Friday, 27 December 2013

Aam Aadmi Arvind Kejriwal

In a decade or two from now, if he does not make a serious mistake, and given a fair wind of good luck, Arvind Kejriwal may well come to be seen as the man who put India on the path to greatness.

A year after formally launching his Aam Aadmi Party he has won an unprecedented victory in the Delhi State Elections. With 28 out of 70 seats he may not have a majority but the upset caused to India’s usual vote-bank based electoral calculations is justification enough to kindle genuine expectations ( rather than mere hope) of sustainable change in the decrepit state of governance in India’s body politic.

Is it a flash in the pan? Is it just a protest vote? Time will tell but for now a lot will depend on delivery of electoral promises. No doubt the mainstream parties will do their best and their worst to discredit an AAP led Government in Delhi.If hope is not to be snuffed out even before it has begun then AAP will have to learn a few simple lessons in the art of survival while delivering policies based on the simple but intractable idea of good clean honest and open governance.

1. Running a government is very different from mounting a campaign. In a campaign you speak to people who want you to win and as long as you can attract supporters your job is done. In government you have to deliver, and if that involves changing the existing system then you’be better take heed of what Machiaveli said:

there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.

Delivering policy objectives when in power means making choices, and there will always be someone who feels hard done by. Doing the right thing and then explaining to the disgruntled why they can’t see the benefits is the best you can do.

2.  It is better to under-promise and over deliver. Two or 3  years from now it may well  be the case that you’ve delivered 7 out of 10 campaign promises. But if your detractors can argue that the 3 you’ve failed to deliver are the ones that matter most, then your term in office can come to be seen as a failure. In the new system of transparency of information that AAP is promoting there will be no hiding place. So its as well to manage expectations, even as you prepare to deliver promises.

3.There is nothing Aam or common about being in power. It’s a privilege and the office is both high and important.  So I don’t understand Arvind’s Kejriwal’s apparent refusal of an official residence, car and security. Think ahead, what will happen when the Mayor of Shanghai, say, comes calling on an official visit. Besides, an emphasis on being a humble commoner can come to be seen as mere posturing. The office is more than the individual occupying it and so long as you can keep the two separate its not only okay but even essential that the symbols of power are wielded to good effect. 

4.  Use the power of the market to deliver your policy promises.  This is always better than trying to employ and directly control the staff you need to deliver services. And spend the time to develop intelligent solutions that achieve more than one policy objective. A case in point is electricity tariffs. AAP’s promise to cut the electricity tariff by 50% is flawed because it tries to do what markets do best. It would have been much better to have promised a policy goal of ‘affordability’ by the bottom 25% of the population. To achieve this AAP would not have needed to either blame the distribution companies or do an expensive audit of their accounts. Simply  make it a condition that the first few  essential units of power must be charged at a price that the bottom 5 or 10% can afford. After that let the market decide the price. By having a graded tariff that allows companies to charge more from more prolific consumers, AAP could have at once placated the environment lobby, met its real objective of making power affordable, and achieved the progressive goal of the rich subsidising the poor.

5. Resist the superficial attractions of political vendetta. It may be appropriate to try and right past wrongs by the erstwhile regime, but investigating leaders of the last regime sets the wrong precedent.  Commissions of enquiries and probes by judges or the CBI have never delivered  justice. If anything they lead to litigation, acrimony and counter accusation and counter probes. The previous regime has been judged by the electorate and kicked out. That is verdict enough.

Start as you mean to go on and make a clean break with the past and announce a set of measures to ensure all future spending decisions are free of the taint of corruption. Publish details of expenditures incurred and of contracts awarded. Better still insist on all cabinet members and senior officials declaring their assets to an independent body in advance of the new government taking charge. It is better to prepare for the next election battle than to refight the last one.

6. Finally, coalition is not a dirty word. Politics is the art of the possible, and sometimes nothing is possible without allies. The key is openness and transparency even when deals are struck that you would rather have done without. It is important for Arvind Kejriwal to keep in mind that the real change he has wrought thus far lies in the hope he has kindled that a better cleaner, more responsive form of politics is possible. To set that hope firmly on the path to realisation he doesn't have to do everything at once. How he governs and the value systems he embeds is every bit as important as the results he achieves on the ground.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The criminalisation of homosexuality

The decision by the Indian Supreme Court on 11 Dec 2013 to uphold the constitutional validity of Sec 377 of the Indian Penal Code – and thus once again criminalise consensual homosexual acts -  has reopened the debate in India and elsewhere.

The judgement overturned a 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court that Sec. 377 of the Indian Penal Code was discriminatory against the gay community. It was for Parliament to decide, the country's highest court said, not for judges to make the law. Surprisingly for a Court that has taken an activist position on many other issues, on this question it decided to go conservative. 

Sec 377 of the IPC violates an important liberal principle of law making and for that reason alone it needs urgently to be repealed.

Law making
We need laws in order to regulate society and the economy. These laws are broadly of two sorts, they are either restrictive in some way, i.e they proscribe certain acts and activities that we might want to do; or they place a duty on us to act in a certain way under a given set of circumstances. All restrictive laws – don’t drink and drive, don’t assault someone and so on – inherently interfere with our personal liberties - our freedom to go about our lives as we see fit. Two essential criteria for a restrictive law therefore are: 1) We must be satisfied that any personal liberty that it constrains is justified by the protection it affords to someone else’s rights. As a corollary, no individual liberty should be infringed by a law unless the exercise of that liberty hurts or harms someone else or infringes another's legitimate right.  2) that by making the law and by the process of implementing it there is not likely to be more harm than good. Personal prejudice has no place in deciding which laws to enact.  

Does Sec 377 measure up?
Sec 377 fails on both counts. It infringes the rights of homosexuals in a dramatic manner by  making  it a criminal act to have consensual sex. But does it meet the first criterion? Does it protect someone else’s rights? Clearly so long as same sex relationships are both consensual and confined to the privacy of the bedroom, it is hard to see how anyone’s rights are infringed. Right wing religious groups that appealed to the Supreme Court would argue that they are offended by what they regard as unnatural sex.

This is a fundamentally flawed argument: there is no such thing as the right not to be offended.  So long as the act that offends takes place in the privacy of someone’s bedroom then any offence taken is entirely in the mind of those outside it. There is good reason why it would be dangerous to accept a right not to be offended by someone else’s private behaviour as a basis of state enforced legislative or executive action. Each of us has his or her own set of prejudices and while we are free to hold those views we have no right to impose them on others.  If this principle was held firmly then we wouldn’t have to give in to illiberal demands to ban books or films just because some group or other decided to take offence when they had both the choice and the right to ignore whatever it was that so offended them.

The second criterion is more nuanced. If there were public benefit or some societal good to emerge from a law that restricts individual rights and freedoms then there is an argument to be made for such a law. Legislation aimed at curbing smoking for example, or a tax that discourages alcohol or fatty food consumption fall into this category.

But in the case of Sec 377, the overwhelming evidence is that a law that criminalises consensual homosexual acts actually causes a great deal of harm to society as a whole. Across India some 50 million people will be denied the opportunity to live their lives as they wish. Their sexual lives will be driven underground. They will have to pretend to be something they are not, subject to arbitrary persecution and exploitation by the police, marry against their will an innocent person of the opposite gender simply to keep up the pretense, and lead a life a fear, denial and despair. 

And there is a further twist that is peculiar to the Indian context. The fact that our police and criminal justice system are both inept and corrupt, the law is often used to threaten, harass, persecute and exploit the people. Such malafide action is helped by the fact that an allegation of engaging in 'unnatural sexual acts'  is difficult to disprove.    

Simply put Sec. 377 infringes personal liberties and causes harm to wider society. The activity that Sec 377 proscribes - consensual homosexual acts in no way harms or hurts any third party, not does it impinge upon any right of any other person. Any offense taken by unconnected people is based on a personal prejudice that they should deal with without recourse to the law.  Denying freedom to some people because of a baseless prejudice held by a vocal segment of society is a step nearer to the state pandering to bigotry.

India’s Parliament should act to free its people from a law that has been overturned in the country that introduced it 152 years ago when it ruled India as its colony.