Monday, 16 December 2013

Those Who Cannot Remember the Past...

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 16 December, 2013

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.


“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  This famous statement, made by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Kerr (1808-1890), is an excellent summary of the predicament that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) today finds itself in, when one compares it to the situation faced by their predecessor organization, the India Against Corruption (IAC) group.

The AAP has won 28 seats in Delhi’s 70-seat legislature in the 2013 state elections, coming second only to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which finished with 32 seats, the remaining taken up by the incumbent Congress party.  By all measures, this is a remarkable achievement for a party that is just one year old. 

The BJP, not having gained an absolute majority, has refused to form the government, especially since the AAP has publicly stated that they would not support a BJP government; and the Congress cannot be expected to support a government headed by its arch-rival, the BJP.  A BJP government, therefore, if it accepted the decision to form a minority government, could not prove its acceptability on the floor of the House.

The AAP’s situation is different from that of the BJP.  Even though it has fewer seats than the BJP, the Congress party has issued a statement that it will unconditionally support the AAP in the interests of avoiding a hung parliament in Delhi and the associated costs of running a fresh election.  The AAP is dithering on whether to take up the reins of government as a minority government, even with outside support from the Congress.

Although this seems like a new situation for the AAP to be in, there are eerie parallels of the current predicament of the AAP with the situation of the IAC in August 2011, at which time, again, they had just won a phenomenal victory – galvanizing the entire country during Anna Hazare’s “fast unto death” in order to try to get the Jan Lokpal Bill passed.

That, too, was a time when the IAC had enjoyed tremendous success in spite of being a little-known organization before Anna’s fast.  And, as in today’s situation with the AAP, the IAC had a choice of either compromising on their demands with the UPA government at the Centre in order to pass a reasonable Lokpal bill that would achieve most of what IAC wanted, even if it had to give up on a few demands, or completely rejecting any bill that did not fully incorporate all their demands.  The IAC chose the latter route, and ended up with nothing to show for their efforts.

Had they let things remain where they were in 2011, Mr. Kejriwal and his followers would today be a forgotten footnote in Indian history – a brief blip that temporarily threatened to upset the order of political business but did not have what it took to create lasting change.  They had reached a dead end and the limit of what they could do as IAC.  Fortunately for them, they decided to change avatars, and transformed themselves from a political movement, the IAC, into a political party, the AAP, and succeeded at the polls.  This success erased their failure to achieve something with the Lokpal movement in their IAC avatar and gave people a fresh hope that as AAP, this band of individuals might be able to accomplish something concrete.

In spite of these achievements, the AAP today is in a similar situation to what the IAC was in 2011.  In 2011 the IAC had two options: refuse to compromise on the specifics of the Lokpal bill, or compromise with the Congress and BJP on the content of the Lokpal bill in order to create the first Lokpal in India’s history after more than 40 years of failure.  It chose the no-compromise option, and today the IAC is a forgotten relic.  Today the AAP has either the option of forming a minority government, which means, in spite of the assurance of unconditional support from the Congress, that they may have to compromise at least in some limited way on their vision for Delhi; and the option of refusing to partner with either the Congress or the BJP and thereby refusing to assume power in Delhi (the no-compromise option.)

Just as the IAC rejected any attempts at compromise with the central government in Delhi in 2011, the AAP is currently rejecting any attempt at compromise with the Congress legislators in Delhi, and demanding that the AAP policies be accepted in toto, without discussion or debate, by the Congress, as Mr. Arvind Kejriwal did yesterday.

The AAP might do well to take note of the famous words of the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana (1863-1952), who said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The leaders and members of AAP might do well to reflect on the current miserable predicament of their one-time leader, Anna Hazare, under whose leadership the IAC scaled such heights in August 2011, and reflect on what has reduced Hazare to this sorry pass.

The Sad Plight of Anna Hazare

In August 2011, Anna went on a "fast-unto-death" in New Delhi to force the Lok Sabha to implement his Jan Lokpal Bill.  Impressed by the lakhs of Indians who were stirred by Anna’s dedication, the LS, while not fully agreeing to the Jan Lokpal bill, agreed to three major demands that Anna had in his agitation: 1. A citizen charter, 2. lower bureaucracy to be under Lokpal through an appropriate mechanism, and 3. establishment of state Lokayuktas.

There was a "sense of the House" resolution agreeing to these demands, but later discussions produced a bill that was not to Anna or the IAC's satisfaction.  In fact, they ridiculed the bill introduced by the Govt. in Parliament after discussions broke down, calling it a "Jokepal."  Shortly thereafter, the entire IAC movement collapsed and splintered, largely because the Government had successfully stalled on the Lokpal bill in the face of intransigence from the leaders of the IAC, including Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, who would agree to no dilution of their demands.

We have already seen what Kejriwal and his followers did following the breakup of the IAC movement – form a political party that has had unexpected success in Delhi.  What did Anna do?

Anna Hazare had the choice of joining and even leading this political party, but he refused the responsibility, claiming that he would have nothing to do with active politics.  He also tried to sabotage the AAP with accusations that Arvind Kejriwal had siphoned off money collected during his fasts.  In spite of all this, the AAP had resounding success in the Delhi elections in spite of its candidates having had no experience in government.  The AAP is today in a position of strength, having proved itself at the elections.

Anna Hazare, on the other hand, missed the chance to be the leader of this party and share in the glory.  After the fact, Mr. Hazare very ungraciously made a statement that had he been with the AAP, they would have won a complete majority.  That is certainly possible, but having not joined it when he was entreated to by AAP party members; having accused them of siphoning his funds, a charge that was never proven; and having a supporter publicly accuse Kejriwal of wrongdoing just days before the election, Anna should know better than to act in such a crass manner as to try to take any credit for AAP’s extraordinary success.  But human nature tells us that Mr. Hazare’s behaviour is hardly surprising – it is a natural reaction arising from his reduction to insignificance and his resulting insecurity that he should try to appropriate the glory of others who owe little of their current success to his efforts (one might say they succeeded in spite of Anna.)

So, while his former protégés and comrades have tasted electoral success and are the toast of the political world, Anna languishes in obscurity.  A few days ago, he announced that he would go on fast again to see the Lokpal bill passed in Parliament.  Unlike August 2011, where his every movement and speech was minutely covered by the media, today’s media does not even devote five minutes in a day to discuss Anna’s fast or worry much about his health.  In short, Anna Hazare has lapsed into complete irrelevance.

Nothing illustrates this so completely as his reaction to the current Lokpal bill introduction by the UPA and conditionally supported by the BJP.  The bill, following its unsuccessful introduction in Parliament in 2011, was referred to a select committee, which made some changes in the bill.  The new, revised draft bill is little changed – in substantive terms, as far as Anna Hazare’s and Arvind Kejriwal’s demands were concerned – from the one that they so derisively rejected in 2011 as a "Jokepal" - no citizens’ charter, no independence of the CBI from government control, no assurance of state Lokayuktas, no whistleblower protection, very high penalties for frivolous complaints – yet see now how these same two personages view that same bill. 

Anna, on the other hand, is now happy to see any bill with the name Lokpal passed, so that he can claim some victory, despite the fact that the bill does not satisfy the three main points that the “sense of the House” had assured him of in 2011 - and he is going on fast currently to try and force the government to pass the Lokpal bill – a fast that is, incidentally, completely unnecessary and guaranteed to succeed since the Congress had already stated prior to Mr. Hazare’s fast that they planned to pass their version of the Lokpal bill in the winter session, and the BJP has already said it would support the bill introduced by the Congress.  Mr. Hazare made a public statement a couple of days ago thanking the Congress and their BJP for their help in passing the Lokpal bill this session.

Arvind Kejriwal, Kumar Vishwas, and others have publicly expressed their astonishment that Anna Hazare would be willing to accept the same bill he so roundly condemned two years ago. 

So what's happening?  Simple.  Arvind Kejriwal is speaking the language of a winner, and Anna Hazare is speaking the language of a loser.  Beggars cannot be choosers.  In 2011 IAC, and therefore both Anna and Kejriwal, were on a high - they had been successful in awakening the whole nation, so they could set terms.  Anna Hazare today is a pathetic figure that the Congress and BJP don’t even bother consulting when planning their Lokpal bills.

Why did the mighty Anna fall so low? 

There are two main reasons for this.  The first is that Mr. Hazare had only one weapon in his armoury – the fast unto death.  But you die only once, regardless of what Ian Fleming tells you.  As Swaminathan Aiyar so eloquently described, Anna Hazare has lost the potency of his fasts through overuse, much as Sant Fateh Singh lost the potency of his fasts.

The second is that politics is the art of accommodation to achieve objectives.  The cardinal mistake that Anna and the IAC made was to agree to no real settlement with the UPA government on its demands for a Lokpal.  They refused to agree to the dilution of conditions even when it was not in the power of the central government to agree to the undiluted conditions.  A very good example was the establishment of the state Lokayuktas that was a fundamental “non-negotiable” of the Jan Lokpal movement.  The UPA said, and correctly so, that establishment of state Lokayuktas was not something they could mandate from the centre, as this was a state subject and went against the principle of federalization.  If they tried to mandate it, the states could challenge it in the courts – and win.  And, indeed, some states refused to accept this condition, even in 2011 when it was first discussed, citing it as an infringement on states’ rights.

UPA ministers tried to impress upon the IAC that the bill had made great progress since its first appearance from the Congress stables, and most of the improvements had been because of IAC suggestions.  They suggested that the IAC allow the bill to pass in the form it was in for the time being, and that improvements could be made later.  The IAC rejected this suggestion in toto.  It was all or nothing for them – the Jan Lokpal or nothing.

So they got nothing.  The IAC disbanded, and Anna split from Kejriwal once he decided to form a political party.  And no one cares about Anna today.

If Anna had agreed to the negotiated bill and presented it as not having his full approval but one that he was willing to give his blessing to as a first step, he could have declared victory, been a hero in the eyes of the people and, depending on how the implementation of the Lokpal was working in practice, he could always call another agitation if he felt things were not satisfactory.  The people would view him as performing the role of an important watchdog.  Instead, by refusing to compromise even an iota, Anna ended up in the dust heap of history.

Those who Cannot Remember the Past...

The IAC would have ended up in the same place, but did not because Kejriwal decided that as long as they were IAC, they would share Anna’s irrelevance.  The former IAC was saved because they transformed themselves into a political party, the AAP; but their survival from now on will be dictated by the decisions they take in this crucial period.

Winning 28 seats out of Delhi’s 70 has been an unexpected achievement.  But now hopes and expectations of the people are high.  The AAP promised clean governance and a host of other things, including some very impractical populist promises such as halving electricity bills and 700 litres of free water per person in Delhi.

But even to get to fulfill those promises, the AAP must first govern.  They might disappoint their supporters by not even assuming power, in spite of the Congress’ unconditional support.

The AAP said in response to the Congress’ offer of unconditional support that it would only assume power if the Congress and BJP agreed to support it on 18 points – its election manifesto.  While the AAP’s trepidation is understandable – forming a government is not as important as being able to execute your policies – and if the Congress and BJP were to vote against all their initiatives, they would not be able to accomplish anything – the smart thing to do was to accept the Congress’ offer, with a disclaimer that this does not mean a quid pro quo

After forming the government, the AAP should have then started drafting bills that favoured neither party, which would prove to their supporters that there was, indeed, no quid pro quo.  If, at that stage, either the Congress/BJP were to repeatedly obstruct their efforts to pass legislation – then they could resign and call for a re-poll, after proving openly to the public that the two main parties were not allowing them to execute their vision – and so ask the public for a decisive mandate.  And even in determining this – the ability to execute its vision - it is not an all-or-nothing measurement.  If the AAP were to be able to pass 70% or 80% of the bills they wanted to pass with full support from the Congress, such an achievement would still allow them to claim victory.    If a re-poll were necessitated by the lack of cooperation from the Congress and the BJP to the AAP, then very likely the Delhi populace would overwhelmingly vote the AAP to an absolute majority in the repoll.

Instead, asking parties to commit to their entire program in advance just shows that they don’t understand the workings of a democracy.

And just as the IAC demands on the Jan Lokpal were a bit unrealistic, so are the 18 demands of the AAP.  To take a few examples:

1.       Passing of the Jan Lokpal – the very version that Anna fought for – at the national level.  This is not something that the Congress can guarantee, because other parties (such as the SP, BSP, and BJP) are also opposed to this.  And why is it necessary that this be agreed to when administering Delhi?  Whether this is agreed to or not will not affect the AAP’s ability to govern Delhi.  They have received votes for seats in the Delhi legislature, not the Lok Sabha.  They could not have promised the people of Delhi that they would get the Jan Lokpal Bill passed at the centre, because even if they had an absolute majority in the state, they would have no authority to pass a nationwide bill.
2.      Stopping the VIP culture is good, but Kejriwal can only ask that he be allowed to do this without interference in Delhi’s legislature and related bodies – asking MLAs in the Delhi legislature to forgo their privileges.  He cannot, for example, ask the MPs in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha to forgo their privileges.  That is a national matter.  The AAP needs to focus on what it can do in the state of Delhi.
3.      Statehood for Delhi with complete independence may not be a matter that only the Congress can decide, and certainly not Delhi MLAs alone.  It is a national matter and probably requires a Constitutional amendment, which will require consensus in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.  This is not something Congress MLAs can promise.
4.      The rest of the demands are in line with the idea of local governance, i.e., with the idea that AAP, as the party in power, can pass bills to achieve these goals (more hospitals, schools, disallowing FDI in retail in Delhi, etc.).  To ask for advance agreement on the passage of these bills is absurd.  Agreeing on a bill means understanding the details of that bill – what it costs, how it can or should be implemented, etc.  The details of these bills should be debated in the legislature.  If another party feels that some legislation is absurd or impractical, they should be free to object, as long as the motive is not to completely de-fang the AAP in the performance of its duties and the opposing party is simply exercising due diligence as a responsible opposition. 

By asking for advance blanket agreement on these issues, the AAP is, in effect, asking for a government without an opposition.  To give them that would be a disservice to the millions in Delhi who voted for the 32 BJP representatives and the 8 Congress representatives.

These demands are an extension of the “all-or-nothing” mentality the IAC, Anna, and Kejriwal and associates exhibited in their negotiations with the Government in 2011 on the Lokpal bill.  Unfortunately, it seems those attitudes have not changed.

Lessons for the AAP to Learn

The first lesson to learn from 2011 is that if the AAP repeats the earlier IAC insistence on an all-or-nothing solution, then they will again be left with nothing in 2013, as the IAC was left with nothing in 2011.  They have claimed that good governance of Delhi is their goal, so they need to assume power and show people their vision for Delhi.  If the Congress/BJP obstruct their ability to govern, they can always resign later, after a good-faith effort to rule by their principles.  But giving up before even trying will not be forgiven by the people.  If people are convinced that the AAP could have done more if they had a better mandate, then they will vote them in with a majority vote; but if the AAP is shy of taking office, they will likely fail next time they go to the voters.

The other major lesson that the AAP needs to learn from having lived in the wilderness between October 2011 and December 2013 is that success is ephemeral.  Huge crowds followed the IAC in August 2011; only a total of 5000 people came to their venue in December 2011.  The fact that they won 28 seats in Delhi’s legislature does not mean that they are guaranteed to win more seats either in a re-poll or in a general election.  Whether they will win more or less will depend largely on what they do in these next crucial months before either a re-poll or the national elections. 

It is quite possible, for instance, that the people of Delhi, disillusioned by the failure of the AAP to take power when it was offered on a platter to them, might lose faith in the AAP and not vote for them again. 

It is also very likely that, if a re-poll in Delhi were to be held at the same time as the national elections, the effect of Mr. Narendra Modi, widely expected to lead the BJP to a thumping victory, will also be felt in the Delhi state elections and give the BJP an absolute majority which they do not have now.

In 2011, when people saw the constant intransigence of the IAC in negotiations with the government, many started believing that perhaps Anna, Kejriwal, and other members of the IAC were not serious about bringing in a practical Lokpal bill.  This was one of the reasons for the hardening of the government stance against the IAC and the subsequent breakdown of talks.

The AAP is risking a similar fate with the Delhi legislature in 2013.  Given the extreme nature of some of the AAP’s demands (as discussed above), one cannot be blamed for wondering if Mr. Kejriwal is serious about forming a government in Delhi; and whether these 18 demands are simply excuses to avoid taking office in Delhi

Perhaps the AAP feels that they have made promises that are too tall to keep – halving electricity bills, giving free water, etc.  Or perhaps the AAP feels that going back to the voters with a request for a decisive mandate will be better than assuming power today...that perhaps, some of the indecisive voters who were not sure if voting for the AAP would be a worthwhile thing and so did not vote for them would now actually vote for them in a re-poll and thus increase their vote share, perhaps even giving them an absolute majority.

But all these are speculations.  As discussed earlier, a re-poll could also decisively favour the BJP.  The people of Delhi, in electing so many untested AAP candidates to power, have voted for change, and it is the duty of the AAP legislators to not fail them.  If they shirk their duty, they may not get elected again.

The AAP has talked about national ambitions and their interest in participating in the general elections of 2014.  But winning state elections in a small state like Delhi and winning national elections in a country as big as India, with only 5 months to go, and with issues still unresolved on how to deal with the situation in Delhi, make this just a pipe dream.  The AAP had a very strong grass-roots organization in Delhi because this is where the IAC movement was headquartered, and so they had a volunteer base that had been built up over a period of 2 years (most of the IAC volunteers stayed on with the AAP).  But most of this organization was only in Delhi.  In other places the IAC itself had a very patchy organization – very little for the AAP to leverage a victory in the general elections.  Perhaps they could win a few seats in one city, maybe two or three cities, such as Bangalore, but not many more.  Even that would be ambitious.

The best outcome for the AAP is to assume power in Delhi as a minority government, go on faith with the Congress’ assurance that it does not intend to impede the functioning of the AAP government, and try to prove that it is more than just a rabble-rouser – that it can actually deliver the goods at the state level in a small state like Delhi.  Remember that all these newly-minted MLAs have never seen the inside of a legislative assembly, let alone work in one.  They have a lot to learn about parliamentary democracy, and it would be best for the AAP to focus on Delhi and build on its historic win here by learning how to govern.  Over-reaching at this point, either by asking for a re-poll or by aiming for national elections, only dilutes their focus and hinders their ability to deliver. 

So far the AAP has delivered nothing except for a vision.  It is time for them to execute that vision and provide the real governance they have been promising Delhiites.  If they can do so, and if they have patience, then success awaits them in future elections anywhere in the country.  But overweening ambition at this stage will only sink their ship, just as it did in 2011. 

And this time, they will not be able to reinvent themselves if they fail.  Maybe Ian Fleming was right, after all – you only live twice.  The AAP is Kejriwal’s second political life, after his first life in the IAC ended.  He won’t get a third one if he makes a mess of this one.