Whether the experiment unfurled by the Aam Aadmi Party — as it relates to governance — succeeds in Delhi or not, it will be watched with considerable interest, for purposes of emulation or rejection.
The reason is that the party has propagated hope in an atmosphere of deepening cynicism and suspicion of the political class which has been seen as grasping and uncaring of public concerns.
But regardless of the fate of the Arvind Kejriwal government, and irrespective of our preference or otherwise for AAP’s methods and policies, there is no denying that AAP has for the first time sought to grapple with a model of democracy that is at variance with our experience of this system of politics and governance.
The AAP leader essentially subscribes to what may be called direct democracy as distinct from representative democracy that we are familiar with. In his way of doing things, issues of public importance should be taken to local levels for acceptance or rejection by the people. He cites with approval the case of Porto Alegre in Brazil, where street assemblies (let us say “mohalla sabhas”) decide the key elements of the city’s budget.
Mr Kejriwal is also enamoured of Switzerland’s referendum model. In Switzerland, a petition signed by 50,000 people has the force of a law passed by Parliament. Mahatma Gandhi, who gave us the concept of “swaraj”, or self-rule, had thought differently.
He spoke and wrote of village-level governance and developed a certain model of the equation between agriculture and industry. But he did not reject representative democracy, where voters in a constituency elect one person out of several to represent them in the state or national Assembly. The AAP leader gives the impression that representative democracy should be at a discount.
Also, Mr Kejriwal’s “swaraj” is not Gandhiji’s concept that goes by the same name. The two need not be pitted against one another, of course, and the AAP leader’s vision can evolve. In the Indian setting, the kernels of the ideas of both Gandhi and Kejriwal have been incorporated in the shape of panchayati raj and local self-government institutions. But these have not performed with flair. Political parties have made no effort to oversee the functioning of democracy at the lowest level.
Mr Kejriwal is silent on his view of the bureaucracy. It is hard to conceive that AAP’s street democracy can help us decide questions pertaining to the interest rate, levels of taxation, the nuclear debate, the direction of relations with other countries, to name a few issues, even if it can effectively deal with strictly local concerns.