The rise of a political party for India’s middle class is an economic disaster

A return to the socialism of India’s past will undo economic progress.
A return to the socialism of India’s past will undo economic progress.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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Elections are, to a large extent, partly popularity contests and partly driven by narrowly defined individual self-interest expressed in a group setting. The popularity contest is peculiarly of the kind what is known as a Keynesian beauty contest where the individual votes not on her own assessment of the suitability of the candidates but instead on her beliefs about the others’ assessment of the candidates. That makes it quite possible that the winner of elections is not really the most competent but instead is one who has been able to mold public perception in his favour. This is true of all elections in general but more so in so-called developing countries where personalities matter more than issues. Personalities dominate over issues primarily because issues are harder to evaluate than personalities. Note, it is personality and not character which drives the calculus of choice. That fact is illustrated by unending examples of characterless elected officials.

I make these general remarks to provide the context for my assessment of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party. To me, Kejriwal epitomizes all that is wrong with Indian politics. That is saying something when you consider that Indian politics is riddled with stupidity, dynastic succession, public corruption, insane populism, crude factionalism, blatant pandering, naked dishonesty, extreme selfishness, myopia, and other repulsive features. The major concern that I have with the AAP and its leadership relates to its agenda.

It began as a coalition of people fighting against public corruption. Public corruption, we must remember, is a phenomenon that is directly linked to the government. There cannot be public corruption without an active involvement of the government. Public corruption arises out of a combination of power that wields control, and a lack of accountability and responsibility. If this basic feature of the problem of public corruption is not understood, all actions to eradicated corruption or even to curb it is going to be not just futile but could make the problem much worse. That lack of understanding by the group called “India Against Corruption” was the glaring problem with it. It led to the quite mindless proposed solution of creating yet another layer of government with even more control and even less accountability to fight the problem of public corruption which, as I note above, is because of too much government, not too little. It is akin to bringing more gasoline to put out a raging fire.

Regardless of motivations good or bad, all do-gooders are at some level people who want control over others. The desire to control and direct others is present in all to some degree but it reaches saturation levels in those who are convinced that only if they had greater control over people would the world become a better place. This tendency finds its most potent expression in politicians. It is cynically said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It can also be that the first impulse of an over-controlling person is politics. They want power but they justify it by claiming that personally they are not power-hungry but want it only as a means to fix the problem.

As if it was not evident during the anti-corruption fervor, Kejriwal’s ambition and motivation became obvious when he and his cohort of hangers-on decided to start AAP. His basic mindset is not too different from the mindset of those whom he appears to be fighting against. The ones in power got there on the same promise to people—deliverance from the misery of daily existence—and here was AAP going to deliver the people from the control of a rapacious government. AAP will fight the monster by becoming a bigger monster. To make such a promise and be believed requires a lot of guts, and of course a gullible public that cannot see through even the most blatant of deceptions.

The public is gullible. There isn’t a nicer way to say it. The public has been electing venal politicians for decades and I don’t see any reason to believe that suddenly it has become smarter and is not going to be taken in by glib promises made by fast-talking charlatans. Certainly politicians do get voted out but the ones that get voted in are no different in any meaningful sense. It is a different bucketful but it is still drawn from the same cesspool as the one before.

Ambitious, opportunistic, manipulative, authoritarian, self-aggrandizing, controlling: these are descriptive of people you don’t want to share a table with perhaps. Yet those are the characteristics of all successful politicians. But a good politician is more than that. A good politician is one who fundamentally understands what the public good is, knows what needs to be done to achieve it and is motivated to work for it. It is a matter of objectives, intelligence, and diligence.

I don’t see Kejriwal as a good politician. He is clever and evidently very shrewd but not intelligent enough to understand the nature of the problem that he proclaims he will solve. Part of this inability arises from his background as a civil servant. Bureaucrats are trained to believe that controlling others is the key to solving problems. More rules, more regulations, more controls—these are the instinctive reactions of bureaucrats to any and all problems.

It was a bureaucratic mindset that created the notorious license-quota-permit-control raj, much beloved of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty led Congress. It created the monster of public corruption that devours the poor and keeps the economy shackled. Kejriwal does not understand the root cause of public corruption. To my mind, that’s the first strike against him.

The second strike against him is closely related to the first. Not being content with just fighting corruption, he expanded his horizons and set a socialist agenda. Every time socialism has been advanced as the solution for poverty, it has only deepened poverty. This generalization is without exception. Why has socialism failed? Because it denies people freedom, and without freedom people are unable to produce what is needed to live decent, productive lives. Socialism imposes the will of a small set of people on the rest. Socialism is a recipe for disaster.

India had the double misfortune of first being entrapped by British colonialism and then escaping it only to fall into the deadly embrace of Nehruvian socialism. India went from British Raj 1.0 to British Raj 2.0. The transition was easy since the state machinery of extractive and exploitative policies was created by the British and readily adopted by Nehru and his descendants. The rulers of post-independence India continued the dysfunctional rule of India. It was not as if they were unhappy with the way things were; their major concern was that they themselves wanted to rule instead of the British.

The same type of transition is what India has in store if, god forbid, Kejriwal and AAP are able to come to power. The transition will be this time from Nehruvian Socialism 1.0 (aka British Raj 2.0) to Nehruvian Socialism 2.0 under the new AAP dispensation. The entire machinery is in place, waiting for new operators. Once again, it is not as if Kejriwal is unhappy about the way things are done – total bureaucratic control of the people – but rather he would like to be the one in control.

Truth be told, there is no danger that AAP will get to govern India at the centre, even as a coalition partner. The danger is that it can spoil India’s chances of moving out of Nehruvian socialism. AAP has nuisance value and the UPA/Congress is well aware of that. It will now attempt to use AAP to scuttle India’s chances of getting out of poverty. They know that a segment of the middle-class urban voters are seduced by idiotic notions of a “clean government by sincere people.” This segment will not vote for the UPA/Congress but to prevent it from voting for a Narendra Modi-led BJP, it would promote Kejriwal.

Here’s how that strategy would work. The UPA/Congress has bought and paid for a significant chunk of the mainstream media journalists. These will be instructed to talk up Kejriwal and provide him wall-to-wall media coverage. This will deflect attention from the prince and his little band of merry men. Voters have a short attention span and even shorter memories. Since Modi versus Gandhi has already been called in favor of Modi, the new fighter the Congress will push into the ring against Modi will be Kejriwal. The Congress is a past master of the game and will fund the AAP to make sure that the BJP loses even if the Congress does not win.

Kejriwal is the willing useful idiot that the Congress/UPA was looking for and the Delhi voters have obliged. It is all karma after all.