The Myth of Good People

The fact is that ‘opened-up’ India is a node in the gigantic network of global capital that does not have any moral qualms about corruption. Can Arvind Kejriwal’s rhetoric arrest this monster? 

Anand Teltumbde Kharagpur (West Bengal) 

One cannot help but admire Arvind Kejriwal. The zest with which he has made the issue of corruption to eclipse all other; the strategy under which he brought in Anna Hazare’s moral authority to bear upon it for mobilising people; the discretion with which he managed the rift with Hazare and his team; the élan with which he plunged into politics; the alacrity with which he covers up his glaring contradictions, and the untiring zeal with which he has been conducting himself may not find easy parallels. It is not easy these days to bring up any issue of collective interest to appeal to discrete individuals pulverized by neoliberal ideological crushers and has sustained it for over a year now is not a mean achievement. Whether one agrees with him or not, he has already made a mark on the political horizon of this country, exposing a crucial aspect of the democracy deficit of the system.

How did he do it? Will he be able to scale up politics now that he has plunged into it? These are some of the questions that pertinently arise in this context. 

India is afflicted by many serious problems such as poverty, galloping inequality, malnutrition, undernourishment, infant mortality, disease, sanitation, drinking water, food, education, farmers’ suicides, increasing criminality, and so on, that are directly hitting four-fifths of its population. None of these, however, could have possibly clicked with Kejriwal’s people. It is indeed a strategic masterstroke to choose corruption as the problem and jan lokpal as its solution.

It is not because corruption is a pervasive problem that hits most the low income groups. It is because corruption is associated with the political class and the State structure, which are tendentiously abhorred by the market-loving middle class in the neoliberal era. If it had been left at that it would not have been as attractive. The balancing magic is done by the simplistic solution proposed in the form of the jan lokpal.

Neoliberalism, characteristically, has quick fixes to any problem. It conceives everything in discrete terms, isolating it from its systemic relations. Naturally, discrete entities will be sans their complexity. When Margaret Thatcher said that there was nothing like a society, that there were only individuals and their problems, she was basically explicating the neoliberal ideology. The problem of an isolated individual is simply reduced to his lack of competitiveness; the solution is that he could strive harder.

The solution of the jan lokpal to the problem of corruption is a similar quick fix solution within the prevailing frame. Thus, Kejriwal had both, the problem as well as solution, both directly appealing to the burgeoning neoliberal middle classes.

Another aspect of the appeal of the issue of corruption is that it is seen as a distortion of the market logic, a blot on ‘Brand India’ in the global market and a serious impediment in making India a ‘superpower’. The hike of GDP growth during the liberalisation period, beyond the humiliating Hindu rate of growth over the previous four decades, had enlivened the confidence of these people in India. They would hate to see corruption marring their prospects. After all, as a class, their own interests are entwined with its rise. It is this construal of problem and solution well within the prevailing system, threatening their own universe, that caught the fancy of the urban middle classes and impelled them to crowd around Kejriwal. They believed that once the jan lokpal was installed, the problem of corruption would largely be solved.

Foregrounding Hazare’s messianic mascot played a catalytic role in their mobilisation. Hazare had acquired enough moral stature with his courage in taking on mighty politicians in Maharashtra on issues of corruption and with his spartan living and simple-speak. Hazare is no Gandhi but reminds one of the Gandhian charisma in appealing to people. The government expected that the patience of the middle classes would wear out and had a calibrated response; initially ignoring it, then denigrating it as a B team of the BJP, and then engaging
in discussion.

The solution of the jan lokpal to corruption is a quick fix solution. Kejriwal had both, the problem as well as solution, both directly appealing to the burgeoning neoliberal middle classes, his constituency

A clash between perceptions of the neoliberal middle classes that abhorred corruption, and the neoliberal governing class that treated corruption as a lubricant for market transactions, ensued. Discussions got stalemated. The government drew a fig-leaf of parliamentary propriety to cover up its intent and challenged Team Anna to seek the peoples’ mandate. Having publicly despised the filth of politics, the option of securing the mandate through it was out of the question for Team Anna. 

After a pause, when the movement was relaunched, there were distinct signs of wear out and ennui. The fickle minded middle class was disheartened in not seeing a solution in sight. Kejriwal realised it and re-enlivened the interests of his constituency by announcing his entry into electoral politics. Hazare vacillated and sulked.

Kejriwal respectfully distanced himself and got into action by exposing corruption of high profile people like Robert Vadra, Salman Khurshid and Nitin Gadkari, the latter, perhaps, to refute the charge of being soft on the BJP. He proposed that his party would get ‘people’ to the centrestage and elaborated that candidates would be decided by ‘people’ themselves. Even Hazare said that he would
support them.

Notwithstanding the procedural infeasibility of the proposal, one wonders from where Kejriwal would get good people as candidates. What would ensure that they stay good even after getting power? His electioneering being financed by voters themselves, the structural basis of corruption in this domain, at least theoretically,
may disappear, but not a myriad other issues.

One wonders, if three-fourths of the population of this country live off less than Rs 20 a day, will they really be able to feed his election machine? 

 The split foxed people, who heard a pro-saffron hum in Anna-speak and Ramdev-rhetoric. Did Kejriwal distance himself from it?

Although Kejriwal has proved his prowess as an astute strategist in creating a social movement, he has already shown his naiveté in comprehending the complexities of electoral politics. He does not realise that he has already got into a trap laid by the enemy, which would leave him no option other than being co-opted or getting thrown out as waste wood. The current phase of exposures of corrupt people, sit-ins or slogan shouting might thrill people so long as they remain novel, grabbing television screens, but, soon, they may lose their novelty. They may embarrass a section of the political class but not really punish it.

Can one imagine Vadra or Khurshid or Gadkari going to jail? Kejriwal must understand that they are the product of this system which will protect them to the hilt. People whom he relies on do not have any place in this system. They are there to legitimise the process of continuing loot. Come elections, and he would realise, to his dismay, that all his exposé, his agitations, will fail to overcome the vile logic of money and muscle power. Beyond that is the system’s logic that either sucks you in or discards you to the margin.  

Is Kejriwal really so naïve not to understand this at all? One who has passed out of IIT, Kharagpur, who has served for years in the Indian Revenue Service, and has had considerable public interface too as an activist for years, surely, cannot be expected to be as naïve either about the mechanics of corruption or dynamics of electoral politics. For instance, when he has focused on corruption, does he not know that it is just a symptom and not the disease?

The rottenness of our political class may be taken as an axiom, but, then, the institutional structure of our representative democracy is at its root. And what about the corporate corruption that sustains this structure?

The fact is that the post-1991 ‘opened-up’ India is a node in the gigantic network of global capital that does not have any moral qualms about corruption. The accelerated pace of corruption during the last two decades not only in India but all over the world is a testimony to this fact. Can Kejriwal’s rhetoric really arrest this monster? To the extent his campaign complements the neoliberal creed, one may see it, instead, feeding the monster.

The new motto of politician Kejriwal is I am ‘aam aadmi’ (ironically, a coinage of neoliberal Manmohan Singh and the Congress party) that came after the split of Team Anna. It is better than ‘main Anna hoon’ (I am Anna) that somehow sounded like ‘China’s chairman, our chairman’ on the walls of Kolkata in the early 1970s. The split foxed people, who heard a pro-saffron hum in Anna-speak and Ramdev-rhetoric. Did Kejriwal distance himself from it?

Maybe, yes. In view of the typical strategy of the saffron forces to create all possible options within its fold, one can’t be very sure. Surely, one thing that still remains ostensibly common is their emphasis on getting ‘good people’ to rule the country: a good man to be a lokpal, good candidates to contest elections, good men to man the bureaucracy and so on. One wonders, where to find such good people in a rotten system?

The logical answer to the question could only be Indian jails since that is the place where the proven persona non grata of the current system are lodged. Indeed, those who are languishing in Indian jails under sedition charges are a pointer that they hated the system and wanted to change it thoroughly. They could be the only good people India is left with.

Will Kejriwal and his ‘people’ think of them?   

The writer is a Professor at IIT, Kharagpur, West Bengal.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012