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A vote for instability

Publication Date : 28-04-2014


Arvind Kejriwal’s remedy for India’s political malady is a vote for instability. He believes that the defeat of  the top leaders of the Congress and the BJP  would lead to the disintegration of the two national parties. Preparations for the next general elections will then begin and that will result in a systemic change.

Kejriwal’s statement echoes the sentiments expressed by Kanshi Ram when the BSP was making its entry into electoral politics. At present, however, the party is considerably mellowed; it has toned down its virulent criticism of Mahatma Gandhi and the Manuwadi order by adopting a new plank of upper caste accommodation. It intends to campaign for extending reservations on the basis of economic categories, that would include the upper castes.

The need to actualise real democracy began with Rousseau’s critique of representative institutions in 1762, when he stated that Englishmen are free once in five years, but Britain continues to follow the five-year term for  parliament uninterruptedly even today. Many liberals like Bentham advocated annual elections and a modified version of  this is evident in the United States which witnesses a continuous process of electioneering in view of the different terms for different bodies at the federal and state levels. Even in India, the ongoing election process runs parallel to the varying terms of different state assemblies and municipal bodies. With national elections scheduled once in five years,  the Election Commission is preoccupied almost throughout the year.

Kejriwal contends that our democratic fora represents a mechanism of unprincipled compromises between political parties with the sole purpose of coming to power to meet their sectarian and personal needs and greed. This is very similar to Marx’s critique of liberal democracy. However,  Kejriwal’s general statements and lack of specific details, without any precisely formulated blueprint for the future and his advocacy of total collapse, makes his critique rather suspect as it fails to comprehend the complexities of modern times. His perception and belief structure is the philosophy of “political messianic” of democratic radicalism that JL Talmon cogently sketches in his influential work, Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. The roots of democratic radicalism lie in the 18th century belief in rationality and essential goodness and perfectibility of human beings. It is totalitarian and absolutist in nature as it believes there is “a sole and exclusive truth in politics.”

In contrast to this oversimplified and untested hypothesis, there is a larger practical alternative. Specifically, the liberal empirical attitude which accepts politics marked by trial and error and “political systems as pragmatic, contrivances of human ingenuity and spontaneity.” It is best exemplified in the works of James Madison (1751-1836), one of the authors of the Federalist Papers (1787-88). It pragmatically accepts self-interest as the primary motivation for political action viewing legitimate government as an earthly utility. Madison, following Montesquieu, defends the principles of separation of powers as crucial to the legitimate state. Unlike Kejriwal, Madison accepts factions as inevitable and the compulsion to control them as the major function of the political process. Majority rule has to be tempered with minority rights. In such an order, dissent, argument, conflict of interest and judgment are inescapable because their roots lie in human nature. This is  succinctly reflected in Madison’s statement ~ “If men were angels there would be no need for laws.”

Madison’s pragmatism prepared the ground for an order in 1787 that has endured for over 200 years, one that successfully transformed the US from a liberal constitutional state to a liberal constitutional and democratic state. In contrast, following the disruption of the French Revolution, that mirrored the politics of democratic radicalism, France has repeatedly struggled with formulating a Constitution. The uncertainty ended eventually when De Gaulie inaugurated the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Kejriwal’s prescription of instability is a recipe for infantile disorder without any form of institutionalised democracy. It ignores three basic propositions of democracy, which political parties, all over the world, according to Robert Dahi, agree and zealously defend ~ (a) inevitability of conflict of interest and articulation of wants as a matter of choice in a complex society; (b) resolution of such conflicts by majority rule but with due concern for minority rights; and (c) freedom for political parties and recognition of free competition.  For such a democratic order to materialise, one has to deal with issues concerning rights, political freedom, and the power and role of authority in a federal structure, indeed concepts  that Kejriwal totally disregards. This was evident when he lodged an FIR against Moily.

The debate on stability and instability needs to be contextualised with  electoral systems. The majoritarian parliamentary system, namely the first-past-the-post mechanism, normally leads to a stable two-party system or coalitions while the continental representational parliamentary system, notably the proportional representational system, yields  unstable coalitions and frequent elections. Because of low-key electioneering, it is comparable to a cabinet reshuffle. Normally the same people get elected again and again and the cabinet portfolios also have a remarkable degree of continuity. The point that Kejriwal ignores is in such systems, where elections are frequent, there is always a larger continuity of policy rather than disruption.  Kejriwal’s instability plank is not for continuity of policy.

Continuity of policy and predictability emerges in a system when it creates a well-ordered society with democracy along with rule of law, equity, efficiency and self-respect as its foundation. This has to be achieved through painstaking institutionalisation of rules, processes and procedures and a state structure that is strong but limited. In contrast, in Kejriwal’s world view there is not only an absence of a detailed programme for dealing with major contradictions but just one grand overarching idea of eradicating corruption as a remedy for all our ills through the Jan Lokpal  and that makes this prescription a recipe for disaster.

Kejriwal’s contention that corruption is better than communalism does not analyse the important question of its quirky manifestation in  a liberal democracy which is inherently secular, providing protection of life and property to every single Indian. There is a Sorelian streak in Kejriwal which he acknowledges when he asserts that he is an anarchist of sorts. His essential problem is that he is a man in a hurry. Though he and his followers sport the Gandhian cap,  they have completely ignored the cardinal Gandhian precept of one step at a time with detailed constructive programmes.

Kejriwal’s haste prevents him from managing his contradictory postures, ranging from referendum, decentralisation and participative democracy to elitism. Far from rooting out  the inherent instability with which he has set out, he may be instrumental in bringing about greater chaos, confusion and contradictions of an already unstable and unreformed state.

(The writer is associate professor in political science, Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi)



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