Monday, Jan 30, 2023

These powerful victims

Kejriwal is the symptom of a suffocating system,not the cause of its decline

India’s political elites present a dismal spectacle. Like elites in denial,they pity the plumage,but forget the dying bird,to borrow Thomas Paine’s immortal words. They fret at the symptoms,but do not address the causes; they blame the messenger but do not go after the culprits; they worry about being declared guilty without a fair hearing,without introspection on why their credibility is so low. It is an elite now so estranged from reality,that it simply does not recognise how the world has changed. It is not a world that can be managed by old rules. India is on an astonishing cusp; the tragedy is that politicians,for the most part,are not running with the winds of change. But they still complain about the dust that is blinding them.

Delhi’s corridors of power are now echo chambers of whining. Arvind Kejriwal is running a lynch mob,the CAG is taking over the country,environmental NGOs have stopped all development,the RTI is vexatious and so forth. It is as if a vast conspiracy of non-political actors has hamstrung a virtuous political class. But the truth is the opposite: it serves the interest of this political class to present itself as victim,now that it has no authority to do business as usual.

Arvind Kejriwal’s methods should cause disquiet. He does give the impression of a closed circle of certitude: guilt is pronounced with unbreachable confidence. Sometimes the lines between political accountability and an inquisition are blurred,and often the attacks seem too personalised. But whatever the infirmities of the movement,we should not be blindsided by the fact that this mode of seeking accountability is an inevitable consequence of the decimation of institutions. You have to feel for Salman Khurshid. In a functioning democracy he should not have been subject to a public inquisition. Khurshid is a victim. But he is not a victim of Kejriwal; he is a victim of his own government’s decimation of institutions. It is very difficult to trust any institution at the moment. The credibility of most commissions of inquiry is low; the CBI does not inspire public confidence. In a functioning democracy,Salman Khurshid would not have had to answer charges in the way he did. The grant was made by a ministry; it should have been up to that ministry to assure Parliament that due diligence was being exercised. When institutions are decimated,the lines between innocence and guilt will be blurred. But has any party given the slightest hint it wants to restore credibility to institutions?

But the myopia does not stop at the decimation of institutions. Even competitive politics is proving weaker than the forces of collusion between political parties. You can accuse Arvind Kejriwal of personalising the anti-corruption crusade. But can you name a single political party that is willing to run on an imaginative anti-corruption platform that promises institutional change? Forget Robert Vadra for a minute. The structural issue is this: will any political party raise the issue of how land has been allotted to real estate companies over the years? Expecting Om Prakash Chautala to hold Bhupinder Singh Hooda accountable for real estate allocations would be wishful thinking of the highest order. The irrigation scam in Maharashtra is absolutely unconscionable. Is any political party serious about forcing accountability for the scam? The BJP did make a song and dance about “Coalgate”; but it was all done through methods that amounted to a large pantomime,where no truth could be discovered because no institution could be allowed to function.

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The public is not clamouring for a witch hunt. But this is a moment where an imaginative political movement could transform the underlying shift in sentiment towards institutional regeneration. Has one party stood up and said: we will do real estate regulation differently? Or restore credibility to institutions? In other countries,the crisis of corruption leads at least some political party to put out a forward-looking agenda of institutional reform. During the progressive movement,it led to the dismantling of party machines at the municipal level,greater intra party-democracy,creation of new institutions and so forth. In Brazil recently,successive presidents have run on anti-corruption platforms,but then translated them into proper institutional channels: Lula’s closest aides were recently indicted for corruption. The danger to Indian democracy is not Kejriwal’s closed circle of certitude; it is the closed circle of institutional complicity that makes it so hard to embed anti-corruption in any political setting.

This closed circle is compounded by the fact that the other locations of institutional regeneration are quite ambiguous. The media has proved to be a double-edged sword. It is fomenting passion,but it is not exactly a reliable ally in producing the whole truth. Sections of the media are politically motivated; it too has perfected the art of trial by anecdote. In addition to political parties and the media,the third site of a progressive shift would be pressure from the top,where India’s rich and powerful decide that it is in their long-term interest to have a regime of rules rather than a regime of deals. But Indian capital does not have that imagination yet; nor does it have a broader vision,like Henry Ford did,of being able to align its prosperity with the flourishing of India’s rising classes from the bottom. As a result,it insecurely latches on to to the coat-tails of a political class whose fortunes are fast fading.

Kejriwal’s politics is not to be understood in personalised terms; his limitations are beside the point. He is a symptom of a suffocating system,not the cause of its decline. The danger is that Kejriwal might forget three things. First,his spectacle still does not have wide traction. His movement is still very much a Delhi-based spectacle. His economic message is still quite obscurantist,although his readiness to put decentralisation on the agenda is tantalising. The politics of spectacle threatens to obscure these underlying issues,and may unleash the clamour for an authoritarian form of cleansing no one may be able to control.


But the political class has to recognise that no one has tied its hands. It has tied itself into so many knots that the only card it knows how to play is the card of victimhood. Kejriwal did not destroy the CBI,he did not destroy Parliament,and he has not prevented parliamentary committees from functioning. And he is not preventing anyone else from taking on the mantle of progressive reform. When a country’s power elite plays victim,it is a sure sign that they have truly lost it.

The writer,president of the Centre for Policy Research,is contributing editor,‘The Indian Express’,

First published on: 17-10-2012 at 03:24 IST
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