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The limits of austerity

Arvind Kejriwal needs to focus on policy instead

Updated: January 11, 2014 4:49 am
Arvind Kejriwal needs to focus on policy instead Arvind Kejriwal needs to focus on policy instead

Arvind Kejriwal needs to focus on policy instead

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has focused national attention on “VIP culture”. This is a serious issue, for it relates, at its core, not only to the lifestyle of the political class but its commitment to the nation, especially to improving the lot of the poor and marginalised. By its shrill articulation and narrow and sharp spotlight on ministerial houses and flashing red lights atop official cars, the AAP obviously succeeded in striking a chord with a large section of the Delhi electorate for whom these are symbolic of much that is wrong with the political class. However, now the debate must be on larger policy issues; it has to be rescued from the farce of Arvind Kejriwal’s somersaults on the size of his official residence.

The AAP should consider this: were Gandhiji and the leaders of our national movement judged by the houses they lived in or the transport they used? Gandhiji lived in all kinds of houses, from spartan ashrams to the comfortable Birla House on Tees January Marg in New Delhi, where he was assassinated. Jawaharlal Nehru’s home was Anand Bhawan, the majestic house in Allahabad that his father Motilal built. He did not give it up to establish his credentials with the people. Many other Congress leaders who achieved material or professional success also lived in large houses. And all of them earned people’s trust and honour because of their dedication to the country, their simple, often frugal, lifestyles, their work and also their sacrifice when the call came to walk that path.
As Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru moved into Teen Murti, the official residence of the commander of the British forces in India, and some cabinet ministers occupied the residences of the members of the viceroy’s executive council, no one questioned their bona fides. All of them also used official cars for their official work, but this too evoked no negative comment. Many used small personal cars for their private trips.
Kejriwal showed a degree of pragmatism and courage by abandoning the sterile inflexibility the AAP had earlier adopted on government formation in Delhi. He may have done so by seeking people’s views but unless he was inclined to form a government, Delhi would have been without an elected government today. He must now show the same courage by declaring that the size of ministerial residences or the use of official cars with red lights, for these are needed at times, are not significant. What matters is the AAP’s policies, their implementation and the honesty of its ministers on which there will be, as he has said already, no compromise.
Kejriwal may indeed raise the general issue of a need to change the norms for official accommodation at a time when pressures on land have increased. A change in the layout of Lutyens Delhi is needed not through high-rise buildings but by building environmentally friendly houses in smaller plots.
Kejriwal’s comments regarding the security of political leaders have been unwise. Of course, for believers like him, human life is in the hands of the almighty and the nature of the security bandobast can be debated, but in these times of terrorism a political leader who disregards the security imperative is irresponsible. The security briefings the intelligence agencies would have given him by now should have had a sobering effect. The scare, thankfully false, regarding Rakhi Birla’s car should also be a pointer to him.
The AAP has caught the imagination of a substantial number of the urban middle class, which has been aghast at the growing and cynical self-absorbed nature of the political class and its venality and criminality. The AAP’s agenda of better urban governance and its hard-hitting rhetoric against corruption have given the middle class a feeling that it can take on politicians. Earlier, it had felt powerless before them. However, the middle class itself shares some of the traits of the political class. It too has become self-absorbed and largely uncaring of the poor. The culture of austerity has become alien to it. Even as it desires improved governance, is it willing to take a position on issues where it stands to lose money, for instance in real estate, by not dealing in unaccounted money? Kejriwal also needs to appeal to the middle class to change course.
Kejriwal has an enormous task ahead of him. He has to implement his electoral manifesto in Delhi to lead the AAP throughout the country. For this purpose, he has to place a clear-cut ideological and political agenda before the country so that he can demonstrate that he has a vision beyond corruption, municipal issues and the implementation of a kind of direct democracy. National political parties have to articulate a comprehensive policy programme. Till it does so, the AAP cannot become a true political party.
Kejriwal is no longer an outsider but a member of the political class. He should not allow himself to be distracted by non-issues even if these helped the AAP in the Delhi election.

vivek katju

The writer is a former ambassador to Afghanistan

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