Friday 18 April 2014

Why I Did Not Care for Chetan Bhagat's "2 States"

Why I Did Not Care for Chetan Bhagat’s “2 States”

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 18 April, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit

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.


Today, the movie adaptation of Bhagat’s book, “2 States,” is hitting the theatres.  Completely coincidentally, I just finished reading the book a week ago. I had actually bought the book a while ago – in fact, I had bought it at the time of the big controversy over the “3 Idiots” movie, which was based on Bhagat’s “Five Point Someone,” but only found time to read the book last week, probably prompted by curiosity, since I had learned the book had been made into a movie.  These are my observations on the book.

First of all, I want to say that I liked “Five Point Someone,” Bhagat’s earlier novel. I actually thought the book was better than its movie adaptation, “3 Idiots,” although I am not a big fan of Bhagat’s writing style, which frankly is quite boring and completely unremarkable. But his strength lay, I thought, in the story itself, which in “Five Point Someone” seemed to me very interesting and original.  It also seemed very honest, and I thought it was a story I could relate to. 

And this is where “2 States” fails.  There are two main aspects in which this novel fails to grab the attention of the reader: 1. Unrealistic characters and situations, and 2. The author’s laziness in not getting simple details correct, which insults the reader’s intelligence.

Why “Five Point Someone” and “3 Idiots” Worked

To motivate the discussion on “2 States,” let me first explain some of the reasons why I preferred “Five Point Someone” to “3 Idiots.”  Having studied at IIT myself, I can fully relate to the characters in the book.  We all knew at least one person who was like the Ryan Oberoi character in the book – someone who was the bottom of the class in grades, but was actually somebody used their brain in a creative way.  We thought those people were quite cool, really.  

Where the movie ruined it was when they made Rancho (the Ryan Oberoi character in the book), played by Aamir Khan, not only the creative and out-of-the-box thinker, but also the topper in the class.  This went completely against the point of the book itself, which wanted to talk about how “5-pointers,” i.e., people who essentially “failed” in IIT, weren’t actually failures in life.  It missed the point of the book that bookish knowledge and grades are not everything.  I still remember my disappointment when, in the movie, the students all look at their grades on the bulletin board, and Rancho is the topper, ahead of Chatur.  That took away a lot of the charm of the movie.

Also, the book is a narration by Hari, the character played by Madhavan in the movie, Farhan Qureshi.  According to the book, it is Hari who gets the girl, the Professor’s daughter Neha.  But it appears Aamir Khan’s image is so important that you cannot make a movie with him in the lead without him getting the girl as well.  So now you have it – Rancho is the creative genius, the out-of-box thinker, who also is the class topper, as well as the guy who gets the beautiful girl.  I could puke.  Such a person does not exist, and I preferred Bhagat’s book because his characters were more real and I could relate to them.

I still liked “3 Idiots,” because they managed to convey what I thought was Bhagat’s most important idea of the book – that we need to think beyond grades and bookish knowledge.  Also, the tagline, “Don’t think about success, think about excellence, and success will follow on its own” – was a message the movie conveyed effectively, and it was a message that Bhagat had elaborated well in the book – which is why I liked the book for its ideas, if not its prose.  If even one-tenth of the people who watched “3 Idiots” actually internalized the message of valuing excellence over success, India would be a much better place.

“Five Point Someone” worked because you could relate to the characters. The most important count on which “2 States” failed was its unrealistic characters.

Unrealistic and Unrelatable Characters

The story is of Krish Malhotra, a Punjabi, and Ananya Swaminathan, a Tamizh girl, who meet at the IIM campus in Bangalore and fall in love, and of their struggles in getting their families to agree to their marriage.  Now, Bhagat says this is inspired by his own life, and I wouldn’t want to question the truth of that assertion.  But if it really corresponds to his life, then I am afraid I cannot relate to it.  This is something like watching an episode of “Dynasty,” which talks about the life of the super-rich in America that most people in America or elsewhere can never fully understand in a personal way.  Let me elaborate and explain myself.

The Smooth Hero

Consider the protagonist, Krish Malhotra.  He is supposed to have graduated from IIT, and moved on to IIM.  According to the story, he had a girlfriend, a professor’s daughter, in IIT – a relationship that did not work out – and he is amazingly smooth around the heroine of the story, Ananya.

Now, I’ll tell you as a past IIT-ian, we were never smooth around women.  That’s because we had very few women to practice moves on.  I was in a class in IIT Bombay with one girl among 60 boys. IIT guys are, as a result, quite awkward around women.  But our hero is not only comfortable and confident, he is so smooth, knows what to say in front of a girl and what not.  Now maybe this IS Bhagat’s story, and maybe he was this kind of person, but I cannot relate to him.


The Beautiful Heroine

People do fall in love in India in college, more so today than when I was a student.  But why is it necessary that Ananya had to be “Ananya Swaminathan – best girl in the fresher batch”?  Won’t the story work if an ordinary guy meets and falls in love with an ordinary girl?

Again, I cannot relate to it.  And I don’t think it is necessary to have “the best girl” to have a great love story.  So many of us fall in love with regular people and are in love our entire lives.


The Filmi Story

From the start, this book seems like it was written for Bollywood.   Consider: Punjabi boy, Tamizh girl. Boy meets girl in college. They fall in love. Parents don’t approve.  Parents try to marry their kids to other people, doesn’t work.  Lots of drama.  Boy persuades girl’s parents by doing something special for them; girl persuades boy’s parents by doing something special for them.  Finally everyone is happy.

Again, maybe that’s his life, but I cannot relate to it.

But of course, ALL Bollywood films are like this, so maybe the movie will work.  But Bollywood has no connection with real life.


The “Estranged” Father

One of the characters in the book that simply never worked for me was Krish’s dad.  Bhagat has said that this character is based on his real-life father, and I respect that. Unfortunately, we are never told why there is this chasm between Krish and his father, and why, suddenly, there is a change of heart and all is well.  In a movie, there may not be time to explain, but surely a book has enough space – a paragraph or two - to explain why?  There is some mention of domestic violence but it is never fully explored.  If the gulf is truly because of that, then where is this realistically addressed? 


Those are just some of the broad outlines on which the characters did not work for me.  I am not saying this is not Bhagat’s story.  It might well be.  But as a writer, he did not make a strong-enough effort to help me understand his story and empathize.

Equally annoying was the mischaracterization of Tamizh folks in the story.  I am not taking this personally as a Tamizhan, just saying that these descriptions simply don’t match what 99.99% of Tamizh families in Chennai are like.  And again, the net result is that I cannot relate to this.  Either Mr. Bhagat’s wife’s family is truly an outlier, or Mr. Bhagat simply was lazy and did not take the trouble to check anything he wrote, relying instead simply on things he pulled out of his imagination and put them on paper.  I do not know which. Let’s see a few examples.

Unrealistic Tamizh Characters

The Meat-loving, Beer-drinking, Cigarette-smoking Tamizh Brahmin Girl

The heroine, Ananya, is supposed to come from a traditional, Tamizh Brahmin family from Chennai.  Yes, I agree the world has moved on, but as a Tamizh Brahmin, I still go to Chennai once in a while , although I live in Mumbai and grew up in Mumbai.  We still watch Sun TV at home and speak in Tamizh at home, so I have an idea what happens in Chennai and what the people are like.  I also know what it was like 20-30 years ago, when the book is set.

Sure, girls are more modern today, but Chennai has ALWAYS been the most conservative of the four metros in India, and Bhagat is explaining events of 20 years ago, when they were EVEN MORE conservative.  A Brahmin girl even today in Chennai probably will be offended by meat (on average); a girl twenty years ago would probably run away.  But take this exchange from the book:

‘I thought Ahmedabad was vegetarian,’ I said.
‘Please, I’d die here then.’ She turned to the waiter and ordered half a tandoori chicken with roomali rotis.
‘Do you have beer?’ she asked the waiter.
The waiter shook his head in horror and left.
‘We are in Gujarat, there is prohibition here,’ I said.

Or take this scene from a little later in the book, when Krish has come to Chennai to work in the Citibank office there so he can see Ananya more often.  She comes to visit his apartment (which he shares with other professionals) and this is what happens:

When she finally entered my bedroom, I grabbed her from behind.
‘Can we eat first? I haven’t had chicken for a month.’
‘I haven’t had sex for four months,’ I said, but she went out and opened the fridge.
‘You have beer too. Superb!’ she praised and she pulled out a bottle.  She offered it to my flatmates; they declined.  We moved the food and beer to my bedroom.  I didn’t want my friends outside to witness sin as we finished a full chicken and two beers.

So, a chicken- and beer-loving Tamizh Brahmin girl.  She even loves eating chicken direct from the bone.  Wow.  I cannot think of anything more unusual, even today.  Not saying there aren’t some.  I haven’t seen one, and the point is it is not something you can relate to.  Maybe that is Bhagat’s personal experience, but I have a hard time believing this to be real.

The unusualness of the heroine doesn’t stop with this.  She also loves to wear shorts and smoke cigarettes.  And she grew up in Chennai in a middle-class Brahmin family.

‘Your shorts are too short,’ I said.
‘Let’s go to Rambhai,’ she said.
‘You are not coming to Rambhai like this,’ I said.
‘Like what?’
‘Like in these shorts,’ I said.
I opened the marketing case that we had to prepare for the next day.
‘Nirdosh – nicotine-free cigarettes,’ I read out the title.
‘Who the fuck wants that? I feel like a real smoke,’ she said.  I gave her a dirty look.
‘What? Am I not allowed to use F words? Or is it that I expressed a desire to smoke?’
‘What are you trying to prove?’
‘Nothing. I want you to consider the possibility that women are intelligent human beings. And intelligent people don’t like to be told what to wear or do, especially when they are adults. Does that make sense to you?’
‘Don’t be over-smart,’ I said.
‘Don’t patronise me,’ she said.

Maybe Bhagat wants to project his views that women should be allowed to do whatever men do, and not be judged for that, and I am with him there.  But to pick a girl from a traditional Tamizh middle-class family in the early 1990s and endow her with these attributes seems completely unrealistic to me.  I cannot connect.  Bhagat does not even try to suggest that his TamBram character was a rebel or an outlier, someone being openly defiant of her traditions in doing so.  No, he shows her as deferring to her family’s wishes.  So there is a disconnect here.

Understand something.  I am not passing judgment here.  Nothing wrong if a TamBram girl wants to eat meat or drink beer or smoke cigarettes (though cigarette smoking can kill, so there’s something wrong there).  Just that I’ve never seen it and it certainly isn’t typical, so I find it hard to relate to.  It is like if you wrote a story involving a Hindu boy loving beef.  Nothing fundamentally wrong with it, but it is hard to relate to.  The stories that touch us, that move us, are the ones we can relate to – the ones where you say, “yeah, I could have been that guy,” or, “oh, that reminds me of the time...”  Bhagat’s characters don’t remind me of anyone.


The Extremely Permissive, Liberal but Traditional TamBram Family

Ananya’s family is so unbelievably permissive, it would not be acceptable in a traditional Tamizh Brahmin family even today.  For example, Krish comes to Ananya’s home for the first time since they have shocked their families during their convocation at IIM by announcing that they want to marry each other.  Both families have disapproved, and Krish has come to Chennai to win Ananya’s family over.

When he arrives, she’s not at home, and he can sense her family isn’t exactly thrilled to have him over.  When she finally comes back home (after her evening prayers at the temple – so at home she is traditional, right?), he says,

‘Hi Ananya, good to see you,’ I said, greeting her like a colleague at work.  I kept my hands close to my body.
‘What? Give me a hug,’ she said, and uncle finally lost interest in the Hindu.
‘Sit here, Ananya,’ he said and carefully folded the newspaper.

I was stunned and in disbelief.  This book is set in the 1990s, and even today, in 2014, my wife is careful not to indulge in PDAs with me in front of her parents or mine – and her parents are not even very traditional.  And you expect me to believe that a Tamizh girl from a traditional family in Chennai (they go to the temple, sing Carnatic music at home, etc.) will tell a boy she is not married to, “What? Give me a hug!” in front of her parents?  I’m sorry, it simply doesn’t ring true.

And how about this situation?  Later in the book, Krish decides that he has suitably ingratiated himself into Ananya’s parents’ hearts to ask their permission for their daughter’s hand.  So he invites them for dinner to a restaurant in the Taj Connemara.

‘Sir, for cocktails, I’d recommend Kothamalli Mary,’ the waiter said.
‘Kotha-what?’ I asked.
‘It is like a Bloody Mary, sir, tomato juice and vodka, but with Chettinad spices.’
I looked at uncle. He looked reluctant to nod for alcohol in front of his wife.
‘I want one,’ Ananya said.
Ananya’s mother gave her a sharp look.
‘C’mon, just one cocktail,’ Ananya said.

Sorry, but if you really believe this conversation can happen with a traditional Tamizh Brahmin family, you know nothing about Tamizh Brahmin culture.  It is also puzzling that Bhagat suggests that the father may not want to openly admit his fondness for alcohol in front of his wife, but the daughter openly says she wants a drink.  Incredible.

And, in the same situation mentioned above, Bhagat makes another blooper, unrelated to any understanding of Tamizh culture, but which this IITian can never forgive him for - a science goof-up unworthy of someone who studied at IIT.

Manju picked up his box. ‘Nice, real gold?’ he asked.
I nodded.
‘Argentum, atomic number seventy-nine,’ Manju said as he held the ring in his hand.

I cringed when I read this.  Argentum is the chemical name for silver; Aurum is the chemical name for gold.  Here, gold is meant and the character is using the chemical name for silver.  Is this guy an IITian?  How can you be so sloppy?  (The atomic number for gold is indeed correct: 79).

Oh, and one other peeve while I am on this extract.  I have NEVER heard of a Tamizh Brahmin boy from Chennai named Manjunath.  NEVER.  HOWEVER, Manjunath is the most common name you will hear in Bangalore, so my guess is that Bhagat picked it up from his days at IIM and figured "hey, Kannada, Tamil, Bangalore, Chennai, what's the difference? After all, they are all Madrasis!" and gave his Tamizh Brahmin character this name.


Bloopers About Tamizh Culture

There is a scene in the book when Krish visits the Swaminathan home the first time.  Bhagat is trying to set the scene, and tries to show they are traditional Tamizh folks.

‘Oh, Mom is singing,’ she said, upon hearing her mother shriek again.
‘Yes, finally,’ Ananya’s father said. ‘Can you tell the raga?’
‘It’s malhar, definitely malhar,” she said.
Uncle nodded his head in appreciation.

I am aghast.  Malhar is a north Indian (Hindustani) raga, and no Carnatic music lover would have the foggiest idea about it.  The least Mr. Bhagat could have done is ask around a little bit or do a google search to find out the names of at least a few Carnatic ragas before writing such nonsense.

Here is another one.  In his attempt to ingratiate himself with the family, Krish hits upon an idea to give Ananya’s mom a chance to perform in public at a function his company is organizing.  Keep in mind that this character is a traditional Tamizh housewife who has learned Carnatic music.  The author makes the correct point that for classical singers, singing light music is not hard – and this is true – but look at the choice of songs here.

‘Have you done any Kaho na pyaar hai songs?  Those are hot,’ I said.
‘Yes, I have. Film songs are easy.  It confidence.’
‘Fine, and practice the Ek pal ka jeena song.  It is number one on the charts,’ I said.

Who is Mr. Bhagat writing his books for?  If he wants to include any Tamizh folks, he better shape up.  This is sheer laziness on the part of the author.  Anyone who has spent any time in Chennai will know that Tamizh folks are clueless about Hindi.  Ask the hordes of North Indians who move to Chennai because of their jobs; they complain endlessly about how the people there only speak in Tamizh; how they have no knowledge of Hindi.  And here, this guy is expecting us to accept that in a company function, where most of his co-employees are Tamizh, someone will perform a Hindi film song?  Also, suggesting that Ananya’s mother will just start singing songs from Kaho na pyaar hai?  This is beyond stupid.  Again, it is not too difficult to do a bit of research and find out what Tamizh songs were popular at the time and present Ananya’s mom as singing one of those – far more believable.  Maybe Bhagat is not writing for people who know something about Tamizh people.  The Punjabi or Hindi-speaker will likely not see anything amiss with any of these cultural faux pas, but maybe that’s the bottom line – that people who are actually Tamizh shouldn’t bother to read this book.


Concluding Thoughts

To sum up, “2 States” was a huge disappointment.  The characters and the story seemed very contrived and didn’t work for me, and Bhagat simply doesn’t seem to have cared to do his homework to understand Tamizh culture enough to write a book about it.  Maybe one reason for the poor quality of the book is that “Five Point Someone” was written in 2004, before the big “3 Idiots” controversy that catapulted Bhagat to the national stage; “2 States” was written in 2009, after Mr. Bhagat had become a big star in India.  Maybe this pathetic novel is a victim of complacence brought on by success.

The movie may well work, as Bollywood stories are usually completely divorced from reality and sense, and Indian movie audiences are not particularly demanding of their films in terms of quality.  But the book is a waste of money.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Why I Lost Faith in Arvind Kejriwal

Why I Lost Faith in Arvind Kejriwal

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 10 April, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit

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 Anna Hazare Movement – A Turning Point

I started this blog in August 2011.  I owe my political consciousness today to Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement of August 2011.  Until then, I was a mobile vegetable like most other Indians, content to go to my office, do my work, get my salary, watch cricket matches on TV, and see Bollywood movies, but never motivated enough to use the brain I had to think in detail about the kind of society we live in. 

Like most Indians, I had a “chalta hai” attitude.  I used to see the news about some economic policy or other, or some political development, and then drop the paper after a little while and go back to being self-absorbed.  If I had to deal with a government office, some friend would guide me on whom to talk to so that I could get the necessary work done with the appropriate amount of grease money; I never thought much about it except that this is the way it is in India.

I had no real interest in analyzing the conflicting claims of different candidates and different parties; I had never thought much about whether capitalism was better or socialism was, beyond the sound bites I used to hear.  One day one commentator seemed to make sense; another day a different commentator made sense; and, in any case, it was more important to know if India could win the match and to know how many runs were left for us to clinch a victory, so I would change the channel.  I knew little about article 370, and vaguely remembered details of the Shah Bano case from my growing-up years.  

I had lived in the US too, and while I used to follow presidential debates and political analysis on TV channels there, my mind rarely rose to examine things in a serious way.  As with most ordinary folk, the simplest explanations made the most sense to me then, with the result that I thought all the policies of the Democratic party were correct as they seemed to care for the guy on the street (the “aam aadmi”of America.)

The Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement changed all that.  I was transfixed by the sight of an septuagenerian going on a hunger strike to protest against corruption in India.  Like most people in India, I was energized.  I was living in Pune at the time, and even participated in a rally in support of the Jan Lokpal bill.

Starting Leftbrainwave and Songs on Youtube

I wanted the movement to succeed; but I knew that my strengths were not in organizing political movements on the ground.  I could write, though, and so I thought my contribution to the success of the movement would be to write about it. 

So I started this blog; and in a series of articles, I supported the IAC movement.  I first wrote an article talking about how criticism of Anna’s movement as “unconstitutional,” claims that it was tantamount to “blackmailing the government,” and accusations that he was being disrespectful of the constitution, and so on, were baseless; wrote about my feelings on the day Anna was released from jail, which were simply a reflection of what most Indians were feeling that day; talked about the biased coverage of the movement in Indian cable channels; discussed the nature of the opposition to Anna Hazare’s movement among intellectuals, more than once; compiled information on the support for Anna Hazare in protest marches throughout India to counter the propaganda that this was a movement limited to urban middle-class people; criticized an article in the Wall Street Journal which claimed that the Anna Hazare movement could not be compared to the Arab Spring; wrote articles in support of the movement when it was criticized for being disrespectful to parliamentarians; wrote articles in support of Kiran Bedi and Om Puri when they were threatened with privilege motions by members of Parliament for criticizing the government; and even wrote a celebratory article when parliament agreed to a “sense of the House” resolution agreeing to Anna Hazare’s three main demands.

I was even energized enough to compose a song in support of the Jan Lokpal movement and sing the song, which I wrote originally in Hindi (based on the Golmaal title song featuring Amol Palekar), and then translated into Tamil and Telugu as well.  And I was not even part of the India Against Corruption organization!  I was simply doing this on my own initiative, because I liked what they were doing.  (Just to clarify: I have never been part of the AAP either; all my support for either IAC or AAP has been from the outside.)

But today, I am writing to tell you that I do not support Arvind Kejriwal or the Aam Aadmi Party.  I will not vote for them.

What has changed in my view?  Why did a person, who has spent so much energy and passion supporting Anna Hazare, as well as Arvind Kejriwal and the others who formed the core of IAC and went on to form the AAP, decide they were not good for India’s future?  Read on to understand the reasons.

“Anti-Corruption” Does Not Make a Party

About a year after their highly-successful and visible anti-corruption campaign in August 2011, Team Anna completely disintegrated.  I have written in detail on how and why this disintegration happened in a summary article a year after the August 2011 protests.  Essentially, by this point, one year after their great success, the Anna movement had lost all steam, was unable to draw any crowds in their rallies; and their repeated fasts were losing their sheen, so much so that those involved in the fasts had to give excuses to terminate the fasts so as not to die an ignoble death.

While people were writing off the IAC as a footnote in India’s political history, Arvind Kejriwal sought to reinvent himself by transforming IAC into a political party, the Aam Aadmi Party.  I was not delighted by this development, as I felt they should focus on their core competency, which was to be a pressure group to achieve an objective, not a political party which required core competencies in several areas, for which they were not equipped.  As I wrote in my summary article on the IAC movement,

A movement can be based on a single issue; a political party cannot.  A political party HAS to have a position on every major issue facing the nation: foreign policy – whether to align with the US, with Russia, or China on any issue; what to do about our nuclear capability; whether to further implement the US-India nuclear agreement; whether to allow FDI in multi-brand retail; whether to take any action against the Sri Lankan government for attacking Tamil fishermen; whether to build roads in Arunachal Pradesh to match the Chinese level of development on the border; whether to implement more or less reservation in education and jobs; how to accelerate the pace of infrastructure building in the country; what kind of economic liberalization measures needs to be undertaken in the country; how to make Indian education more effective, and to create students who not only finish school, but actually possess skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic; how to effectively realize the benefits of India’s demographic dividend; how to eliminate the corrosive effects of casteism in India and to truly raise the living conditions of the poorest of the poor; how to resolve the border conflicts with Pakistan and China; and a hundred other such crucial and pressing issues.

Team Anna neither has the experience nor the ability to deal with most of these issues.  The key attribute of most of their principals, as has already been highlighted above, was an unassailable integrity.  While they were great leaders in a campaign for probity in public life, it would be too much to expect them to have answers to all these questions.

Inflexibility and an Inability to Achieve Consensus

Another reality about the IAC/AAP people that I had begun to notice after a year of following them was that they were not willing to accommodate diversity of opinion.  This had been pointed out quite early in the movement’s history, as far back as August 2011, by commentators, but I was too taken in by the movement’s dynamism to take those criticisms seriously.  In fact, I wrote a rebuttal to it in my very first blog article, on the “misinformation in the media about the Anna Hazare movement”:

Anna's proposed Jan lokpal bill has been out in the open for 8 months.  The reasoning behind the bill has been publicly explained by them and debated all this time.  The bill has received intense scrutiny and discussion in the media over this time and the team has received 1300 suggestions from various people that they have incorporated into it, according to Arvind Kejriwal who stated this in an interview on TV with Karan Thapar.  The current version of their jan lokpal bill, according to Arvind Kejriwal, is the 13th.  In contrast, how open has the govt's bill been?  Did they consult anyone except themselves?  It is clear to everyone except those who do not wish to see that Anna Hazare's people are open to valid criticism of their bill and are willing to change the draft if a valid objection to it is raised.

Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan have made it clear in interviews on several TV channels that they are open to modifying the draft.  A debate in parliament, if conducted in good faith, taking Anna's bill as a base, and then modifying it suitably, will, I am sure, not be objectionable to anyone in the Anna camp.

Anna's public stubbornness should be seen for what it really is: a negotiating tactic.  I am sure he is willing to negotiate with the govt., but do you really expect him to announce that on national TV and reveal his hand when the govt has not made any conciliatory overtures?  But his team has made it clear that while they are willing to negotiate, the negotiation is about issues like implementation, etc., not about corruption or about leaving some people out of the ambit of the bill.  I think this should be viewed as reasonable; the aim of the lokpal is to eliminate corruption; how can you negotiate on corruption?  The govt. continues to be stubborn and sound like a stuck record; but I don't see commentators talking about how the govt. is behaving in a high-handed and dictatorial manner, and how it completely is ignoring the wishes of the people!

Sadly, I was wrong and the commentators I was rebutting were right.  Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, and the rest of the team made it clear, time and again, that they would accept ONLY their version of the Jan Lokpal; that any additions, omissions, or modifications suggested even by prominent social activists like Aruna Roy and Jayaprakash Narayan would not be acceptable to them.  I had high hopes that they would conduct a national debate on the Lokpal Bill and, in consultation with the other civic society members, present a unified bill that truly represented the views of the people in the interests of the people.  Anyone who raised an objection that the proposed Lokpal of the IAC might be too powerful for India’s good was immediately shot down as someone in cahoots with the corrupt politicians.

This same tendency carried over to the AAP that was born from the ashes of the IAC.  During the 49 days that Arvind Kejriwal was CM of Delhi, the party would not listen to any objection to any of its proposals.  It was always my way or the highway.

The Problem with the Basic Premise – the Genesis of Corruption

As I kept discussing these ideas with friends, reading more literature, and writing articles on the subject, one thing became clear to me – that first IAC, and then AAP, was mistaken in understanding the core issues of corruption and how it happens.  I realized that the Lokpal does not really address the root cause of corruption.  Let me explain this.

The root cause of corruption is discretionary power.  Politicians are able to demand bribes for decisions that they can take because they are entrusted with too much discretionary power.  The best way to remove corruption is to remove the discretionary power that lies with politicians.  

Asking for a Lokpal while allowing politicians to have discretionary power is akin to asking a wolf to guard sheep and then having a committee to punish the wolf after it has eaten a few sheep: you are asking to have a policeman to punish the erring wolf, but not solving the root problem, which is that you should never put a wolf in charge of guarding sheep.

In the same way, the resources of the nation should not be in the control of politicians.  Remove discretionary power, and the politicians cannot be corrupt even if they want to be.  As long as the government retains significant control of resources, they will continue to have discretion in how to use those resources.  The only way to remove their discretionary powers is to end their ownership of state resources.  In other words, privatize.

This will require large-scale disinvestment (at good market values) of most of India’s infrastructure, such as oil and gas, minerals and mining, ports, energy, railways, and the like.  Except for a few critical, national-security-related industries like defense, most industry needs to be privatized for government corruption to end.

In addition, even for things that need to be under the control of government, there are too many hoops for people to go through.  For a business to start in India, there are dozens of clearances that it has to obtain, and each clearance means a bribe to a different officer.  This maze of regulations needs to be greatly simplified – and a Lokpal will not solve it.

This does not mean that there should be no regulations.  There should be regulations, but they should pertain to performance, not permits; and they should be streamlined.  For example, if someone wishes to set up a power plant, they should not have to submit a proposal and hope for a subjective approval; instead, the guidelines for a power plant should be openly and clearly published on a website – what kind of environmental impacts are allowed, what kind of resources can be granted, and so on, and if an agency wishes to set up a power plant, all that should be needed is a check that they have fulfilled all the necessary requirements, which does not even need to be done by the government itself, but by a third party regulator – in the same way that the government itself does not scrutinize the balance sheets of companies – that job is done by independent auditors like KPMG or E&Y.  The role of government should be limited to setting the standards and nothing more.  This will eliminate government corruption in one fell swoop.

Further, the Lokpal will put a much greater strain on the already-overloaded judicial system of India, which has arrears of decades.  Indian courts are poorly staffed and even high-profile cases like the 1993 Mumbai blasts take 20 years to be decided – and that is a case where 350 people died.  So the demand for a Jan Lokpal is poorly thought through, and there are more effective remedies for corruption.

It certainly isn’t worth giving up elected office for.

Hit-and-Run Politics and U-Turns

Having formed the Aam Aadmi Party, Mr. Kejriwal, in an attempt to stay in the limelight, publicly proclaimed that he would expose the corruption of the major parties.  One week one heard that he had exposed the illegal land deals of Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in Haryana and Rajasthan; another week one heard that he was exposing the illegal affairs of Nitin Gadkari, at the time the BJP President, in diverting water meant for poor farmers to rich industrialists; a third week he would talk about Union Minister Salman Khurshid embezzling funds from his trust where he supposedly donates free wheelchairs; and the fourth week one heard that he was exposing industrialist Mukesh Ambani for corruption in gas pricing.  In none of the cases did he stay the course long enough for an investigation to be completed and the accused to be proclaimed guilty.  For all the allegations, Mr. Kejriwal did not even press a single criminal case.  The popular perception was simply that he was doing all this to stay in the limelight.  The impression was firmly that of a dilettante rather than a serious politician.

In addition, Mr. Kejriwal, whose IAC had been on fairly friendly terms with the BJP when he was associated with Anna Hazare, suddenly developed a severe antipathy for the BJP when he had formed the AAP.  Although initially he stuck to the script and said that both national parties were corrupt, the anti-Congress talk quickly evaporated and all criticism was directed at the BJP.

As if this were not enough, the man who had made his political life on the basis of an anti-corruption campaign suddenly started claiming that corruption was now a secondary concern and that the primary focus of the AAP should be fighting communalism, a veiled reference to the BJP, whom he was accusing of being communal.

In line with this changed focus were several photo-ops, wherein Kejriwal was seen with fundamentalist Muslim clerics, praying at mosques, and circulating pamphlets exhorting the Muslim community in Delhi to vote for the AAP, for which Mr. Kejriwal was pulled up by the election commission for model code violations.

This sudden change in emphasis was extremely puzzling to most people and gave them the impression that Mr. Kejriwal was as opportunistic a politician as the ones he liked to criticize.

The Delhi Fiasco

Despite all these misgivings about the AAP and their central election plank, viz., the Jan Lokpal Bill, I was still optimistic when the AAP actually won 28 seats in the Delhi assembly polls and were offered the chance to form a government in Delhi.  Despite my understanding of their past inflexibility, as discussed above, I still had hope that they would see their mission as broader than just the Jan Lokpal bill; that they would understand why a state like Delhi could benefit greatly from people who are genuinely interested in doing good; and that Lokpal bill or not, here was a chance to demonstrate to the world how clean, good governance was achievable in India.  There was some drama about this, and I wrote with much concern at the time, urging the party to take up the reins of power in order to make a difference – with a warning that failure to do so would doom them to irrelevance, much as failure to take the best offer from the UPA government at the height of the IAC’s influence doomed it to irrelevance.

To my relief, the AAP agreed to take up governance in Delhi.  I was, by this time, not a big fan of the party, because of various pro-socialist statements from key people in their party – recall that I believe socialism is a pathway to corruption as it strengthens the discretionary powers of the state – but I still wanted them to succeed in Delhi to set an example for the entire country as to how a clean administration can deliver.

Unfortunately, the AAP disappointed again.  In their brief, 49-day government, the party preferred to court controversy rather than focus on serving the people.  Their manifesto talked about issues for which they needed support from the Congress and BJP parties, as well as issues over which they needed no support whatsoever.  Examples of the former were a demand to have the law-and-order framework entirely under the control of the Delhi state government and the passage of the Jan Lokpal bill.  Both of these required the central parliament to act in cooperation with the Delhi government, and the AAP government did not get the necessary cooperation.

But they knew that this was the case when they assumed power – that they could not expect a lot of cooperation from either of the national parties, especially on matters which needed to be settled in the Lok Sabha (powers of the Delhi state, for example.)  There were still a lot of issues on which a clean and sincere government could do much, and the AAP started a lot of initiatives, but was unable to complete anything because they ruled for so short a time.  For instance, an initiative they undertook was to try to make arrangements for homeless people to sleep in a makeshift shelter during the harsh Delhi winter.  This is a laudable initiative, and had the AAP government stayed its course, it might have well been able to deliver.

Another initiative floated by the AAP was to provide toilets in all public schools and to increase the number of schools.  A third initiative was to rationalize the price of water and electricity, for which they promised to conduct an audit of the utilities to determine if corruption had been occurring, and if so, what would be the correct pricing for these utilities.

While these were all worthy initiatives, and I wish the AAP had pursued a lot more of these, they quit within 49 days over the fact that they did not get cooperation in passing their pet Jan Lokpal bill.  Immediately after the bill was defeated, Kejriwal announced that he was quitting the government.  The same inflexibility they had shown earlier was continuing to dog them.

Mr. Kejriwal announced his party’s resignation from power without so much as a thought for the millions who had backed him.  In particular, he had exhorted people in Delhi to not pay electricity dues, arguing that the rates people were being charged were too high, and that when he came to power he would see to it that the rates were revised down with retroactive effect.  About 24,000 people defaulted on their bills as a result of his exhortation.  Well, he did come to power, and he did reduce the rates, which in itself was controversial, because it meant that only those who had supported him availed of the subsidy – clear nepotism and a violation of equality under the law – and attracted widespread criticism.  The move was also criticized as financially irresponsible because it was not based on any careful financial analysis but populism.  The final goof-up in this massive exercise in stupidity was that he did not make any provision for the Rs. 6 crore subsidy in Delhi’s budget, as a result of which the subsidy lapsed.

For me, personally, Kejriwal's resignation was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Here was an opportunity to do so much for a city state like Delhi, and here were people who were willing to give up ALL this for one single issue.  That was what proved to me that this was an impractical bunch of people who could never achieve anything – never, at any rate, as long as Mr. Kejriwal was their leader.

Whenever I walk around Mumbai, or Pune, or Bangalore, or any other city I have either lived in or visited, I think of how much I could do to change the place if only I had the authority.  How, even if I had a portfolio generally considered “unimportant,” such as tourism, I could make a difference.  For instance, when I visited Delhi a few years ago, I had the chance to visit Humayun’s tomb, a world heritage site.  For all its billing, the site had very little help for the tourist.  There was very little signage telling you what you were looking at.  I remember how tourist sites in the west are so well-developed.  As I was standing in Humayun’s tomb, I was thinking of all the things I could do to make it a truly world-class tourist site.

And this is just about one small, fairly unimportant issue – but something that can have a huge domino effect.  Think of all the things one can do to make things better when one has control of an entire city-state – schools, public transport, water, electricity, food supply, hygiene, hospitals – the list is endless.  The AAP had that power and control.  They chose to throw away this opportunity on this single prestige issue.  That is what tells me these people – and especially their leader, Arvind Kejriwal – are not serious about providing good governance.  And I would never entrust such a party with the affairs of the entire country when they cannot manage to run a city.

Mr. Kejriwal seems more concerned about grandstanding and about winning seats in the Lok Sabha.  In a recent debate on facebook, one of their party volunteers proudly informed me that “quitting Delhi was a planned strategy and well-scripted.”  I asked him if they had told the people of Delhi about their plan to quit the administration within 2 months if elected.  Had they told them this truth, would they have gotten their 28 seats?  This shows that the AAP betrayed the people of Delhi; that they never had any intention to govern if elected, but were only using the Delhi election as a springboard to the national elections.

By acting in these ways, the AAP has proved that it doesn’t embody a different kind of politics, as they have been claiming all along.  They are (at least their leaders are) as cynical as the worst political party, and their so-called “sacrifice” of power in Delhi was simply a gambit to get more power at the national level.  Their leaders are as power-hungry as those from the worst political party, and the mask of righteousness has finally been torn off their face.

Concluding Thoughts

The citizen’s movement that started with Anna Hazare’s “Indian Monsoon” movement in August 2011 has run its full course.  The movement began well, and had the salutary effect of awakening the Indian citizen to the awareness that he or she needed to be actively engaged in the politics of the nation; that he or she could not blindly entrust the politics of the nation to its politicians and simply vote once in 5 years and expect things to be fine.  The citizen has to be an active participant in the politics of the nation.  This realization is certainly a strong positive outcome of the movement of Anna Hazare.

However, the party that has sprung from this movement, the Aam Aadmi Party, has failed the people.  The party has betrayed both the people of Delhi who elected it to power, as well as its own volunteers, many of whom left lucrative jobs in a spirit of service to do good for the nation.

I don’t believe, however, that the idea of the AAP is dead.  The idea that the common people of the country should get together to form honest parties that aim to do good for the country has now been established as a credible alternative reality.  Unfortunately, this particular incarnation of the idea has failed, due to flawed, egotistical, and obstinate leaders like Mr. Kejriwal who have put their own ego ahead of the well-being of the party.

There is no reason why a different incarnation of a people’s party, composed of ordinary Indians unconnected with political parties and big money, should not work.  We should be thankful to the AAP that it showed that one can win an election without being well-connected and well-funded, and can still win 29% vote share in an election such as the Delhi assembly.  They have broken new ground and shown people that this is possible.

However, two important requirements have been shown to be very essential by the experience of the AAP, and any future party should clarify these before engaging in a similar endeavour as the AAP. 

One of the major flaws of the AAP is that they were a single-issue party that was only concerned about corruption.  Any viable political party should have a detailed internal manifesto on all major issues that all party members must be in agreement on – religious affairs, economic direction, industrial policy, defence, urban development, natural resources, environment, and the like - else there will be conflict on the party direction.  The AAP’s brief history clearly illustrates the importance of such an internal manifesto.  Having such a manifesto would have prevented embarrassments like Prashant Bhushan shooting off his mouth on Kashmir.

The second requirement is the need for educated followers of a new party like the AAP to be independently aware – to study issues independently, and to form their own opinions.  One of the signal flaws that I noticed in the party was that most of the people were simply following the leader, viz., Kejriwal.  They had little independent thought, and were simply parroting their leader’s statements on facebook and twitter.  How different is this from the hundreds of illiterates who follow a Lalu Prasad Yadav or a Mayawati?  Most of the AAP volunteers are educated; but this education seems to have done little to awaken their own desire to be informed participants of a democracy and a democratic party.  Unless Indians start to think independently, the future is bleak.  It is time to get rid of your intellectual laziness; otherwise, just as your father’s generation was exploited by leaders like Lalu, Nitish, and Mayawati, your generation will be exploited by self-servers like Kejriwal.

It might seem to you that I am writing the obituary of the Aam Aadmi Party.  If so, you would not be mistaken.  I don’t expect this party to be viable for much longer after the general election.  But the death of the AAP might well be the start of a new beginning.  The countless volunteers who have supported this party and contributed to its growth will not quietly fade away.  Their desire for a better India will find a new, and hopefully a less egotistic and a more coherent voice for expression.  It is a vision one earnestly hopes does translate one day into a reality.