Kejriwal and the Politics of Revolution

Arvind Kejriwal needs to realize both the enormity of his achievement and the limits of his political ambition

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) appears to be in free fall. It lost an election in Punjab where virtually all observers believe that it held a substantial initial advantage.  It lost to a party which hadn’t savored victory for nearly four years and barely exceeded the performance of the ruling coalition widely panned for an ineffective and corrupt administration.  It only took AAP two years to turn its magnificent victory in Delhi into a humiliating defeat in the recently held municipal elections.  Worryingly for AAP, the Congress voters who had completely abandoned the party in Delhi appear to be coming back home. By all yardsticks, it was a major public rebuke.

What would give further pause to AAP supporters is the clear lack of self-reflection and self-criticism. It has preferred a bizarre tirade against electronic voting machines (EVMs) aligned with its preternatural ability to convert every disagreement into a grand conspiratorial narrative. Though it might appeal to party’s core supporters and help Kejriwal pretend that he was robbed off a victory despite his humongous popularity, it strengthens the argument that AAP is an irresponsible party. After promising a political culture radically different from the rest, it has exceeded the Congress party in its ability to deflect responsibility from the paramount leader.

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On Adityanath

The Nehruvian Republic is dead. Adityanath is the last nail in its coffin. 

The unexpected elevation of Yogi Adityanath as the next chief minister of India’s electorally most crucial state has set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. There has been much impassioned commentary ranging from those declaring Yogi as a defeat for India to those who think it is one of those rare moments in history where a civilization long suppressed finally finds its utterance. There is little doubt that Mr. Modi’s decision to trust the controversial Yogi—and it is his and his decision only—may have as far-reaching an impact of India’s future as the Prime Minister’s comprehensive electoral victory in 2014. Four points. 

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Debating Speech

A free primer on free speech

The connotations of free speech may be obvious to many but there still appears to be much confusion—deliberate or otherwise—on its meaning and ramifications on social media. Ritual platitudes to freedom to expression have sadly become a tool for the intolerant and the masters of false equivalence to question criticism it self. A primer on free speech may be useful to some. Hence.

First, as understood legally, free speech refers to the government’s ability to control expression using the coercive powers vested in it. For instance, the widely admired First amendment of the US constitution prohibits the State thusly,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Despite some initial hiccups, the US Supreme Court has interpreted it liberally widening the gamut of what constitutes free speech. In its landmark judgment in Brandenburg vs Ohio, it ruled that government can’t punish speech unless it is likely to lead to an immediate ‘lawless action.’  In multiple other cases including where popular opinion may have been against a literal application of the first amendment, the Court has sided with an expansive definition of free speech. And despite the sharply divided polity, it is significant how conservatives & liberals have collaborated to safeguard speech from the State.

In India, free speech is much more legally restricted. Militating against the liberal instincts of Ambedkar’s constitution, India’s first amendment described what it claims to be reasonable restrictions on free speech. As many legal scholars have persuasively argued, these restrictions are so vaguely worded that they afford a virtual carte blanche to the State to restrict any speech it deems problematic. The Indian jurisprudence over the last seventy years has been a struggle against the restrictive aspects of the first amendment where a often  conservative Supreme Court has largely sided with the State except for some rare victories.

Nevertheless, what this admittedly limited discussion should emphasize is that free speech discourse refers almost exclusively to restrictions imposed by the State. Speech which is legally permissible without falling foul of constitutional restrictions imposed on multiple latitudes ranging from morality to public order.

Only the State enjoys the coercive power–legally speaking–to limit speech.  And fighting back against that power within the bounds of imposed by Constitution & legal interpretations, is what truly constitutes the fight for speech. This battle is an ongoing one which is unlikely to be resolved in the near future for reasons ranging from international politics to shifting social norms.

But as this argument continues—and one hopes that the jurisprudence will always move towards greater freedom–it affords us an opportunity to define what is NOT a part of the  free speech debate. Few points.

  1. Criticizing speech is not anti-free speech. Questioning Kanhaiya Kumar’s now famous articulation at the JNU campus is perfectly compatible within the norms  of free speech. Indeed, upholding the right to express views one fundamentally disagrees with is the highest expression of free speech.
  2. On similar lines, questioning Jhanvi Behal’s criticism of Kanhaiya Kumar is not a violation of open expression either. Free speech advocates believe in questioning anything & everything; they just don’t want the State to define its limits. Much as it may surprise the Gods of false equivalence, free speech *extremists* retain the right to criticize expression.
  3. As a corollary,  Jhanvi Behal is equally entitled to ignore her critics. They have no more right to control her speech as she has to regulate their criticism.
  4. Free speech is not the equivalent to ideal or nice speech. Offensive speech is what really tests liberal democracies. For instance, criticizing Gods & Prophets—whether Mohammad or Durga—is the very essence of freedom of expression. If everyone agrees with your point—Sachin Tendulkar is one of the greatest ever—there would be no debate on free speech or its supposed limits. Defending the likes of Kamlesh Tiwari—and it is here the Indian liberals fall terribly short—is the fundamental understanding of free speech.  And that equally extends to those who believe  that Durga was a sex worker. If you can’t defend the right to express the first, it is impossible to genuinely defend the latter as well. That is an exceedingly hard task but that is precisely the reason why beyond its few true worshippers, speech remains that highfalutin book which everyone pretends to love but very few have bothered to read.
  5. Blocking someone on social media is a perfectly legitimate expression of free speech. Much as all of us wish otherwise—no one is obliged to listen to our speech. You affirm your right to free expression by articulating what you believe; you equally exercise that right by refusing to participate in its expression.
  6. No one is obliged to provide the space for you to amplify your opinions. For instance, if a news channel refuses to invite contrarian voices to its studios, it is a perfectly legitimate expression of its free speech. Now, one may judge them for refusing to provide a platform for diverse views but they are no more affronting your free speech rights as one is not by refusing to reading this piece.
  7. Bottomline: You are not obliged to listen to me; I am not obliged to listen to you. All we are supposed to follow—if we truly believe in freedom of expression —is to strongly refute the States’ demand to define its limits. Or in other words, defend vigorously speech one fundamentally finds unpalatable because in that revolt lies the secret of our own freedom.

In short, free speech is a battle against the States’ power to control expression. Admittedly that is true only in a fully functional democracies which constitutionally guarantee speech. Much too often,  free speech is curtailed by marauding mobs who challenge the States’ monopolistic expression on violence.  And that is especially true in India which remains a Republic in progress. Nevertheless, those who believe in the Indian Republic & its liberal articulation would continue to demand it do better to protect freedom of expression  without worrying about political discussions and advantages.

And without confusing—for narrow partisan reasons—what this fundamental & the most magnificent of human rights truly means.



Caste, Identity and Modern India

Rohith Vemula’s unfortunate death once again underlines the fault lines in the Indian society 

Navdeep Singh’s sleeper hit NH 10 firmly belongs to the firmament of slasher movies made mainstream by the likes of Texas chainsaw massacre. A yuppie urban couple embark on a road journey through rural India and witness a honor killing. Horrible violence follows with a highly contrived climax with its obvious nod to Bollywood escapism. And yet, there is one scene which perfectly encapsulates the multiple fault lines familiar to any student of modern India.

Meera—played masterfully by Anushka Sharma—has finally been rescued by a police officer somewhere in  rural Haryana. (Or so it appears—the exact details are irrelevant here.) He asks Meera her caste and ways much too familiar to urban India she stumbles. All she knows is her last name—before and after marriage—but her caste is something she has no apparent awareness of. The sniggering cop informs her that in an average village, even a 12-year-old could dutifully recount not only his caste but that of his neighbors as well. He helpfully adds that the conversations about Ambedkar’s constitution end once the borders of Gurgaon’s gaudy malls are breached. The other familiar India continues unencumbered by recent concerns about equality & constitutional rights. And in this dark space, Manu the ancient law giver and Ambedkar the maker of modern India, co-exist peacefully strangely reconciled despite their widely disparate views. Ambedkar may influence the prosaic aspects of life—traffic laws for instance—but it is Manu who still dictates its more far consequential parts including marriage.

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On Delhi’s Odd/Even Formula

Public policy must acknowledge the realities of the  space it operates in 

Let’s start with three arguments which are self-explanatory & relatively non-controversial. First, pollution in Delhi has reached dangerous levels and needs to be tackled on an urgent basis. By some estimates, Delhi’s air is the worst in the world & its catastrophic implications necessitate drastic measures. Second, for a city of Delhi’s size, public transport is far preferable to private vehicles.  Delhi should not only invest in further augmenting public transport but encourage policies which penalize private vehicles. Third, every system must strive to balance personal freedoms with the negative externalities such choices may impose. In the context of urban governance, possible policy measures range from increasing parking charges to imposing congestion charges. Delhi government’s decision to disincentivize personal transportation is ipso facto sound public policy.

Having said that, now let’s examine why Delhi government’s preferred policy tool to achieve its goal–the so-called odd/even formula–is still a bad idea.

First, there is no evidence that this limited measure can significantly reduce pollution in Delhi. According to a recent IIT Kanpur study, road dust is the biggest contributor to the extremely high levels of particulate matter in Delhi’s pollution. Even within the ambit of vehicular pollution, trucks and two-wheelers have a disproportionate impact vis-a-vis cars. One need not take this study at face value and other experts may disagree.  Nevertheless, can such a major decision which impacts a significant proportion of Delhi’s population be justified without sounf scientific? If the argument was to encourage public transport, why weren’t the much more numerous—and allegedly more polluting—two wheelers included? It is hard to escape the conclusion that this measure was restricted to cars because they are an easy target for false prophets of social justice

Second, has the Kejriwal government given such a major policy decision any serious thought? Some of its claims are patently absurd. A poorly edited document circulated by the government–or the AAP, it is still unclear —on social media claimed that the government  was considering every measure from shuttering power plants to introducing vacuum cleaning on Delhi’s streets. But can the Delhi government realistically shut down power plants without making alternate purchase agreements? Or can it unilaterally advance the dates for the implementation of Euro IV (Bharat IV) without extensive consultations with the Centre? So haphazard has been its decision making process that it even claimed that implementing odd/even formula will cut pollution in half ! This is simply a gold-plated example of non-serious policy making.

And that brings us to the third & perhaps the most important argument: implementation. In a huge metropolis famous for its lack of basic social courtesies & where the traffic police is perennially short-staffed, how will this scheme be enforced? Kejriwal government has already promised multiple exemptions from women drivers to CNG vehicles. Surely the list of possible exemptions will not stop: what about the physically challenged or the elderly?  Implementing odd/even formula even in a city with far better traffic enforcement would be vexing; that even the Delhi police was not consulted before such a major policy was announced is telling. The implementation challenges are so insurmountable that  it beggars the belief that anyone except the most ideologically invested would take it seriously.

To put it bluntly, no one actually takes it seriously. Not the Kejriwal government which merely wants to pretend it is doing something. Not its supporters who would have happily scorned a similar measure backed by the Modi government. The argument here is almost wholly ideological. The government must do something & since targeting car owners— the so-called elite—is politically most convenient, let’s adopt it.  As Ankur Bhardwaj correctly points out, this is the revolt of the true elites living in some of Delhi’s toniest colonies—mostly as an inherited benefit –against the less fortunate who finally are able to afford a car & must be vilified for daring to rise above their preordained status.  The modern equivalent of the caste system implemented by those ritually habituated to Khan Market & other such inhabitants of the true elite.

But you ask, surely something must be done about Delhi’s terrible pollution. True enough. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. If the Delhi government was serious, it would have conducted a pilot study restricted to the central business district & other major areas where traffic enforcement may not pose that daunting a challenge. It would have taken the most significant stakeholders into confidence particularly the Police instead of treating them as perpetual adversaries.  And using this pilot study, it would have established with scientific evidence the actual impact of the odd/even formula.  If the evidence was strong enough and the impact significant enough, it would substantially strengthen its argument that it is a policy  worth pursuing. That there has been virtually no preliminary steps—and that fails to bother  even serious policy analysts—is a clear indication of how ideological this debate is.

And finally, the appeal which one hears frequently: even if the idea is a non-starter, it is only a matter of two weeks. Surely for such a massive challenge like pollution, a minor inconvenience is acceptable—and that too for a limited amount of time. But that is a deeply flawed argument. One of the challenges the Indian state faces is attempting to establish its legitimacy especially to people who have the option to *secede from the Republic. * Public policy which is designed to fail reduces the legitimacy of the Indian state. It encourages the false argument that India story is possible without fixing the State. Unfortunately, Kejriwal and his ideological backers are merely strengthening this dangerous argument.

Some Thoughts on Bihar Elections

A magnificent victory for Nitish Kumar but it may be too soon to draw broader conclusions from Bihar 

Bihar has spoken and spoken clearly. Despite exit polls suggesting a race too close to call, the Nitish-Laloo alliance helped by a surprise act by the Congress has won a comprehensive victory. The scale of the victory is beyond what most observers had anticipated and must be dispiriting for the BJP especially after its heavy defeat in Delhi. How does one interpret these results and what do they portend for Indian politics?

First, it needs to be emphasized that Mahagathbandhan (MGB) started out with a distinct advantage in Bihar. Its social coalition was broader, more stable, and represented a greater degree of ideological cohesion. There is no natural animosity between the political bases of Kumar and Yadav—both have been forged from the crucible of Mandal politics. On the other hand, BJP has always been a party of upper castes in Bihar. Cognizant of its weakness, it has  attempted to counter the MGB by forging coalitions with the likes of Paswan and Manjhi. Unfortunately, for the party, that experiment failed quite spectacularly and there is some evidence that the BJP wasn’t able to transfer votes to its Dalit partners. Nitish Kumar is clearly popular and faced no anti-incumbency as even BJP leaders have subsequently acknowledged. Finally, this was a state election in which Narendra Modi was not on ballot though BJP tried desperately to leverage his popularity. The deliberate decision to ignore the party’s Bihari faces may have proved fatal and it is rather surprising that Modi has ignored a lesson he has enormously benefited from: In state elections, local leadership is crucial.

Reflecting the innate advantages are the figures from Lok Sabha elections where even at the height of the Modi wave, the vote share of MGB partners exceeded that of BJP and its allies by some distance. The BJP had swept the elections simply because the opposition vote was divided. The NDA’s hopes in Bihar rested primarily on two factors. First, the votes would not be transferred between MGB partners seamlessly; the sum of the parts would be less than the individual units. On surface, this is a sound assumption. However, as discussed above, it ignored the reality of Bihar politics where the contest between Kumar and Yadav has always been that of personal ambitions; their social base is naturally cohesive. Second, BJP assumed that Modi wave was virtually permanent in nature and would be enough to propel the party to victory after victory. The Modi wave has ebbed—as it inevitably must—and normal politics has been restored. Once these two assumptions were not realized, the BJP defeat was virtually assured. In summary, barring extraordinary circumstances, the MGB should always have won Bihar and its victory should not surprise any careful observer of its politics.

Second, can the Bihar model—a marriage of convenience between regional parties–extended to other states? The increasing dominance of Narendra Modi’s BJP as a central player in Indian politics may leave the regional parties with little choice but to forge coalitions in a desperate bid for survival.  Superficially attractive, this premise has two fundamental issues. First, grand alliances are extremely hard to craft and even harder to sustain as they militate against fundamental political differences ranging from ideology to personal ambitions. Despite its magnificent victory and assurances from all partners, it is unclear how sustainable the MGB would be once the immediate threat has been slayed. Indeed, the Janata parivar merger which appeared inevitable only a few months ago quickly collapsed under its own contradictions. Second, Kumar-Yadav duo are almost unique among regional leaders in their unwillingness to break bread with the Prime Minister. Beyond political compulsions and the jostling for power, there are fundamental ideological differences between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. However, most other regional parties are not ideologically opposed to the Modi government or at least willing to ignore them if the carrot dangled is sufficiently attractive. Exploiting the levers of power, it is not difficult for the BJP to attract regional players like Ajit Singh to its fold. However, it would require a willingness to share power and a certain amount of humility and magnanimity. Only time will tell whether Modi who runs perhaps the most centralized government in modern Indian history is willing to do make that compromise. However, he is too crafty a politician to let the opposition isolate him politically and replicating the Bihar model would be a more vexing challenge than perhaps most observers realize.

Finally, the road to 2019. Some analysts are suggesting that Nitish Kumar is now the core of an anti-BJP formation for the 2019 elections. This grand coalition presumably in alliance with the Congress party may include leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Mulayam Singh Yadav as well other regional players unable to come to an understanding with the BJP. There is little doubt that theoretically at least, such a coalition representing a high index of opposition unity would be a formidable force. However, historically, for such coalitions to offer  a cogent political challenge, they inevitably require at its core a party which has appeal beyond the narrow caste/geographical barriers. There is little evidence yet that Nitish Kumar can influence—let alone win an election—outside his stronghold of Bihar. In other words, such a coalition would only be viable if it is led by the Congress party which remains in political doldrums. Indeed, the Congress party has given up any hopes of emerging as an independent political player in Bihar and circumstances might force it into a similar compromise in UP.

In summary, Bihar is a magnificent victory for the MGB and particularly for Nitish Kumar who accepted enormous political risk in taking on an ascendant Narendra Modi. But the broader national implications of Bihar model remain hazy. Indeed, enormously influential Bihar results would be in shaping the course of Modi governance, they may be less instrumental in driving national politics as it appears currently.

A (tentative) Defense of Selective Outrage

Ignoring the context may be superficially attractive but meaningless

Anyone even vaguely familiar with social media knows its biggest sport: the charge of selective outrage. The point is simply this: because we may not have outraged over an incident which bears a passing resemblance to the topic under discussion, our current argument is automatically invalidated. With an assist from the technology and  an elephantine memory, this is a game which consumes much of the social media discourse.  Euphemistically described as whataboutery, it creates an endless cycle of accusation and counter-accusation which are completely meaningless in the larger scheme of things. But then we are talking about social media here.

But let’s examine a slightly different argument here. As a priori, it should be conceded that all of us engage in selective outrage. But is that always a bad thing?

The murder of two Dalit children in the state of Haryana recently rocked India. Considering the involvement of upper caste men and the overpowering brutality of the crime, it was naturally described as another sordid chapter in India’s long saga of caste crimes. That such a gruesome incident could happen in driving distance from India’s capital naturally was utterly shocking.

But let’s consider a thought experiment here. What if the Dalits had murdered two upper caste children in their sleep? (There is some evidence of long-standing caste rivalry in this case.) Would it have elicited the same outrage? Would it have captured the national headlines?  The answer is (mostly) in the negative. That is a classic case of selective outrage many on social media would no doubt triumphantly point.  But do they have a point?

Among the many contributions of polymath extraordinaire Herbert Simon is the idea of bounded rationality. Simon argued that though the human decision making process is rational, it is constrained by the limits imposed by cognitive ability, time and information. Therefore, humans engage in what Simon described as satisfying behavior.

A similar dynamic is perhaps applicable to the outrage business. In a country as troubled as India, it is simply impossible to be affected by all the horrors which blight this vast land. For instance, some estimates suggest that nearly ten people die in Mumbai every day due to the severely overcrowded local trains. But that is considered normal to the extent that it is doubtful that even regular train users pay much attention to such statistics. Or notice how ordinary Indians become eventually inured to the everyday horrors on display on her roads which completely and immediately shock the outsiders.  In other words, selective outrage is a feature and not a bug mediated by our interests and proclivities.

Having established that a personal level, outrage can only be selective, let’s explore a slightly different idea. Why do some incidents capture the national imagination? Why do some murders are highlighted and not others?

Is it because they are canaries in the mine which betray larger national faultiness, troubled histories and resultant anxieties?  And understanding that context is important and essential.

For instance, the shooting death of Micheal Brown became a catalyst for major protests as it was an indicator of the frayed relationship between the police and the African-American community within the context of larger racial history of the United States. On similar lines, the dastardly Haryana incident against highlighted that nearly seventy years since independence, Dalits continue to survive on the margins of the Indian society and caste oppression is very much a lived reality for them.

One of the frequent arguments offered against the Black Lives Matter movement is that all lives matter. True enough. And there is certainly a case to be made that no race is entirely safe from police excesses in the US for a variety of reasons—strong gun culture, militarized police et al.  Nevertheless, for historical reasons which continue to impact the African-American community—witness the high incarceration rates—it is especially susceptible to police brutality. Recognizing that historical connotation is important in understanding the protests which have roiled America and something the critiques of BLM have failed to acknowledge. If anything, the Dalit history in India is a far more gut-wrenching tale and which continues to this day despite the multiple attempts at alleviation India has made.

All murders are vile and must be condemned henceforth and prosecuted to the fullest extent of law. No dispute over that. But here’s a provocative point: A murder of an upper caste Hindu by a Dalit cannot elicit the same outrage as an upper caste Hindu murdering a Dalit. Because the former is a crime; the latter carries the burden of 1000 years of caste based oppression and privileges. To equate the two and demand that they should elicit equal national coverage is to ignore context and history. Is that fair at the individual level? Of course not but it is an acknowledgement of larger social realities.

Liberal societies privilege the vulnerable. And rightly so. Democracy is inherently majoritarian and in a country like India still struggling to construct a Republic, the danger is much higher. But what we are witnessing in India is a phenomenon where the majority often displays a strange mixture of victim hood and petulance.  The selective outrage story often is merely another chapter in that book.

Final point: at its heart, this argument is really about procedural vs substantive justice.  The conservative argument—procedural justice—was once superbly summarized by Justice John Roberts thusly: ‘The way to stop discrimination on the basis of the race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.’ The liberal approach on the other hand highlights that true equality can only be achieved by pro-actively addressing the existing inequities in society.

Plenty of arguments can be made against the Left’s approach to be sure. For one, many on the Left have used such arguments to pretty much justify Charlie Hebdo murders. The Left is also obsessed with identity to an extent it is counter-productive and often absurd (Yes, you have woman judges but are they woman of color who are also LGBT?).  And fired as it is by its sense of moral righteousness, it can only survive by making even more overwrought comparisons: Fascism arrives and disappears with the regularity of evening tides in India and US made no progress in racial justice in 200 years.

Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that we as a society have reached the stage where we are judged solely by the content of our character. Till then, a fine balance is essential for a functional society.