Thursday, January 30, 2014

Rahul Gandhi's PI - Is There More to it Than We See?

Rahul Gandhi (or his PR team) finally decided that after ten years in Indian politics he could give a one-on-one interview to a news channel. And interview he did give, though it was reduced to the butt of jokes both on the incoherent Rahul Gandhi and the unbelievably restrained Arnab Goswami.

To sum up the interview, you need not watch it for the entire one and a half hour of its duration. The chaos that Rahul Gandhi's mind is on display, when he tries to explain himself and whether he fears a certain political unspeakable or not. His faff like responses to questions on Sikh Riots or for that matter on why Gujarat riots were really a blot seemed rote, under-prepared. This was shocking, since it is understood that when people of considerable political importance are interviewed, the questions are usually vetted by a set of people around the person in question. To then have a ramble pass on as an interview was incredible. Even someone as tempestuous as Arnab Goswami, despite his greatest pretentions, seems uneasy for most parts of the interview by the garbled, disjointed murmurings of Rahul Gandhi.

(Courtesy Times of India)
While Congress spokesperson were trying their hard to portray the interview as a success, privately many people within the party are disappointed, and daggers have been drawn within camp Congress on who let this debacle happen. However, as per an old Telugu saying - you may scrub an elephant with as hard a brush as you like, but it will still remain black. There has been talk about him being a reluctant, unwilling politician who did not want to participate in the process to begin with, prompting keen interest on this issue even outside India. To force him to take command of the troops would mean nothing less than suicide. Does this reluctance have something to do with the interview though? After all, some observers would tell you that Rahul Gandhi is not as stupid as he seemed during the interview. This might have been taken up as an excuse by him to prepare an exit route for himself out of this world that he does not wish to be a part of at all.

Can there be more to this interview than is seen by the eye? There's another potential theory. A section of the party has been more than keen to get Priyanka Gandhi, his sister, into the mix. This was driven by the disaster of losing two out of the fifteen districts of Amethi and Rae Bareili Lok Sabha seats in 2012's UP state assembly elections. Priyanka certainly seems more at ease and comfortable with the rigmarole of Indian politics, even going as far as to revel in it. Rumour mills were spinning overtime when Priyanka Gandhi attended the Congress core committee meeting earlier this year. This section of the party that backs Priyanka and promotes her as a natural successor to Indira Gandhi's legacy see her as a hope for the party, and thus pushed hard for the Rahul Gandhi debacle, knowing fully well that it would only bolster their demands for her involvement, something she has shunned away from so far.
(Courtesy The Hindu)

So could it be one of the two things? Only time will tell. As of now, one can safely say that Rahul Gandhi has made himself the star campaigner for Narendra Modi and BJP in 2014's general elections. The Congress shall now fight the elections only to salvage some pride.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Protest to Nowhere - AAP losing focus?

Perception is a major thing in politics. You may not be doing anything constructive or visionary, but even when resorting to sheer populism a political party must be able to create a perception of having done things. After all, in the age of marketing, part of the game is about how you present yourself in the market. The only political party in India that seems to have some semblance of that is BJP, though their lemmings - sorry, I mean speakers - just go berserk on television in an effort to be seen and heard, if only for nonsense.In this context, AAP was a refreshing change. They seem more of a CFP (Camera Friendly Party) since they managed to package their appearance and wording very carefully. Notice the way Arvind Kejriwal and co. tie their mufflers - it reminds you of how a migrant rickshaw puller or resident auto driver of Delhi would cover his ears in the biting winter of Delhi.

Packaging however, is only half the game; substance revealed under pressure and the performance of the product decides the feedback on the product. There are several problems with the way AAP has been governing Delhi. True, they are trying to enact their manifesto; however, the NGO model of governance does not work in the political sphere. It is precisely due to the abdication of it's role in day to day governance that Bangladesh today sees a major disconnect between the political parties' cadre and the welfare of people. Though the NGO model of service delivery has worked significantly well for Bangladesh if one were to go by it's Human Development Indicators (no mean feat at that), political violence in the latest general elections once again demonstrated the fact that since the State does not promise these services, the political constituents are least bothered if people are affected - after all, the votes each party accumulates has nothing to do with the welfare of people at any level. The social vacuum created was appropriated by groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami, whose vigilante justice is responsible for much of the violence there. That was also the reason why accidents such as the infamous garment factory collapse happened last year; with the state conveniently looking away, relying on NGOs to fulfill the service vacuum, negligence creeps in.

Coming closer home, when a Somnath Bharti or a Manish Sisodia talks, or when the AAP's Delhi Chief Minister, instead of focusing on constructive ways to deal with the impasse, decided to come down on the road, a disconnect is highlighted. The NGO model of governance is easier to run, since you manage to incorporate the local people's consent. However, this model often tends to appropriate several glaring ills. The Khirkee Extension episode showed that while Delhi Police is no good, the behaviour of AAP's vigilante groups were nothing but racist. One Ugandan woman has also identified Bharti as amongst the people who instigated the crowds to hound her and beat her up. Having a protest at such a delicate time just goes to show why Mr. Kejriwal is still behaving like a frog in a well. Just imagine - the perception thus created is that the protest is an excuse to cover up the shenanigans of Delhi's inept ministers. Moreover, Mr. Kejriwal had to eventually compromise and climb down from his rhetorical grandstand and accept the fact that the police officials he wanted suspended will go on leave.

Moreover, the loss to the Delhi state exchequer, already being reported to be in a deficit, has been completely ignored. This is important, since all the welfare schemes that Arvind Kejriwal would like to enact as Chief Minister would need money. With a city that already pays up to 30% of taxes on everyday transactions in some form or the other, forcing the city's economy to grind down with usual dharnas will cost money to the State and the people. This will only push away the people from the government, as the ABP News survey noted in high disapproval ratings for the dharna from the very people that Mr Kejriwal said was undertaken. Singular point focus works well in an alley; however Delhi is not one but many alleys, where you have to learn to look at the larger picture. This protest managed to alienate AAP from the people of Delhi in ways even they would not have imagined.

It is true that the police is not under the city government's control. However, one has to understand that the fight for it will have to be fought Constitutionally. The exception of morality in other parties was what differentiated the AAP from other parties; however, instead of seeking a conciliatory approach till all avenues were found closed, the AAP chose to dilute it's own morality with a silly move aimed at non-existent political gains. It speaks volumes of the limitation of the NGO model and the bankruptcy of ideas when a bimbette news anchor comes up with a better idea than the ruling dispensation. There are several ways to control law and order. For instance, why doesn't the Law Minister ensure a few  things:
  1. More number of days of case hearings
  2. Coordination center with legal ministries of neighbouring states to monitor criminals
  3. Empowerment of the Home Guards under the CM?
These are vital steps to start addressing the law and order problem of Delhi. Fighting for your own militia makes no sense. Instead of shouting from the rooftops like Shiela Dixit did, the CM could well look at what he can do with the powers that he has. Stepping out of Constitutional limits should always be the last resort, not the first. While the AAP often invokes Mahatma Gandhi, they tend to forget that Mr Gandhi always used any form of civil disobedience as the last resort.Protests to nowhere achieved nothing in the end; in fact, Mr. Kejriwal has pushed himself and his party into the corner, whereby people will only view them as absolute anarchists. Instead of focusing on governance, AAP has successfully generated the perception that it is a party of loafers who have nothing better to do. Being greenhorns does not give one the license of behaving foolishly. Instead of losing focus, AAP would do good if they could put their noses on the millstones and get back to work, and conceive a larger picture for the city of Delhi, not to become a one agenda party. It would do well to learn from the reasons of the Left Front's failures in India despite its many adherents and recalibrate itself to a low-key performance oriented part, and not just a CFP.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Understanding the AAP Phenomenon in Indian Politics

There is too much deliberation and discussion on what to make of the Aam Aadmi Party in the Indian political scenario. The problem with this discussion for me lies at several loose ends, none of which are tight enough to enable the curious onlooker any sense of the party and its moorings. My own two bits of 'wisdom' stem from distant viewing of the phenomenon. I may certainly be wrong; I may be right. But it is my submission that when seen from these perspectives, AAP and what it stands for can be perhaps better understood.


AAP behaves not so much as a political party as it does like a Non Governmental Organization (NGO). This stems from the fact that most people who lead it have been associated with think tanks, NGOs and academia, and a major part of the base comprises of volunteers who have spared time for several causes close to their hearts. Even the campaign for Delhi's assembly elections ran more in the mode of a social enterprise networking with a large market. Another reason for this analogy is that they are a single clause party, always talking of corruption, much like an NGO that is dedicated solely to children's leukemia awareness. With a vision defined, the organization can be set up around it relatively easily. In the entrepreneurial literature, they would classify as somewhere between a traditional social enterprise and an institutional entrepreneurial activity without really falling under either category.

To say that AAP had a new political strategy is wrong, since all parties have done this in their historical existence, including the Congress and Jan Sangh. What separates the AAP's door-to-door canvasing however is the fact that local area volunteers continued to follow up by trying to stay in contact with the residents of the particular constituency. Also, social media was already in use by the BJP; however, AAP managed to wrest the space from them in the virtual world because of the two way interaction that occurred. Any great brand is identified by its responsiveness, and quick reaction time in a world of attention-span deficits is a great bonus. AAP has behaved wonderfully as a small innovative enterprise that is not a disruptor; rather it taps into an existing market previously unexplored. They are first movers, but will always face the challenge of retaining this nimbleness and sharp response time as it grows with size, since the zeal of innovation and the spirit of acceptance wanes with an expanding organization size. The way the party is working as of now spells only sad tidings for them, since with growing membership they are becoming more and more bureaucratic in their approach to solving intra-party differences or taking decisions. Going back to the people on forming the government and making the process highly tedious and bureaucratic symbolizes their inability to digest risk.

Another point to note is the overriding emphasis on populist measures. By and large the agenda and campaign have been negative constructs. AAP posited itself as the Opposition throughout, and voiced the people's voice, like any good brand does. It also played to the galleries by emphasizing on the power tariffs and water consumption charges. The manifesto however had little to suggest how the state would raise funds for spending money. Mere reference to improving roads and providing water to industries is not enough. The government would have to walk the tightrope of not allowing polluting heavy industries into the city while meeting the promises on jobs. Incentives to industries cannot be given by a state under a terrible fiscal burden due to populism, as Kerala's example shows. A single pony trick of corruption was good to hide the fact that much of what AAP is talking about is already in place in several states in bits and pieces. The state of Rajasthan under Gehlot's last term was seen as the lab of 'Sonianomics', the freebie, populist culture. However, people thrashed Gehlot out of power in a humiliating historic defeat. Were the corruption issue to be resolved, AAP stands on thin ice, and is bound to drown.

These are my thoughts on AAP. It would be lovely if people would talk more and deliberate further.

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