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It’s not just corruption

AAP doesn’t recognise how much absence of predictability and order also hurts the poor.

The challenge of the hour was to tap into a prosecutorial instinct we are developing against plutocracy, but also to demonstrate a steady trustworthiness in governance.  The challenge of the hour was to tap into a prosecutorial instinct we are developing against plutocracy, but also to demonstrate a steady trustworthiness in governance.

AAP doesn’t recognise how much absence of predictability and order also hurts the poor.

Understanding the nature and risks of the AAP’s decision to quit the Delhi government requires understanding this historical moment. Indian politics is defined by two major narratives: plutocracy and paralysis. As William Bryan Jennings once said in a similar chaotic moment in American history, “Plutocracy is abhorrent to a republic; it is more despotic than a monarchy, more heartless than an aristocracy, more selfish than a bureaucracy.”

The AAP is a reaction to plutocracy. The reach of that plutocracy has been corrosive. As Shekhar Gupta reminded us, the pepper spraying of Parliament is such a symbolic manifestation of plutocracy: the rich control politics, they control the banks, and then spray pepper into peoples’ eyes. While we protest Penguin withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book as an assault on free speech, let us not forget that it is impossible to publish on companies in India. A book called Polyester Prince on a certain Indian tycoon was “made unavailable” a few years ago; journalists cannot write on Sahara and apparently ministers, to show how cutting-edge Air India is, ensure no analytical book on it is published.

Plutocracy is not just about money. It has corroded free speech and other institutions. It has generated a politics of excess.

The other crisis is a paralysis, where there is a sense of the country drifting like a ship in the night without direction, without a captain. There is a foreboding of what iceberg we might hit next. As if the dipping growth rates are not bad enough, no one wants to take responsibility. Those who wield power carry on the charade of helpless outsider victims.

To simplify a bit, the AAP has positioned itself on the first crisis, Narendra Modi on the second. The fight against plutocracy will, by its nature, have three features. First, it will stand outside of conventional understanding of institutional frames.

Its point is precisely because all the things we cherish, law, procedure, Constitution, Parliament have been so corroded by plutocracy, that we cannot rely on conventional means for reform. They are now technical niceties that have become weapons against the people; these institutions have become anarchic.

When Kejriwal said the “assembly is a temple, papers tabled in it sacred books”, the sentiment was sincere. But it was also a reminder of how little credibility conventional politics has. Second, the attack on plutocracy will have the appearance of a smash and grab. Since the rich stole, some of that must be reappropriated. The argument over pricing, whether of gas or electricity, is not about technically optimal pricing. It is a crystallisation of the politics of reappropriation.

Third, it will be a politics of excess. For an insurgent party to grow, it has to deepen a sense of how ensnared we are by corruption. The self-righteousness, the seeming unwillingness to compromise, can be annoying. But just before an election, it is standard strategy to deepen a sense of crisis. The Congress and BJP block bills they agree with all the time to deepen a sense of crisis when it suits them. In the use of constitutional discourse, all sides were using argument of convenience. But in a way, the AAP is tapping into the psychological excess that plutocracy has created. It will also speak a more populist version of “ends justifies means”. What unfolded in Delhi was entirely scripted. Our cool rationalist heads may decry dramatic gestures, but that is how politics works. The AAP has taken a gamble to play big.

So where does it leave the AAP? It is hard to speculate, but Arvind Kejriwal’s stock may have gone up a bit. Even those of us who have reservations about his institutional imagination have to acknowledge that plays the sincerity card well. Just as an aside, it is perhaps a semiotic manifestation of our unconscious disgust against plutocracy and yearning for sincerity that lawyers now make the least convincing spokespersons in all parties, no matter what the cause.

Yogendra Yadav and Kejriwal are master communicators, compared to the damaging Prashant Bhushan; Nirmala Sitharaman does more good to the BJP than her mendacious lawyer colleagues, and the Congress was destroyed by lawyers. In short, sincerity counts for a lot and Kejriwal will benefit in his core areas. He will also probably deepen his base amongst the poor in Delhi, where the politics of reappropriation (not redistribution) has a justified resonance.

But Kejriwal’s resignation also gives a boost to Modi. While the AAP may argue that its version of institutional reform is the road to regeneration, the fact of the matter is that in the short to medium run, its approach risks deepening the current paralysis. A revolution always has this dilemma.

The process of change risks deepening a crisis in the short run; and it may deepen it to the point where there is a yearning for predictability and order, even if a bit tainted. Those who worry that our paralysis now poses as big a risk as corruption are not unjustified in their fear. Low growth will doom India’s prospects. And the challenge of the hour was to combine both with good judgement: tap into a prosecutorial instinct we are developing against plutocracy, but also to demonstrate a steady trustworthiness in governance. An insurgent party like the AAP needed to use its time in office to project a trustworthy team. Instead, its mode of functioning raised huge questions about the judgement of many of its members. The fires of agitation, instead of calming down into the responsibilities of administration, threatened even more chaos.

The AAP has put all its eggs in the former basket. It has underestimated how much a lack of economic certainty, the absence of predictable, humdrum administration, is also hurting the poor. Sure, it can argue that the cause of this is corruption. But that is an analytical mistake. Corruption is one element of our slowdown story. The deep intellectual confusion, the constant agitation, the complete devouring of energy that being too clever by half requires, the absence of any big thinking about India in the context of profound economic changes, has sucked the life out of any forward-looking endeavours. The ship continues to drift and potentially hit an iceberg, while we continue to squabble over who stole the food from the ship’s galley. Modi may or may not be the best answer to this challenge. But, purely as a piece of political analysis, it has to be said that he will gain from this fracas. Even though the BJP is complicit in the corrupt system, it will gain as an alternative mode of protest. We will see what fear triumphs the most: the fear of plutocracy or the fear of paralysis.

The writer is president,  Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for

The Indian Express’  express@expressindia.com

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