Friday, January 3, 2014

A Constructive Agenda for the AAP [Arvind Kejriwal]

Despite missteps, Arvind Kejriwal and his party could move beyond an attacking strategy to improve our polity

The turn of events that catapulted Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to power in  may have flabbergasted them as much as anyone else. It might all fizzle out if they take a hard line, following the vengeful path they espoused during their campaign, thereby losing the chance to govern with outside support. But what if they take a more constructive approach? If they govern at least for some time, it could seed some real improvement. At best, acting responsibly in the public interest while eschewing the populism that has worked so far, they could become a major party. Even if the AAP is reduced to a swing vote, it could still have a salutary effect on all parties. This consideration of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats shows why.


The AAP has attributes favouring the public interest:
  • integrity (despite some failings);
  • openness, transparency;
  • clean, transparent election funding;
  • antipathy to feudal trappings/"VIP culture";
  • belief in systems (perhaps).

Given Mr Kejriwal's engineering education, his admiration of the Delhi Metro, and his efforts to appoint officers of integrity in key positions, it is possible that integrity, rationality and a systems approach may prevail in governance. Despite anomalous manifestations on the path to power, popular pressure may now hold the AAP and its members to objective standards, besides compelling other parties and politicians to aspire to these standards. Witness Rahul Gandhi's denunciation of the ordinance to protect convicted lawmakers, or his intercession on the Adarsh Commission report (although the Bharatiya Janata Party, unfazed, is seeking electoral gains through sectarian alliances in Karnataka). The other major development is that Mr Kejriwal has emerged as a strong, charismatic leader. This factor alone, which could send the party and the man hurtling in either a positive or negative direction, is of profound importance, because we have sorely lacked such leadership.


The AAP and Mr Kejriwal also have negative attributes that go against the public interest. They have displayed a defiance of established order combined with a readiness to take to the streets, and a tendency to exclude non-believers. One could argue that this is required to effect change in the face of our predatory politics. But the AAP's populist electioneering is difficult to justify except that it was a winning strategy for the party and Mr Kejriwal. Retrograde ways - such as operating through coteries, a self-righteous belief in their moral superiority, and confused socialism - are likely to end badly for them, for the public, and for the economy.

There's little evidence of systems yet. In fact, quite the contrary in their manipulative histrionics, including the reduced electricity charges and free water. Mr Kejriwal's contradictory behaviour could lead to a personality cult that subverts professionals with objectivity and integrity, and results in more anarchy. For instance, branding all tax inspectors as corrupt, or asking "honest officers" to approach him directly, thereby encouraging breaking ranks instead of instilling coherence and esprit de corps. The problem will be if these headstrong acts bankrupt and demoralise the capital.


Looking past the hurdles starting with a vote of confidence today, January 2, in the Assembly, establishing more realistic expectations, and so on, it is possible to conceive of the AAP taking a positive or a negative arc - a high road or a low road. So far, in getting to power, the AAP and Mr Kejriwal have excelled in attacking the establishment and criticising the government, the Opposition, and all politicians and bureaucrats. Having seized the crown of thorns by forming the government, the attacking strategy alone and destructive tactics are of no use. They must now define realistic goals, put together coalitions and workable strategies, and do what it takes to achieve them. This is very different from making dramatic, unrealistic election promises to the gullible, and playing to a headline-seeking media.

They have begun with what looks like a rash fulfilment of unreasonable promises, unless some real domain experts have looked into the finances and know undisclosed but sound ways to fund the treasury. Given their commitment to transparency, they will presumably share these financial details with the public soon. Otherwise, they are just irresponsible politicians grabbing power to loot the treasury. 


There are other worrisome legacies, too, such as the commitment to radical decentralisation and direct democracy. In practice, where these have worked, there has been intense preparation in the citizenry, as in Switzerland. Attempts at less rigorous experimentation, such as in California, destroyed the strengths of a well-developed market, bankrupting an economy about the size of India.1 There is certainly a role for local community "mohalla sabhas", but it has to develop and evolve with responsible citizenship, and leadership. 


So what can we hope for? That Mr Kejriwal and the AAP:
  • concentrate on effective and efficient service delivery in law and order, infrastructure, ie electricity, water and sewerage, roads, transportation, and the like, and not on vindictive politics;
  • use competent people with domain expertise to address and overcome the daunting challenges in seeking a transformation;
  • define objectives with all stakeholders, and not only their concept of the "aam aadmi";
  • follow the discipline of systematic, goal-oriented flowcharts, project management, and cash flows;
  • drop populism for a social-democratic philosophy, with government as a responsible partner;
  • in terms of game theory, adopt a collaborative, community-oriented "stag hunt" approach instead of the contentious "prisoner's dilemma" model.2

The difficult transition will be to convert everyone to being responsible, law-abiding citizens, the antithesis of what we are today. Yet, the potential for clean, transparent election funding is more real because of their achievement, although much has to be done before it is realised system-wide. If they can avoid the arrogance associated with power and transition constructively on the lines indicated above, they may well succeed in bringing about radical change for the better.

                                                                             shyam no space ponappa at gmail dot com

Another relevant link:

"What's Needed Is User-Centric Design, Not Good Intentions", Shyam Ponappa, Business Standard, January 3, 2013

Comments (3):

Abraham Karammel
I have been an NRI in Germany for more than 35 years. Observing the chaotic democracy, very poor development, chronic poverty etc in my native state Kerala and my motherland India, I searched for an efficient and functioning governance system and discovered two – Singapore and Porto Alegre city of Brazil. However, Singapore’s very authoritative ‘Meritocracy’ is not practical in Kerala and India. Porto Alegre’s very systematic, self-correcting, perpetually improving, very flexible, decentralised and people-centred Participatory Budgeting (PB) is world’s best democratic governing process. It is also world’s most researched one as well. Kerala’s/India’s Local Self-government Institutions (LSGI) badly need a personality-independent, system dependent and very efficient governance process. I believe ‘Porto Alegre Innovation’ is exactly the process suitable for any village, town or city in any country. It is being adapted in more than 40 countries around the world!
  • Suresh Singh
    A very good article, I and many apolitical people in favour of cleaner politics and better governance will agree with this. The article shows a clear roadmap for the success of the new government in Delhi. Any attempt to change the system quickly can be fatal. AAP need to have a long term plan to clean up administration keeping welfare of people in mind. Secondly, there is need for inducting some sector specific professional people in the team, this is of course not to doubt the credibility and competency of the AAP leaders.
  • Trainspotter
    If AAP were a startup, CEO Kejriwal can already be judged to have hit the ball out of the park with an oversubscribed IPO. Hats off to him and his team for transitioning from a political non-entity to running Delhi within a matter months! Continuing the analogy, the task before him now is to become a sustainable organization that delivers long-term value to its stakeholders. His attacks on "VIP culture" and corruption are spot on, but his socialist economic leanings are naive at best and possibly dangerous long-term to the very aam aadmi he hopes to serve. He should take full advantage of the likes of V Balakrishnan etc. to understand the vital importance of limiting government / cutting red tape to unleash healthy markets and private competition in our economy.
  • R Varadarajan
    You have hit the nail on the head Mr Ponnappa. But I wonder whether the parties concerned would ever pay heed to such advices. They only prefer to accept those who accept their views without any doubt what so ever and all others are corrupt. The very fact that they offered frebies to catch votes has defeated the very purpose for which the party was formed. To eradicate corruption in Politics & Govt they have decided to corrupt the voters instead with freebies and concessions. As I had been stating in the past none of the polticians or Political parties are bold enough to educate the Public at large and voters that " Democracy is a RESPONSIBILITY AND NOT A RIGHT", AAP included - because such insistence on responsibility would get them votes. Thus AAP's objectives and Election manifesto seem to contradict each other.