Change and its limits

Updated: Jan 6 2014, 19:34pm hrs
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has had spectacular success, of that there can be no doubt. But even its most hardened and committed supporters will agree that the government in Delhi will last only a few weeksat most, a few months. It simply will not have the time or opportunity to prove its capability to govern. Its success has ironically thrown into sharp relief the best and worst of our current political system. It has established the vibrancy of our politics and the maturity of the electorate. At the same time, it has made clear the disjunct between the exercise of individual franchise and the delivery of stable governance. What one must question is the positive of a political system which enables the expression of protest but does not promote a steady and enduring government.

Arvind Kejriwal deserves the accolade of man of the year. His conviction, tenacity and simplicity are admirable. But compared to another aam aadmi who has also had comparable impact, albeit on a much larger scale, his limitations are obvious. Unlike Pope Francis, he does not have the mandate or experience to deliver. This is not his fault, but that of our political system.

Pope Francis was a little known Jesuit priest from Argentina called Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The cardinals of the papacy surprised the Catholic community by electing him the 265th successor to St Peter a month after Pope Benedict had roiled the church by resigning. At the time, the church was engulfed in a sexual scandal, the Vatican Bank was facing charges of corruption, papal institutions had hollowed and parishioners were leaving in droves. Pope Francis could not have inherited a more difficult chalice. His response was aam aadmi in character. He rejected the lal batti Mercedes and stayed with his clapped-out Ford Focus. He did not move into the apostolic palace but chose a two-room abode. He celebrated his 77th birthday with four poor people and a dog. His every action has exemplified humility and compassion. More substantively, he challenged conventional orthodoxy. He commented that the church was obsessed with abortion and contraceptives, and in response to a question on what he thought about gay priests, he replied, Who am I to judge" Further, he sidelined the traditional synod of bishops and appointed his own group of cardinals to advise him on bureaucratic and institutional issues.

The jury is still out on whether Pope Francis will succeed in revitalising the Church, and there is comment that he might be more style than substance. But what is clear is that this aam aadmi priest has the authority and tenure to convert intent into policy. He is the supreme unchallenged head of the Church and unless he decides otherwise, he will stay in that position for life. He can change the shape and content of the Church. In contrast, Kejriwal is shackled and will be fighting another election in a few months. The AAP deserves its moment and whilst no one can or should dilute the significance of its achievement, it must not be surprised if good and honest people everywhere feel uneasy about the longer-term impact of its leadership in government. For after all, it is in for the short haul; avowedly populist; without experience; and its economic program does not hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

The AAP phenomena will be franchised. Civic groups across the country will be emboldened to take up political cudgels. The electoral response to these new political movements could be disproportionately strong, especially in urban constituencies. This is a healthy trend, as it will shift the contours and narrative of politics. It will upend conventional wisdom. No one in the Congress or the BJP expected the AAP to do so well. Their belief was that the voter would ultimately cast her vote conventionally. The voter would not vote for a party that had no chance to win. Why waste a vote, would be the logic. I suspect this is no longer the refrain in party headquarters. The realisation must have dawned that the 60-million-odd new voters are singing to a different tune. They are fed up with the lack of governance and corruption. They do not like the political choices on offer and are looking for alternatives. This is all for the good. The shake up of old-style feudal politics driven by money and opportunism is long overdue.

At another level, however, this franchisee phenomena does raise some concerns. For two decades now, we have had coalition governments at the Centre, and it has become clear that coalition politics does not allow for statesmanship. It does not give leaders the room to take decisions that pay off in years rather than months. It is also a major reason for corruption. This is because of the required give and take and the compulsion to raise finance for the next election, not to speak of the individual impulse to make hay while the sun is shining. The silver lining has been that most state governments have been governed by parties with a clear and decisive majority. This has facilitated clearer (not necessarily cleaner) and better governance. The question, therefore, has to be asked: What if the politicisation of protest movements were to push state governments into the miasma of coalition governance Would that be in the public interest

The conditions for a revolution are created when people feel alienated from and disgusted with the institutions of government and the quality of governance. These conditions translate into action when people with passion, leadership and language give expression and meaning to this feeling. The revolution endures if the new political structures and systems reflect and respond to underlying social and economic realities. Take, for example, the American revolution. The people felt alienated from the rule of colonial Britain and disgust at the gap between the reality of social hierarchy and the rhetoric that Americans were born, the heirs to freedom for decades before the revolution. They did not, however, take to the streets until George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson gave expression and organisation to this discontentment. The principles of the revolution have endured for over 200 years because the political system has in the main reflected and responded to the interests and aspirations of the American people. In similar vein, Kejriwal and the AAP have given language and meaning to the disgust felt by people towards traditional political parties. They have marshalled this disgust into a brilliant movement of protest. The first-past-the-post system of parliamentary democracy has not, however, given them the authority to deliver. The question that the AAP must thus contemplate is whether its impact might not be more enduring and positive if, rather than looking to govern and risking exposure as an emperor without clothes, it was to use its organisational skills to compel a review of the political system and better alignment to the longer-term demands of a pluralistic, diverse, young and subcontinental polity

Vikram S Mehta

The writer is the chairman, Brookings India and senior fellow, Brookings Institution