No, it’s not about the King. The scary little manifesto starts with the people, and ends with them.
Just as it’s the season for the older vintage in the media to complain endlessly about the juvenility and narrow short-termism in our public discourse, it’s the season for the youth to rebut portions of the discourse gone astray.
Shekhar Gupta, in his weekly column titled “National Interest,” purportedly the touchstone for new ideas in politics and governance, beautifully bashes Swaraj — “a manifesto for our times and for the anti-corruption movement.” Effectively, Arvind Kejriwal’s manifesto.
The column, at least through the viewport of my 1920×1080 monitor, starts with an image captioned, “Philosophically, Kejriwal draws inspiration from “ancient” India.” The article then starts with slanted text reading, “Don’t say he didn’t warn us. Read his scary little manifesto, in which it all starts with a king, a courtesan and their gram sabha.”
Before even beginning with the meat of the review, Shekhar attacks the scary little manifesto for being all around a king, a courtesan and their gram sabha. Such fallacies of arguments, in which, by superficially relating an argument X (swaraj) with an argument Y (an analogy with a kingdom), and then attacking argument Y so as to claim to have refuted argument X are known, quite humorously, as Straw man arguments. The nomenclature is apt — by knocking down the straw man with a whiff, one claims to have won the debate.
But more on that later.
Before anything, Shekhar praisably ignores the claims of plagiarization made by a Noida-based writer, for “what matters is the thoughts contained in the book.” We then establish another common ground, for Shekhar agrees that Arvind’s diagnosis of the problems plaguing modern India are sound in nature: governance is now rotten, rulers are corrupt and arrogant, and the usual yabba dabba.
That’s where the problems begin; Shekhar’s with Arvind’s solutions, and mine with his review.
In the next few paragraphs, amidst digressions hard to separate from the actual text, Shekhar employs a single straw man argument as his line of attack. For starters, he tries to find every flaw imaginable in the portion of the text — from historical discrepancies to the fact that the King built another castle for himself, in all probability by levying fresh taxes.
Let’s analyse the issue of being historically inaccurate. Does being inspired by a non-existent and imaginary ancient India automatically void all the arguments and propositions you’re making? Is the claim even historically inaccurate, at all? Arvind, in the copy of the book I own, at the very least, talks about us having “forgotten our own culture [of Swaraj].” If the anecdote originates from a legend, is it still not a part of our culture? Furthermore, why ridicule just the example given, for our obsession with Swaraj even dates to modern times, with the likes of Gandhi having similar ideologies. No, it’s not about the King. The scary little manifesto starts with the people, and ends with them.
Then proceeds the cherry topping: Shekhar’s description of “supremely virtuous gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas governing our villages and cities,” with bureaucracies rendered useless, and the government just depositing money into accounts of gram sabhas, serving no other purposes.
No. Just no.
AAP manifesto to focus on women’s safety, decriminalising homosexuality, http://t.co/paTt8Izb3W
— Firstpost (@firstpostin) March 23, 2014
On the issue of funds
Before elaborating on that, let’s analyse the current system. Most money is trickled down the system via schemes, attached with heavy-sounding names consisting of either ‘Gandhi’ or ‘Pradhan Mantri’. In this case, the money has to be utilized for the scheme in the manner specified by the central or state government. In the section titled “No Control Over Gov’t Money,” Arvind points at the case of a village in Orissa, where the panchayat has over 6,00,000INR as funds. Yet, when sixty-three families in the village were suffering from cholera, not a penny could be utilized to build a hospital. As a result, seven died. Is this why the State provides purpose, instituting supervision, oversight and accountability?
In some cases, though, the government has already realized the ills of the current system, and tried to present better alternatives. One example is the “Backward Region Grant Fund.” In the scheme, funds are supposed to be utilized on the wishes of the gram sabha. However, the funds are deposited to the collector, and it is he who approves project proposals and has the ultimate say on spending money. The intent behind this fund is similar to that proposed by Arvind, although the implementation is lacking. Examples of abuse of this power follow in the book, but the author believes that every Indian possesses the imagination to think of his own up. Provision of purpose instituting supervision, oversight, and accountability?
What then is Arvind Kejriwal’s solution?
The proposal is simple — each gram sabha to receive the same, if not a bit more, funds “untied” and free of associations with any scheme. Utilization of the money would only happen post approval by a clear majority in the sabha. The claim, then, that a State should provide some purpose and the people should be held accountable on how they utilize their own money is laughable. If any accountability should exists, it should be to ensure that the money is spent only post proper approval.
The fact that gram sabhas are supreme and can take independent and binding decisions, however, does not render the bureaucracy irrelevant. The state and centre are still called for, given that every decision does not lie in the local domain of a gram sabha. Furthermore, neither of the federal units require approval and validation from each gram sabha.
A trip back in time makes it clear that the Members of Legislative Assemblies and the Parliament were originally appointed the task of forming laws (hence, they form the legislature). Further anointing them the job of handling issues of daily governance was a mere side effect, and returning the power back to people is one of Arvind’s foremost priorities.
On the issue of law making
Shekhar’s view on the issue of law making is severely distorted, and even after several passes of Swaraj, I couldn’t find any validation for his claims.
What I did find was the text, “the state government will not require permission from the gram sabhas” in a section titled, “How will decisions be taken under the system of Swaraj?” The solution isn’t without its own caveats — if more than 5% of the gram sabhas propose a bill, the bill must be sent to all the sabhas. Moreover, if more than 50% approve of it, the bill has to be passed.
Expressing discontent with the proposed system, while supporting our Parliament is hypocritical — in the case of the latter non-elected representatives (Rajya Sabha) have the power to repeal laws; in the former, the people have.
Shekhar goes on to mock the inquisition of Vinod Kumar Binny; if Arvind suggests that every Party member shouldn’t have to compulsorily agree on all aspects of governance, the inquisition of a member over disagreement on how to majorly proceed with governance is completely questionable (no, it’s not; sarcasm).
The exaggeration following in the next paragraph is humorous; to realize how an editor of Shekhar’s stature can logically connect “punishment of government officials” with “violation of Constitution and/or secession” is beyond my cognitive worth. Why that requires a mocking mention of “Kejriwal’s word” escapes me too.
On the issue of majoritarianism
In what seems like a dystopic exaggeration, Shekhar makes note of the following:
- “The police will have to take orders from the mob.” If punishment of SHOs and officers on the same tier by a majority vote in the gram sabha is seen as enforcing their orders, then the author finds no issue. After all, the sole purpose of the police is service of the public, and failure to do so must have consequences.
- “The mob, or the gram sabha or the mohalla sabha, will be able to levy and collect its own taxes.” The book proposes a split of tax levied between the State and the gram sabha. Why this should be of any concern and special notice escapes the author.
- “No decision will be taken unless the “people” decide.” Such an interpretation of the concept presented in the book is harmful, and surprising. Arvind explicitly mentions throughout that the state and centre can take independent decisions, and do not require approval by the gram sabhas (except for sensitive matters pertaining to land). The power to make new laws and repeal existing ones exist with the people, but such is the spirit of democracy.
A system of governance based on direct voting does have its pitfalls in the form of majoritarianism. Shekhar presents to us the case of Switzerland, where the people banned the construction of Islamic minarets, and delayed women getting their right to vote. However, what he conveniently fails to mention is the fact that majoritarianism is a potential problem with the concept of democracy itself.
To counter the case of Switzerland, there is Sri Lanka. In a country where elected representatives take decisions — not unlike ours — the Sri Lankan Tamils have long been oppressed. Using the same to imply that democracy is intrinsically flawed and needs replacements by forms of governance where less participation is encouraged, is inanely stupid.
On moral grounds, the case where majority of the population approves of a majoritarian rule sounds less horrific and more justified, in a crude sense, than where the same decision is offloaded to a few elected representatives. After all, if you take away the rights of the people to ratify the decision in law, you do not ensure less bias and implicit safety of all minorities.
On practical and realist grounds, just like modern democracies allow for minority representation via reserved constituencies (which, on a side note, aren’t completely effective — a few seats in parliament do not guarantee that their voice is still heard), Arvind’s proposal includes safeguards for minority representation. One such safeguard is described under the topic, “Constitution of Benefit Group/Councils” — for certain decisions, benefit councils should be formed so that those who are directly affected by a particular decision of the gram sabha can influence the outcome of the voting.
Perhaps Arvind’s solution isn’t the most optimal. However, discarding the entire idea of Swaraj without even a trial is ridiculous and luddite-ist — if we had adopted the same measures during the introduction of democracy, fears of the majority voting themselves to power would’ve barred us from making any progress beyond monarchy.
On the issue of time
“All of us, the people of India, in the endless meetings of our gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas, wards and clusters, will spend all our time governing ourselves and punishing others.”
Aristotle in his treatise on Politics said, “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.” It therefore makes sense for the same man to devote time for management of the society, just as is done for management of the family, a micro-unit of the same society.
Most issues, after all, are resolved by the simple act of people coming together to discuss it.
On the issue of policy making
In the postscript, Shekhar reverts back to joining far-stretched dots with a versatile use of his imagination. Shekhar pushes through with his straw man argument, finding references in history where Vaishali lost a battle (horrifically) because “[its] people spent all their time arguing and fighting over how they should carry out their defence.”
Fortunately for India, and unfortunately for the consistency of his argument, Arvind’s book explicitly hands over only matters of local governance to the gram sabha. Matters of state rest with the state, and matters of centre rest with the centre. In such a case, policy making should remain as-is.
The concept of Swaraj isn’t as radical and revolutionary as people put it to be. It’s a simple extension of our fundamental rights.
Even Gandhi was an enthusiastic ideologue; in 1946, he said,
“A society must be built in which every village has to be self sustained and capable of managing its own affairs. It will be trained and prepared to perish in the attempt to defend itself against any onslaught from without. This does not exclude dependence on and willing help from neighbours or from the world. It will be a free and voluntary play of mutual forces. In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening, never ascending circles. Growth will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose center will be the individual. Therefore the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.”
If a modern reincarnation of Gandhi came into existence, the state of disarray that would ensue would be humorous. Most political pundits would frown at the utopian propositions, and then start labelling Gandhi as an anti-nationalist opportunist individual, whose sole aim is to topple the government and break the nation.
In the end, the decision to pick a side is yours. Or, more aptly, the decision should be yours — after all, that’s what Swaraj is about.