What works for an NGO won't work for a government

Last Updated: Sun, Jan 12, 2014 04:18 hrs

The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party under Arvind Kejriwal has certainly caused a considerable outpouring of hope and expectation. Its radical promises regarding decentralisation and accountability seem seas apart from the regular, slightly musty mainstream political parties.

Mr Kejriwal's break with politics-as-usual, it could be argued, comes from his roots in India's various noisy and activist non-governmental organisations (NGO), with their traditions of people's meetings and open consultation. The ossified mainstream parties, the argument continues, maintain an excessive distance from the demands of the people they govern.

Mr Kejriwal on Saturday ran up against the limits of direct accountability. Having announced a public "durbar" outside the secretariat of the Delhi government, now run by the AAP, Delhi's new chief minister and his cabinet found themselves at the centre of a maelstrom, as thousands of people turned up to express one grievance or another. Halfway through, Mr Kejriwal was forced to retreat to his chamber inside, and the police had a hard time containing the disappointed crowd.

The sooner Mr Kejriwal figures out that what works for a small NGO won't work for a government responsible for millions of people, the better. True, that admission will be tough. He might have to acknowledge that some aspects of political life - the structured access, the police security - are products of real pressures, and not entirely of the VIP culture he otherwise attacks.

Yet what is direct accountability in an activist becomes tokenism in a chief minister. Note that many political leaders do in fact have "durbars", or intimate public meetings, like Mr Kejriwal suggested. But, frequently, there is some structure to the interaction - not the setting up of desks by a secretariat wall.

The transition from an activist to a responsible and accountable politician is not easy. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who spent a life in opposition before being swept into power in 2011, took some time to find her feet. Months into her tenure, she was still leading protest marches on police stations that her own home ministry controlled. Mr Kejriwal should learn from Ms Banerjee's experiences.

There is little reason to suppose it will happen soon, though. In another recent action, Mr Kejriwal said that the dues of those who had not paid their electricity bills in Delhi over the past months would be waived. Remember that last year, Mr Kejriwal as an insurgent outsider had called on Delhi's people to tear up their bills. Yes, of course, what he has announced now as Delhi's chief minister is populist politics. But, more to the point, it is unfair to all those who paid their bills quietly or out of fear.

As an outside activist, Mr Kejriwal can insist people not pay their bills and support them if they don't. But, once in government, Mr Kejriwal must serve all Delhi's people, not just those who didn't pay their bills. Just like he must respond to the grievances of all those who have them, not just to the problems of those at the front of the line outside the secretariat. Otherwise it is the very definition of tokenism.

What Delhi needs, no doubt, is an institutional structure that responds to the many genuine grievances that were no doubt being expressed outside the secretariat on Saturday. An institutional structure is more than a few desks on a road. It would involve a grievance redressal bill, as some states have implemented; administrative reform to increase accountability; and a quicker turn-around time on complaints.

That is the hard work of government that the voters expect Mr Kejriwal to do. Superhero stunts like standing on a wall to express how much he feels his people's pain can't substitute for solid institutional reform.

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