Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mango pickle

Recently I've had a bit of a debate with friends on Facebook about the Aam Aadmi Party and would like to use this space to think out my views and share them.

Arguably the most important new phenomenon in Indian politics, the AAP is a party whose philosophy (or perhaps, lack thereof) has left me in grave doubt and discomfort. This discomfort dates from their earlier incarnation as a protest movement against corruption, but has intensified since they came to power in Delhi.

It has become an axiom that India's leaders wallow in an evil stew of dishonesty, corruption and criminality. This axiomatic view is one of the roots of my discomfort. Axioms do not require justification, they are just taken to be true. As a scientist, I would instead like to investigate rationally and argue step by step. That allows for a little more perspective and also for correcting errors in the argument if any.

Now, even with my best debating skills I can hardly argue that India's elected leaders are particularly admirable. It appears that a significant number of them habitually commit  crimes, both social (such as rape and murder) and economic (such as corruption and theft). The question I want to raise is whether these persons are, in this criminal aspect, worse than the rest of us Indians, or in any specific way different from us. Or are they just the same as the rest of us on average? This is the central question whose answer determines how we should respond to the criminality of the political class.

Naturally politicians cannot be exactly like the "rest of us" due to the crucial difference that they have power (whatever the AAP might say, politics is power). So the question above has to be rephrased thus: are India's politicians just the same as the rest of us on average except that they are able to more easily indulge their criminality due to their power?

My answer is a clear "yes". Politicians have no unique claim on murder and rape - these days it seems everyone from mighty judges and magazine editors to humble security guards and bus drivers is involved in the business of sexual molestation. Politicians have no unique claim on corruption either. Their own corruption is usually in conjunction with powerful business interests. But plenty goes on without any help from politicians. Match-fixing is corruption on the part of bookmakers and sportspersons. Corruption and sexual molestation in Bollywood are nothing new. Businesses routinely pay TV and newspapers to propagate their case - a good example where both industry and media are corrupt without any help from politicians. So why do politicians get singled out for blame? How can we expect better from them when our society and culture are no better? How can we reform them before reforming our culture?

Now I can articulate my unease about AAP. Instead of trying to lay bare the root of corruption and exorcise it, it has become a nodal agency for shifting the blame outside ourselves. Its appeal to the urban middle-class voter is to basically pretend that corruption is something "out there", that we are merely its hapless victims and that the government refuses permission for anything only to extract a bribe. This makes AAP - as presently functioning - a part of the problem, not the solution.

To this day, most Indians will cheerfully give a bribe if doing so provides them an edge over someone else (who among you has not bribed for a railway ticket? did you ever think about the poor soul on the waiting list from whom that ticket was wrongfully snatched?). By turning the camera away from ourselves and onto someone else, the AAP has propped up the favourite construct of guilty persons: blaming the "other". From this perspective, the recent raid on Africans in Khirki village was no aberration. Prostitution and drug abuse are widespread in Indian cities and the law must be used to redress this problem. But the raid on the Africans was intended to convey a different message: that prostitution and drug use are not "Indian" habits and have come to us via dark and perverse foreigners. The AAP's website continues to defend the raid, by the way, and a thought-provoking attack on their defence appears in this article. So I'm afraid we can expect more moralising and distancing behaviour from this party.

Gandhi tried to teach us that true reform is reform from within, and he was completely right about that. All that is good about India (and there is a lot) has its roots in our cultural selves. All that is bad (and there is a lot) also has its roots in the self-same culture. Good or bad, we are all implicated. I don't know which political party will dare to tell us this and risk its vote base, but that's what we need to hear in order to make progress.


ansimal said...

Well written, Sunil. Being a scientist myself, I agree with the axiomatic part of it. I have similar problems with the fundas of AAP. Their connstant rhetoric "I am honest" combined with "Rest all are Chor", bugs me. And they believe that if they go on saying it enough number of times, people will start believing it, and actually many people I know, have !!
A clear example of this rhetoric, is the jarring ad that AAP put on autos before Delhi elections saying (in Hindi) : "If you elect dishonest in Delhi, rapes will continue..." with Sheila Dikshit on one side, and Kejriwal with Jhadu on the other. I would actually like these Ads put up again on autos in Delhi now, as rapes are still continuing, and you know who we have elected ...

Rahul DSilva said...

Well, I am not as gifted as you with the language, to express my views clearly Sunil, but I do agree with the core message of your blog. I would still want to support AAP because, they will make sure they will have a system in place that will make other politicians,including themselves, come under the scanner, every time a corrupt act is attempted or committed! Or maybe I am expecting too much....will wait and see!!

Rahul D

Pramathanath Sastry said...

Sunil, very well written. But given how equal all parties are, perhaps some of us might vote for AAP without being its supporters? And do it while firmly holding our nose closed? That said, it is worth having a clear-eyed view of AAP, and of ourselves. Pramath

Debraj Chakrabarti said...

I don't agree with this.

It is a great insult to the people of India to suggest that they are habitually corrupt and therefore deserve a corrupt government. It is the arrogant, uncaring and deeply corrupt ruling class which has left no option for the people. Most of the bribes that are paid by ordinary people are simply to get the services of the state to which they are entitled, but which the netas and babus will not deliver unless their palms are greased. Whenever the system is trusted and deemed to be basically fair, Indians show exemplary civic uprightness. Compare the zeal with which people participate in the electoral process, with their distrust of police and courts.

The reason behind corruption and crime is the lack of accountability, and this is what AAP is trying (sometime comically, sometime dangerously) to tackle. In this imperfect world, we should opt for the merely good over the unattainably perfect.

Nobody seems to remember that one of the SHOs against whom AK launched his dharna allowed the in laws of a young woman to flee (apparently in return for a bribe) after they set her on fire.

Also, (I may be wrong) I have not seen anywhere in the media any investigation of the identities of the African women in the center of the ruckus in Delhi, of why they were in India and what they did for a living. In the absence of such information, and the fact that the local residents have previously complained about them to the police, I am inclined to believe that Somnath Bharati's allegations against them might have an element of truth. This of course is no justification of vigilantism.

Mukhi has not probably been on a train for a long time. Since the introduction of computerized and especially Internet booking, the possibilities of corruption in train bookings are rather limited. It would be completely eliminated, if the prices were adjusted to market values. Who has heard of corruption in the sale of flight or bus tickets?

Finally, (I am sorry to go ad hominem but I must), it seems that the author is projecting his own low moral standards on all Indians. In another forum he made it clear that he saw nothing wrong in the unaccountable practices relating to faculty hiring practiced at many Indian centers for higher education and research. His tantu jal or indrajal is not going to fool me!

Gautam said...

I agree, Sunil. Well put.

Pramathanath Sastry said...

And perhaps, one ought to remember that Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Pramath: I agree with you. I too might vote for AAP without being its supporter. My "discomfort" with them is, at least partly, out of disappointment that they were not what I hoped they might be. So I'm not hoping for them to vanish, but rather rooting for them to grow up and think more clearly.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Debraj: I agree with everything you say, except the phrase "I could be wrong". No one would believe such a thing about you!

Pavan said...

I agree that culture does play a very critical role in breeding corruption, and our's is no exception. Being aam means to be average. Just ask who wants to be an average...
aam admi is "aam"bitious too...

Coming to AAP, it reminds me of a quote by Alexander Pope: "Not to go back is somewhat to advance, and men must walk, at least, before they dance."

May be AAP should first walk before they dance.


arayofhopeinindianpolitics said...

Respected sir
I would like to convey some of my thoughts relating to your blog post :
(i) I agree with you that a fundamental solution to the problem of corruption should address the root cause of it and target at improving the moral values of the citizens. However, no matter how many such steps are taken there would invariably be a fraction of citizens and politicians who would indulge in corruption. I think that a strong anti-corruption law which promotes a fair inquiry into cases of corruption is indeed needed. I am unable to see how demanding a strong Jan-Lokpal bill can be a part of the problem (provided that it is carefully drafted to minimize potential misuse). So my take on this matter is that we need both : upliftment of moral values of citizens and laws promoting fair inquiry into cases.
(ii) I would like to bring your kind attention to the fact that recently Sh. Arvind Kejriwal has urged the auto drivers to not overcharge commuters or misbehave with them. Please see the news article here
Not only that the govt. has decided to train auto drivers on behaving well with commuters
(iii) I fully agree with you that politicians are not the sole class of people who are corrupt. However another issue to note here is that the present system discourages honest people to jump in politics. I believe that an honest person would perhaps face much more problem if he jumps into politics than let us say academia or self-employment. No political party other than AAP has been discouraging criminals to join their party. My view is that since politicians are the ones who govern us, a lot of improvement in governance can be achieved if good people are brought into politics. One way (most effective and the long run solution) is what you suggest : moral upliftement of citizens and another (ad-hoc solution and a necessary intermediate step) the AAP way : is to try and make an atmosphere where good people can come into governance. I really admire AAP's decision to perform intensive background checks on the applicants for election tickets and invite feedback about them from public. AAP has been committed to keep up its promises in this regard, please do see the Rajouri garden story in this article
(iv) I would humbly disagree that the raid was intended to convey the message that the illegal activities are not “Indian” habits and are solely due to foreigners. Let us just note for our information that some of the allegations for racist comments by Somnath Bharti were perhaps (I am not sure) were made by Harish Salve who is the lawyer of opposition in the DLF case. Sh. Kejriwal has very clearly emphasized that foreigners are our respected guests and that he is concerned about their rights. Please see the interview text here
(v) Somnath Bharti did make inappropriate statements relating to some political leaders & media. He has apologized for the same. However I have not come across any evidence that he made any racist comments against Africans. In an interview to Rajdeep Sardesai, Sh. Kejriwal mentioned that Somnath Bharti has denied making any racist comments. Further the demand for raid was apparently justified (NDPS act & ITPA sec.15 search without warrant). It was the duty of Delhi Police to get women officers and get the search done. In my understanding and opinion, investigation of foreigners does not qualify as anything inappropriate provided done in accordance with the regulations. Contd ...

arayofhopeinindianpolitics said...

Contd. from previous comment ...
(vi) I have not myself watched the videos released by AAP. It is unfortunate and condemnable if they released the videos with inappropriate content. However I could not find any other news article claiming that the uploaded content was of an inappropriate nature. Further the article here claims that an AAP spokesperson said that the videos were released not to justify AAP's actions but so that the people can decide for themselves. Their intention might not have been to claim that the videos proved the crimes but perhaps merely that the videos were consistent with the allegations of illegal activities.
(vii) Finally I would like to mention one of many best things that I like about AAP : They listen to us and are happy doing so. I myself have emailed them twice, once for a suggestion on their website and they responded on both the occasions (though with some delay which is understandable). Sir, I think that a knowledgeable and experienced intellectual like you can contribute to the society by communicating your healthy criticism and suggestions to AAP say by writing a blogpost and emailing a link to (or perhaps other parties if the suggestions are meant for them, but I am not so sure that they would listen). I am sure that AAP would be grateful and will consider making necessary changes in their policies.
I agree with you that unfortunately it has almost become an axiom that 'India's leaders wallow in an evil stew of dishonesty, corruption and criminality'. However I am hopeful that AAP will sustain itself while continuing to stick to its principles and will make it apparent that the axiom becomes inconsistent with party's existence.
Sir, while I try to take due care in forming my opinions, due to the limitations of my experience and intelligence some of the arguments I am making may be silly or illogical. As I am an ardent AAP supporter, my opinion may be biased. Further, though my intention is to have your (and other readers' of your blog) attention to some clarifications by AAP and express my disagreement with you in a humble manner I request you to excuse me for any possible unintentional impoliteness or disrespect despite my due care. Thanking you, With respect, Yours sincerely, Ishan. Ishan Mata.

ghonada said...

What I am going to write is not really relevant to this particular blog post, but as this blog seems to be a place where like-minded (politically) people assemble let me post the following link:

This link contains the documentary called "No Fire Zone" about the end of the civil war at Sri Lanka. The documentary has been banned in India. It was made by Channel 4 of UK. I have not watched it yet, so I shall not comment on the contents. But as a principle I am against censorship of any kind and this documentary is of particular relevance to the Indian subcontinent.