Arvind Chitra Katha

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Feb 8 2014, 23:32pm hrs
Its the season for us, of the older vintage in the media starting with Arun Shourie, teacher to many of us to complain endlessly about the juvenility and narrow short-termism in our public discourse. This harms public interest and is also unfair to those targeted in such discourse and arguments. My sympathies must, therefore, go out to Arvind Kejriwal on this count. He put together his revolutionary thoughts on what is wrong with India and how to fix it in a tiny book of no more than 35,000 words or so, called Swaraj, and published by HarperCollins in 2012. To make it more affordable, Kejriwal even waived his royalties most graciously, so it costs all of Rs 135, in English. Its been printed in large type-size with plenty of spacing to make it even easier to read.

Here is an exciting political debutante who does the one thing no Indian politician has done perhaps since Nehru wrote his Discovery of India over hundreds of intellectually challenging pages, or since Guru Golwalkar of the RSS wrote his somewhat more simple-minded Bunch of Thoughts. But what has been in discussion, and debate lately Not Kejriwals thoughts, but a Noida-based writers claim that Kejriwal plagiarised his book. Now you know what are we complaining about: this horrible trivialisation of all public discourse. Because what matters is the thoughts contained in the book, as long as Kejriwal does not deny they are his. It doesnt matter where they originally came from.

This columnist is as guilty as those that he is blaming for this intellectual bankruptcy. I too had not bothered to read Swaraj, in keeping with the current, post-Google trend of not looking at any primary source for data or wisdom. It is much safer, and so much more fun, just to join the melee of argument and counter-argument: I know I am right, and your argument sucks and please do not try and confuse me with facts. That is why this weeks National Interest is a confession, as well as a lament and a raising of the red flag. And the choice of colour here is not merely a convenient cliche but carefully intended.

I picked up Swaraj at the Bangalore airport book shop. I had no work to do and needed something to read through a two-and-a-half hour flight. Swaraj recommended itself both for its size and political relevance. As also for the fact that everything else was such juvenile fiction on the alleged lives of our gods, particularly Shiva, and ancient mythologies. Swaraj was worth every paisa of the Rs 135 I spent on it. The only letdown was it did not help me pass the time of flying. I started reading as we belted up, and was done by the time we were a little over halfway to Delhi, or just about approaching Bhopal. It is a quick, exciting, clear, and if I may add, impressive as well as scary read.

The impressive thing about the most definite thoughts (there is nothing stray or tentative here, he has seen the truth) of Kejriwal is how brilliantly he has diagnosed Indias problems. He states with masterful clarity what makes us citizens so angry and justifiably so. Our governance is now rotten. Our rulers are corrupt and arrogant. The entire delivery system of governance and government services, from policing to education to healthcare to anti-poverty schemes, is putrefied and non-functional. So a change is needed. You can also be persuaded to go with his larger argument that it would no longer do just to reform this system. It is now broken beyond redemption. Then you come to his solutions. And the problems begin.

Philosophically, Kejriwal draws inspiration from ancient India. Now you dont expect him to speak with the erudite authority of a Romila Thapar, but must he sound like some lite version of P.N. Oak, who argued that the Taj Mahal was actually a Hindu temple His history is all anecdotal once upon a time, there was a king in Vaishali, which is the worlds oldest democracy obviously, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, because his knowledge of ancient Vedic history is supposedly better than that of physics, which he taught at Allahabad University, would agree. The Vaishali kings son always became king but had no powers. He only did what his gram sabhas told him to do. Once, his people pointed at a girl and wanted her to become a courtesan. The girl said she had no problem, but only if the king gave his castle to her as a gift. People said, fine, and the king had no choice. People said the castle is not yours, it was built with our taxes. So the king has no choice but to give away the castle. Of course, he builds himself another one, evidently by levying fresh taxes on the people of his omnipotent gram sabha. Kerjriwal underlines, in all sincerity, that it is a bad custom to ask a woman to become a courtesan. Nevertheless, he says, the larger message of this story is what matters. That ancient India had real democracy, people had all the power, the sovereign was naam-ke-vaaste, and the gram sabha was the institution of governance. So he doesnt merely rest his case but goes on to explain it as an agenda for modern India.

I agree he makes no pretence of being a historian. But learning ancient Indian history from Chandamama or Amar Chitra Katha is even more dangerous than knowing Mughal history from watching Jodha Akbar. Particularly for grown-ups. I tried a quick check with some prominent historians and their texts. The story Kejriwal is referring to is probably the legend of Amrapali, immortalised in Acharya Chatursens Hindi classic Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu (literally, the citys bride, as the chief courtesan was then called). Kejriwal may even have seen the Bollywood version of it, Amrapali. It is a bit old for him, having been released before his birth, but Vyjayanthimala as the royal courtesan was delectable in her strapless cholis and low-hung sarongs (not saris) and Lata Mangeshkar sang some of her best songs ever for it (YouTube them, please). So it is likely that those of younger generations like Kejriwal may have seen it too. But it was just a legend, no reality. And by the way, it was the king who wanted the courtesan for himself, and giving away anything his subjects had paid for was a small price to pay for the kings pleasure. Of course, Amrapali was the mythical Indian version of Helen of Troy who apparently caused the annihilation of Vaishali. But more on this later. We shouldnt digress when the future of India is at stake.

The important thing is not Chandamama history but the fact that the entire Kejriwal Manifesto is drawn from it. His grand idea is supremely virtuous gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas governing our villages and cities, respectively. They will receive direct, untied funds. What it means is that the government will just deposit money into their accounts without specifying any purpose or instituting supervision, oversight or accountability. Of course, with this, most of the bureaucracy will be rendered irrelevant, particularly the CAG and its offspring in state capitals. The MPs and MLAs will no longer make laws. They will bring the draft of each law to gram sabhas, take their views and then convey these in their respective Houses of Parliament or state assemblies and laws will thus be passed directly by the people. The elected representatives will merely be honest correspondents and note-takers. They deserve no better, says Kejriwal, because in the current system, they just follow their party line and if they defy the high command, they are thrown out. Im not sure if Vinod Kumar Binny read out this passage from Swaraj in his defence at his inquisition before he was expelled.

Gram sabhas will have the power to hire, fire, reward and punish all government employees, from policemen to doctors to teachers. I am obviously exaggerating, but only to some degree, when I say that the word punish or some equivalent is seen in almost every para of the book. Quick and exemplary punishment is the fundamental philosophy of this manifesto. And you think these gram sabhas could become like khap panchayats What is wrong with khap panchayats That they give out orders that lead to the killing of lovers etc, Kejriwal tells us, is still a matter of contention. In any case, his gram sabhas will not have the power to pronounce the death sentence or amputation. If this is the case, a gram sabha may declare itself to be a separate state from India. Such powers will not rest with the sabha. (Page 97). So thank God, and Kejriwal for that.

The instruments of governance, law enforcement, judiciary, executive parliament, as we know them, shall cease to exist, or at least matter. The mob will be sovereign. The police will have to take orders from the mob. The mob, or the gram sabha or the mohalla sabha, will be able to levy and collect its own taxes. No decision will be taken unless the people decide. No wonder Prashant Bhushan wants a referendum in Kashmir on whether the army should stay there. He could have also called one in Ahmedabad in February 2002, when riots raged on whether the army should be called out or not. Or in all of India, on whether Article 370 should continue. Or, we should have done a quick referendum, probably through SMS and Facebook, on 26/11 and whether the people wanted us to go to war with Pakistan. Would you have

The essence of modern governance, distilled over centuries, through the thoughts of Lords Rama and Krishna, Kautilya, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the Caliphs and Abraham Lincoln, to Gandhi, Ambedkar and Mandela, is responsible democracy, checks and balances, stability and credibility that give the rulers the strength and confidence to make the best decision for their people and nations in their best wisdom, even if it happens to be unpopular on that day. Then they get assessed by the people on their net success or failure after five years. This is an entirely new way of looking at governance. It is also an agenda for utter anarchy. He says the beauty is, you can do all this without amending the Constitution. Of course, you dont need to when you have thrown it already. Two more promises of the Kejriwal manifesto are highly credible. One, that it will end Naxalism. It obviously will, because it is essentially the Naxal manifesto, even if it draws inspiration from RSS historians. Second, that it will end unemployment. It certainly will, as all of us, the people of India, in the endless meetings of our gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas, will spend all our time governing ourselves and punishing others.

So go pick up a copy of Swaraj. Since Kejriwal has waived his royalties, I cannot at least be accused of soliciting commissions for him. Professor Stephen Cohen, teacher to two generations of South Asians (including this columnist) on strategic studies, has a theory on why the CIA failed to predict the Pokhran explosions. Nobody at the CIA, he said, reads anything not marked classified. And the BJPs manifesto in 1998 was not marked classified. So they missed their commitment to the bomb altogether. Neither is the Kejriwal manifesto marked classified. But please do go read it.

Postscript: I found some references to the Vaishali of those times (probably 6th to 5th century BC) in Dr Upinder Singhs wonderfully erudite and authoritative A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the stone age to the 12th Century (Pearson, 2009). But none to the courtesan that Chandamama, Wikipedia and Kejriwal extol. But there was indeed democracy of the kind Kejriwal mentions. Singh says Vaishalis greatest asset governance through discussion was also their greatest weakness. They were vulnerable to internal dissensions, especially when faced with aggressive monarchies. There was also an invasion of Vaishali by Magadhas Ajatashatru, but not because he was madly in love with the nagarvadhu, as Chandamama and Wiki tell us. He was cross because two cousins, who had stolen a wonderful 18-string pearl necklace, had been given refuge in Vaishali. He invaded Vaishali, laid it waste and massacred its people. And why did Vaishali, the much stronger and richer state, lose Its people spent all their time arguing and fighting over how they should carry out their defence! In fact, according to Buddhist texts quoted by Singh, so notorious was the Vaishali anarchy that even the bodhisattvas advised Buddha not to be born in that kingdom as it followed no system or order, as everybody went around saying I am king, I am king. I am not sure that is the ancient Vaishali Kejriwal has drawn inspiration from. I, at least, didnt read this in Chandamama. Or maybe he is talking about the Vaishali next door to the Ghaziabad colony where he has lived. Further, the Wiki, Chandamama and Amrapali, the film, tell us that so ashamed was Amrapali at the destruction of her country because of her that she went to Buddha and became a nun. Kejriwal doesnt tell us this, but then he surely reminds us that the ultimate objective of all mankind is attainment of nirvana/Buddhatva and liberation from all worldly desire (Swaraj, page 107).