When in December 2013 Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party or AAP), which had been formed thirteen months earlier, became chief minister of Delhi, he achieved a rare feat. Only once before had the founder of a new party succeeded in forming a government after competing in state elections for the first time, when N. T. Rama Rao became chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1983.
The way Kejriwal has been catapulted to the center of the Indian political scene, and continues to occupy it, is revealing of his deep relevance. At a time when Indian society is reacting to pervasive corruption, Kejriwal embodies the anticorruption fight more convincingly than anybody else, including Narendra Modi, who has tried to use this battle cry against the ruling coalition.
In his forties, Kejriwal, who comes from a middle-class family but graduated from a prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, began his career at the Indian Revenue Service. He resigned in 2006 after winning the Ramon Magsaysay Award to devote his time to the causes for which he had won this prestigious prize, including right-to-information and anticorruption campaigns. This involvement in grassroots activism peaked in 2011, when Kejriwal was the right-hand man of Anna Hazare, a senior Gandhian who mobilized huge crowds in Delhi in support of the Jan Lokpal Bill, which sought to introduce a citizens’ ombudsman. Kejriwal severed his links with Hazare one year later because Hazare, who does not believe in party politics, disapproved of the formation of the AAP. Yet Kejriwal capitalized on the mass mobilizations—not least because the AAP, whose electoral symbol is the broom, was created with the aim of cleaning up Indian politics. AAP activists, who wear Gandhi’s topi, have continued to campaign on the same anticorruption platform.
In the Delhi legislative assembly election of December 2013, the AAP won only 28 seats out of 70, but Kejriwal was in a position to form a government with the support of the Indian National Congress. He immediately tabled a state version of the Jan Lokpal Bill, which was not passed in the Delhi assembly because the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) joined forces against the AAP. Kejriwal has attributed this negative coalition to the fact that his government had just registered a first information report against Indian business magnate Mukesh Ambani, something nobody had dared to do before. Kejriwal resigned on February 14 and launched the AAP’s campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
While polls and surveys do not give the AAP much hope of winning more than a handful of seats, the party may well be a real game changer and Kejriwal the man to watch in the coming years. However, except for his fight against corruption, his political views have not been scrutinized much in the media. What does he stand for?
In 2012, Arvind Kejriwal published a book, Swaraj, that did not attract the attention it deserved. This 151-page essay focuses on the issues a reader might expect from a man who has played a key role in the mass anticorruption movement led by Hazare (who wrote the book’s preface). Indeed, Swaraj targets corruption as well as the influence of the corporate sector over the government’s decisionmaking process. “Some ministers and officers have become puppets in the hands of powerful industrial houses,” he writes in Swaraj. This sentiment is in tune with the themes of the 2011 demonstrations, which mobilized primarily the urban middle class in Delhi and elsewhere. Like average middle-class protesters, Kejriwal resents the way the state misuses taxpayers’ money: “We pay taxes. . . . Our money runs their houses. Our money runs their air conditioners.”
But Swaraj is more interesting for the way it deals with village life in India, a theme with which the Aam Aadmi Party leader is not generally associated. This paradox is easy to explain. While India is transitioning from a rural to an urban society, and while the AAP is more the party of well-off town dwellers than of poor peasants, nostalgia for village life is becoming more acute among India’s urban middle class.
Yet, Kejriwal’s book is more than an exercise in nostalgia. At a time when the main players in Indian politics have removed villagers from their radar screen, as if 60 percent of Indian citizens were being taken for granted, Kejriwal is looking to the countryside for solutions to the crisis of modern Indian politics. This passion for the village has something to do with an opposition to private companies: “God alone knows how many people have lost their land under the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) scheme.” But it derives mostly from the Gandhian utopia that B. R. Ambedkar lambasted as a romantic view—Kejriwal finds in the Indian village his model of democracy.
Democracy, indeed, is his goal. Kejriwal writes that “the basic problem in our country is that there is no democracy. We want democracy.” Like Gandhi, who wrote Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule in 1909, Kejriwal does not believe in representative democracy because the elected representatives are corrupt. For Kejriwal, “Democracy should mean that for the five years after the vote is cast, the government functions according to the wishes of the people, and the views of the people are taken into account before making decisions.” He asks, “Is this possible?”
Kejriwal says it is possible because India has invented an alternative model of democracy that is, in fact, older than the West’s: “India has had democracy since the time of Buddha. In fact, it was much stronger then.” He cites Vaishali, in the state of Bihar, as home to the first democracy in the world. “In those days there were no elections and the king’s son would be king, but he had no powers. All decisions were taken in the village’s gram sabha.”
The gram sabha, the village assembly, is the cornerstone of Kejriwal’s project. He claims that villagers ruled themselves until the nineteenth century; their “complete and direct control over organizational matters went on till 1860.” By then, according to Kejriwal, the British had established a centralized bureaucracy that has remained the same since the end of the Raj—oppressive, dysfunctional, and corrupt. “We removed a British collector and in his place installed an Indian one,” Kejriwal writes. India left “the rest of the British system intact.”
Kejriwal criticizes the way the state has dispossessed villagers of their autonomy, not only because this move went against an old democratic pattern, but also because the new arrangement has been economically inefficient and socially counterproductive. On the one hand, centralized schemes born in the brains of urban bureaucrats have not resulted in an optimal allocation of resources because villagers would have known where better to make investments. On the other hand, social programs including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) have deliberately “turned people into beggars” because politicians use these programs in a clientelistic way “to garner more votes.”
Kejriwal’s ideal harks back to the Gandhian vision of the independent village, where self-help allegedly prevailed to promote local development—a vision largely inherited from Henry Sumner Maine’s notion of the autarkic “village republic.” While the gram sabha has been resurrected by the 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution, Kejriwal would like it to be given more power. His first article of faith is simple: “The gram sabha should have the authority and right to decide about issues related to the village.” To those who may object that this is pure romanticism, Kejriwal replies that there are already “examples of direct democracy in our country at present.” To make this point, he cites the way Hazare changed the face of Ralegan Siddhi, a village in Ahmednagar District, Maharashtra State, by implementing swaraj there. Kejriwal also describes the manner in which Popatrao Pawar did the same in Hiware Bazaar, another village in Ahmedanagar District.
Concretely, the reform that Kejriwal has in mind implies that the sarpanch, the head of the gram sabha, has to be liberated from the clutches of the collector and made answerable to the people. That means that the sarpanch would only be in charge of “implementing” the decisions of the gram sabha. In such a system, direct democracy would replace the idea of representation and would result in an advanced devolution of power at the local level. For instance, the gram sabha would be in charge of distributing all the money, which Kejriwal would like to see the village itself collect through a new taxation system:
We do not want any government scheme at all; we do not want old-age pension, widow pension, or NREGA, or Indira Awaas Yojna. It is better to give a village Rs 3 crore [$500,000] in untied funds than Rs 5 crore [$800,000] in tied funds. Let the people of the village meet in a gram sabha and decide how much money will be spent on irrigation, how much on education and how much on health. Let the village decide the amount to be spent under whichever head. Similarly, let the village people decide who falls in the BPL [Below Poverty Line] category. . . . The villagers should sit together and decide whether a man who doesn’t have a house will be given one.
Kejriwal is Gandhian not only because he wants villages to be the building blocks of the nation-state; he also follows in the footsteps of the Mahatma because he believes in the fundamental goodness and morality of man. Gandhi wanted to “change the heart” of India’s oppressors; Kejriwal wants villagers to behave similarly—and claims that it is possible, as is apparent from one of the anecdotes in his book. He describes how, in a village in Madhya Pradesh, elders who could have had an absentee anganwadi dismissed told the worker that “their aim was not to remove her.” Instead, he writes, “They wanted her to change.” Morality-based character building—a phrase the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh also uses but in a different sense, as a synonym of samskars—is a fundamental aspect of Kejriwal’s project: “To walk on a righteous path and fight for justice and help in the formation of a just system are the highest goals of human life. By attaining such goals, character building becomes stronger.”
Kejriwal’s discourse is clearly imbued with the philosophy of satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, a man obsessed with “truth” (satya). He is also perfectly in tune with the conflict-free approach to society that the Mahatma cultivated. For Kejriwal, the village is virtually harmonious. Caste- or class-based divisions are simply not mentioned. He urges people to come together: “The most important thing is that people should connect with one another and there should be a social relationship.” But the Mahatma claimed that India could and should remain a rural country, whereas Kejriwal is realistic enough to acknowledge India’s growing urbanization and to adapt his model accordingly.
Kejriwal’s belief that direct democracy is important not only for village India is evident from the foreign examples that he cites rather schematically, if not naively—the United States, Brazil, and, more convincingly, Switzerland—but in the last chapter of his book, he returns to his core constituency: the city. He argues that in the urban context, mohalla sabhas or community meetings—which have been officially recognized in law by the Nagar Raj Act in the same way as the gram sabhas—should be developed as urban equivalents to the gram sabhas. He points out that in Delhi, initiatives have already been launched in that vein in the municipal corporation wards of Trilokpuri and Sunder Nagri.
According to Kejriwal, a mohalla sabha should be created “by putting together 3,000 people of a particular area” and should follow the same modus operandi as the villages. He argues that all decisions of the mohalla sabha should be made collectively in the community meetings. The elected representative of the mohalla sabha and the local officials should be responsible for implementing these decisions.
Swaraj is an important book because it emphasizes the major part that rural India has to play in the country’s development at a time when India’s middle class and bureaucracy, as well as its mainstream political parties, conveniently tend to ignore the fact that a majority of India’s citizens live in villages—and that the future of the country lies there too. The book is also important because it suggests that to solve the acute crisis Indian cities are experiencing, solutions should be sought only in the traditions of village life. It is ironic that Kejriwal, who has enjoyed his most significant electoral success in the metropolis of Delhi, advocates that village India should be prioritized and its democratic tradition and potential emulated.
Swaraj is also a refreshing book because of its intransigent plea for an ideal form of democracy, free of corruption and based on self-ruling local bodies—the gram sabha and the mohalla sabha—to return to the sources of Indian democracy before it was affected by Western notions of representation and state centralization. This discourse may sound utopian. But Gandhi’s worldview was also a utopia. And, while Gandhi’s vision has never been fulfilled, India has achieved marvels in its name.
This rosy picture needs to be qualified on two counts. First, the Indian village is not as harmonious as Gandhians would like observers to believe. B. R. Ambedkar, during the debates that led to the creation of India’s Constituent Assembly, argued that:
The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic. . . . What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.1
The second caveat is that the Gandhian predicament is not good at providing guidelines for those who govern. In fact, during his forty-nine days as chief minister, Kejriwal had a tough time, primarily because his supporters were undisciplined and because he had difficulties in becoming a member of the establishment (Should he live in large official building or not? Should he travel by bus like the “common man”?). There was a contradiction between his new position and his claim to be “an anarchist.”
But the Gandhian ideology has never been a source of inspiration for rulers. It is an opposition repertoire par excellence, as is evident from its use by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s. There is no better value-based discourse or technique—including nonviolent demonstrations and fasts—for mobilizing citizens in the street. If Kejriwal’s AAP could at least force those in office to mend their ways without going as far as direct democracy, India would be making progress toward what it claims to be.
1 Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. 7, New Delhi, Lok Sabha Secretariat, 1989, pp. 38–39.