky Vembu

There is much to admire in Arvind Kejriwal. As he demonstrated during the campaign for the Jan Lokpal Bill, he burns with a fiery idealism that is somewhat rare in today's politics. Anna Hazare may have been the visible face of that movement, but Kejriwal was a key member of the 'brains trust', and, more than anyone else in that campaign, was engaged in the nuts-and-bolts of drawing the contours of an effective, independent anti-corruption agency.

And although Kejriwal is not a lyrical orator, he has the capacity to distill complex ideas and present them to young audiences in a manner that inspires them to abandon their apathy and be a part of a larger cause. And if the Jan Lokpal issue was one of the rare instances when many young people became engaged in discussions on the micro-minutiae of law-making and the legislative process, the credit for that goes to Kejriwal. The man is something of a policy wonk, who is ever ready to go into clause-by-clause discussions and debates in the hope of persuading you of the merits of his case. For him, God is in the details, and often reveals Himself in Clause 4, Subsection (3)(a)(ii) .

As someone who watched him closely during the Jan Lokpal Bill campaign - and, I admit - was persuaded by his arguments on the need for a strong anti-corruption agency modelled on the Hong Kong and Singapore experiences, I know that he is often so fixated on the ideal objective that he is bullheaded enough to overlook the practical limitations that inhibit their attainment.

Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan are drawing the wrong lessons from India's economic history. PTI

Yet, he is also democratic enough - and in some cases, excessively so - as to seek out views from the grassroots supporters of his movement and reorient himself somewhat: the draft Jan Lokpal Bill that the movement put forward underwent several iterations, and the final version was richer for the wide consultation.

Kejriwal's steering of the Jan Lokpal movement from the back seat, as it were, uplifted the hearts of anyone other than the extremely cynical. Here, the heart murmured, was a good man who meant well, and could inspire a generation of apolitical youngsters to think big - and, more important, to hit the streets.

Even today, when one sees him at his numerous 'name-and-shame' press conferences, at which he lobs fiery (even if recycled) bombshells against some of the most powerful people in the country, he does provide an adrenaline rush and has hearts pulsating. And his fearlessness has proved somewhat infectious: the media that had known much of what Kejriwal was talking about - be it about the miraculous rise in the business fortunes of Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra or the crony capitalist networks that bilk the common folk - but did not talk about them out of fear or favour, has now broken its silence .

And so, if I were voting with my heart today, solely on the issue of corruption, Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party would probably get my vote. When it comes to corruption, there's very little to choose between the mainstream national political parties - be it the Congress or the BJP - except the scale of operations. If one is themota maal party, the otheris clearly the chota maalparty. If one has Vadra, the other has Nitin Gadkari. And the manner in which they both brazen it out validates the worst impressions about their corrupt ways. They both need a period of prolonged political exile for them to work themselves out of their corrupt status quo-ism. Voting for an idealistic (and as of now uncorrupted) Kejriwal would be balm for the bruised soul.

Yet, listening to Kejriwal give voice to his worldview in other areas, particularly on areas relating to economic policymaking, the rational 'head' exercises a veto over the 'heart'.

Kejriwal, and Prashant Bhushan, appear to have colossally misread the lessons from India's economic history since Independence, and particularly since the economy opened up in 1991. If there is one core learning that ought to have emerged from Indian's developmental experience, it is this:

Big Government, which imposes itself in your face in every way and becomes the ultimate bhagya vidata (the determinant of people's destiny), is a disaster.The rapacity of Big Business too needs checks, but Big Government only compounds the crony capitalist networks that have gamed the system.There is no such thing as a free lunch, and populism, which manifests itself in giving everything that every political constituency wants, is the quickest route to bankruptcy.

Kejriwal and Bhushan look around them, see mass poverty as a result of failed socialist policies over 65 years - and conclude that what India needs is yet more of the same socialist policies.

They see the plunder by Big Business, with the connivance of Big Government, and they conclude, erroneously, that profit-making in its entirety is a crime.

They see the maai-baap sarkarhas failed to deliver on its populist promises - and yet their only solution is an even bigger, more benevolentmaai-baap sarkar - with bigger and more extravagant populist schemes.

Of ultraleft loonies, we have several in our political landscape. The Congress is surely the last stop in Big Government and may have perfected the art of populist giveaways to win votes. But the field is getting crowded. Mamata Banerjee, of course, is looking to out-Left the Left parties. And as for the BJP, it appears to have abandoned AB Vajpayee's reformist legacy.

And, now, newbie politician Kejriwal is looking to outdo all of them.

During a time when I was inspired by Kejriwal's idealism, I used to wonder what message Indians - and the political parties - would take if his movement failed. Would they, for instance, take it as validation of the current political system, and feel that there is no compelling need to change? That way only lies disaster.

But today, I worry what message Indians - and political parties - will take if Kejriwa's Aam Aadmi Party succeeds. Whatever his principled stand on corruption is, his party's economic policy will drag India back into a socialist time and place that only bodes ill for India's future.

Which is why while the heart says yes to Kejriwal's AAP, the head decidedly says no.

by Venky Vembu

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