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Taking the shortcut to change

By shunning power,AAP may have served the cause of political and judicial reforms better.

Written by Deepak Pental | Updated: January 9, 2014 10:35:00 pm

By shunning power,AAP may have served the cause of political and judicial reforms better</>

The key issues before any developing country are how to achieve prosperity and provide citizens equality of opportunity. There are cases in which prosperity has been achieved under dictatorial and overtly nationalistic regimes. However,there are far more examples of prosperity being achieved under democratic set-ups.

Prosperity in democracy is dependent upon encouraging “inclusive institutions” and avoiding “extractive institutions”. This is the central theme of an interesting analysis by economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their book,Why Nations Fail. It is now generally accepted that prosperity and equality of opportunity cannot be achieved without strong institutions,rule of law and science and technology. Of all the countries that achieved freedom from colonial powers in the 20th century,India had the most democratic and forward-looking leadership,committed to a secular constitutional democracy and a mixed model of economy which,the leadership -believed,would avoid the excesses of communism and brazen capitalism. Thus,India became a republic based on high idealism. While one can argue today about the effectiveness of independent India’s new institutions,it would be puerile to question the spirit of idealism behind their establishment. Unfortunately,this democratic idealism has been under siege from the very beginning as it was pitted against quasi-feudal cultural mores. Since Independence,we can discern an ongoing battle between democratic ideals and a quasi-feudal cultural mindset. Any synthesis from this dialectic has to be in favour of democratic idealism — the earlier the better.

Where are we faltering as a country,and where does the Aam Aadmi Party phenomenon fit in? Is the emergence of the AAP a democratic revolution that will bring more probity and prosperity,or is it a phenomenon that will soon wither away? First,the good tidings that the AAP victory has brought. The foremost point is how political parties should collect and spend money on elections. The way our political parties collect money for fighting elections from nameless and faceless sources and break all norms of spending is a diabolical assault on democratic ideals. It is reported that the big parties have crores in contributions from unknown sources. Such contributions lead to political patronage,return of “favours” and crony capitalism. Corruption at the top encourages and,in a sordid way,legitimises rent-seeking by those lower on the ladder.

Many who voted for the AAP might not have been scrupulously honest in their lives; their vote is an act of self-atonement,a desire to save their and future generations’ “souls” from the ignominy of living in a country that scores high in illicit financial flows and low in global indicies of transparency. In short,people have voted for the AAP to save the country from degeneration because the most important institution in a democracy — political parties — is compromised and has lost moral authority by raising campaign funds behind a thick wall of secrecy.

The second point the electoral performance of the AAP has made is the necessity of a lokpal. This is going to be a non-issue now as both Houses of Parliament have cleared the lokpal bill. It needs to be understood that the lokpal is only a curative,not creative,institution. At best,it will put fear in the minds of politicians and the bureaucracy; at worst,it will institute another layer of checks that will further slow effective governance. In any case,India needs to strengthen existing institutions,rather than create new ones.

The third significant proposal from the AAP is the burial of the “lal batti” — an outward symbol of our quasi-feudal mindset. The “lal batti” disease not only afflicts politicians but also the bureaucracy,judiciary,and even those who represent academia,such as vice chancellors of universities and directors of institutes.

Beyond these three points — one crucial,the others important but more or less symbolic — much of what the AAP promises for economic development and social justice has been flagged before. Like that of any other political party,their manifesto for Delhi was a please-all document: 50 per cent reduction in electricity tariffs,700 litres of water without charge,new schools and colleges,reining in hoarding,lower fee in private schools,better government schools,more hospitals,better facilities in slums,more public transport,permanent jobs. The most implausible idea in the AAP proposals is the promise of implementing “swaraj kanoon”,under which decisions will be taken by “mohalla sabhas” on issues like new construction,repairs,education,security of women,etc. Even the quality of construction will be approved by these mohalla sabhas. Rather than empowering every citizen,we will have to search for angelic pradhans,who will discharge the duties the politicians were elected for. Nowhere is there discussion of how resources will be mobilised,or any mention of transforming Delhi from a city of babus and middlemen to a city of entrepreneurs and innovators.

If the AAP has nothing new to offer for economic prosperity,why have so many voted for it? This is because citizens have voted,across social and economic divides,against entrenched corruption. India needs many reforms,both economic and administrative,for citizens to realise their potential. Reforms require that existing institutions be strengthened. Transparency should be brought in but not at the cost of decisiveness in governance. Unfortunately,there has been too much grandstanding within government ministries,between government and party,government and opposition,and as a result,governance has suffered and corruption has increased.

At this juncture,two reforms are critical. Party funding must become completely transparent,and the judiciary must work in a time-bound manner to establish rule of law. From the lower courts to the Supreme Court,judgements should be delivered in a time span of three years and no more. Otherwise,the judicial system is neither fair nor effective. The AAP,with the electoral support it has generated in a short period,has the potential to catalyse these critical reforms. Unfortunately,the AAP has decided to form a government with the support of a party for which it does not have a single good word. At best,it is overclever politics; at worst,it is unethical. If the AAP were to have shunned power for the time being,it would have served the cause of political and judicial reforms better. By taking the high moral ground,it could have galvanised electoral support for a more decisive mandate in future. If the electorate would have continued to support the AAP,it would have been a great sign for Indian democracy. Right now,the AAP has opted for a quicksilver path to glory. One can only hope that it will not end up as a storm in a tea cup.

The writer is professor of genetics and former vice chancellor of the University of Delhi

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