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Tony Joseph: Kejriwal sets his sights higher

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On Sunday, July 29, just five days before announcing the end of the anti-corruption fast at Jantar Mantar, Arvind Kejriwal, the architect of the movement, unveiled his book, Swaraj. It carries a quote from on the cover, saying: “This book is the manifesto of our movement against corruption and for systemic change, and is also an impactful model for bringing real swaraj.”

With such endorsement, one would think the book that is also a manifesto will tell the reader why a strong Lok Pal, the central plank on which the movement is based, is an absolute must.

Surprisingly, the 175-page book barely mentions the Jan Bill. Instead, it makes a well-crafted argument why power needs to be taken from the Centre and the states and given to the gram sabhas, the general assembly of all citizens in a village. According to Kejriwal, this is the only way to end corruption, ensure full employment, contain inflation, stop the plundering of natural resources and eliminate Naxalism.

It is a powerful argument, even though you have heard it before, from Jayprakash Narayan in the seventies and from the Mahatma himself earlier. But anyone who is convinced by Kejriwal’s arguments in the book is likely to wonder: “What was all that fuss about the Lok Pal then?!” Compared to the elegant simplicity and all-encompassing grandeur of the gram sabha solution, the Lok Pal Bill solution looks like a hut beside the Taj Mahal.

Kejriwal himself explains the move from the hut to the Taj in this way: “One phase of our movement is ending and another phase is beginning.” I will try to explain this a little better thus: If you think of the movement as a rocket designed to reach the moon, the first phase of the movement was about getting the rocket off the ground with enough momentum (or publicity), to escape the gravitational pull of the earth (or the existing political system). The fuel for this phase of the movement was the anger of the masses, especially the middle classes, over the many scams that came to light in the last two years. The Lok Pal Bill was the beautiful machine that Kejriwal, the mechanical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, designed to convert that public anger into a movement.

But now that the movement has got enough momentum, it is headed for the moon: an imagined land where decisions that affect a citizen’s life are taken mostly in gram sabhas (or mohalla sabhas in the case of towns), and state and central governments have to seek and go by the opinion of the gram sabhas on many things.

Which brings us to two questions: Are the solutions Kejriwal lays out in his book workable and is the place that he wants to take us to worth living in? I really recommend that you read the book and make up your own mind because it provokes you to think. (The book costs only Rs 99, is in Hindi, and is published by HarperCollins.) If you are a regular watcher of TV news programmes that dumb down all political discussions to a hysterical mess that even a starving dog on the street would refuse to sniff, this book will bring relief.

But for what it is worth, here is my answer to those questions: Kejriwal has one big idea, that is suffocated by many small ones. The one big concept is decentralisation. Though it is not a terribly new idea, Kejriwal has given it flesh and blood and made it seem an achievable and desirable goal. The basic problem with the practice of Indian democracy, as Kejriwal rightly points out, is that the common citizen has no role to play in it, except for voting once every five years. The gram sabha solution will change that, and lead to greater control of citizens over all things, from government service delivery, to allocating money to public purposes, to even deciding on what terms a plant can open in the village. That, he believes and I agree, will significantly reduce corruption, and improve governance.

Now to the small – and mean – ideas. The book leaves no one in any doubt that Kejriwal doesn’t like business, especially big business and foreign business. That’s a pity. It has taken us many decades to get out of the anti-business, anti-market, licence-raj mindset that stunted our growth and kept millions of Indians in poverty for far longer than was necessary. It would be a tragedy for us to go back to those days. When he thinks of businessmen, Kejriwal should see not merely those who are bribing politicians for land or bandwidth, but also the thousands of entrepreneurs, including fellow IITians of his, who are building companies, employing people and paying taxes. They neither need nor seek any favour from the government other than the provision of basic infrastructure and law and order. Growth and poverty reduction cannot happen without private businesses such as these taking birth, expanding and providing employment, though Kejriwal seems to believe that if money and power were distributed fairly, production and growth will happen on its own. It won’t, as we have learnt through experience.

The second problem with Kejriwal’s book is the future it envisions for us. In the book, the highest aspiration an Indian citizen can have is perhaps to be like the villager in Ralegaon Siddhi (a place blessed by the leadership of Anna Hazare) or Hivare Bazar, similarly blessed by the leadership of Popat Rao Pawar. (During JP’s movement two other similar villages were held up as role models – Berain in Monghyr district and Raghopur in Saharsa district – though no one has heard of them for a long time now).

Is this really all that the average young citizen of India has to look forward to? To have as many opportunities for himself as the villager in Ralegaon Siddhi? The problem goes farther. When Kejriwal talks about empowered gram sabhas ensuring full employment, he gives the example of villages making things for their own use — such as soap. Is that the vision that will energise the youth — that they may get to make soap? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the ideal, self-sufficient villages that Kejriwal visualises will be disconnected from each other and also from the rest of the world.

I like to believe that in his admirable fight to make governments accountable, Kejriwal hasn’t had the time to think through to the kind of transparent, open, competitive, equal-opportunity markets the country will need to ensure continuing progress and elimination of poverty. I hope he will find the time to do so soon.


A Hindi version of the article appeared in Dainik Bhaskar on August 6

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