Bhupesh Bhandari: The man who hates profit
As of now, Arvind Kejriwal looks just an unhinged, though clever, muckraker. Rivals are convinced there isn’t a Kejriwal “wave" sweeping the country, and there is unlikely to be one before the 2014 general elections. But in these days of coalition politics, small parties often get to wield outsize influence on the government. So, the time has come to learn Mr Kejriwal’s views on key economic issues. Sreelatha Menon, a Business Standard colleague who tracks the social sector and has interviewed him on many occasions, has prodded him often to speak out on such matters. But Mr Kejriwal has consistently ducked the issue. Still, it is possible to get a sense of what he thinks from his interviews, speeches and the vision document he released on October 2.
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Let’s start with his attitude towards business. Veenu Sandhu, another colleague who recently uncovered in great detail how Mr Kejriwal wants to put together a large army of volunteers and sympathisers before the 2014 elections, called the India Against Corruption helpline and was told by a volunteer that no donations from corporations were being accepted because they “will then expect favours from our party". While it is true that crony capitalism is rampant in the country, this displays great mistrust in all businessmen. It is a not-so-gentle rebuke to the millions who dream of becoming entrepreneurs one day. So, if you are a businessman, you can forget that you will ever be in the good books of Kejriwal & Co. You start with a serious handicap.
More proof: in an article in The Times of India last week, Mr Kejriwal, while commenting on the recent rise in power tariffs in Delhi, said laws were being made by Sheila Dikshit (the chief minister of Delhi), Reliance and Tata (the two business groups that distribute power in the city), not the common man. “The laws favour companies and loot us. To break such laws is our responsibility," he was quoted by the newspaper. “If you want to change the system, you have to break laws." He want people to not pay their power bills to protest the 23 per cent rise in tariff that came into effect in July, and has restored two connections that were cut for non-payment of bills — in the full glare of the media, of course. Who’s the villain in the piece? Ms Dikshit, Reliance and Tata. That the tariff was raised by the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission, and that the three had no role in it, doesn’t seem to bother him. Mr Kejriwal has said the two companies have made super-normal profits and therefore there were no grounds to raise tariff — a contentious claim. Profit, for Mr Kejriwal, is a dirty word.
That sets the clock back by several decades. “I must frankly confess that I am a socialist and a republican and am no believer in kings or princes, or in the order which produces the modern kings of industry, who have greater power over the lives and fortunes of men than even the kings of old, and whose methods are as predatory as those of the old feudal aristocracy," Jawaharlal Nehru had said in 1929 (at the Lahore session of Congress). Arvind Kejriwal says in 2012 (in his vision document): “We must not allow the logic of capital, market mechanism and profit motivation to be the sole drivers of our economy." Sounds eerily similar to me. What Mr Kejriwal seems to ignore is that it was Nehru’s vision of Fabian socialism and controlled markets that gave birth to the unholy alliance between businessmen and politicians, something he is trying hard to unravel these days.
Mr Kejriwal’s vision document is flashback to a bygone era. Gandhian Swaraj is dear to him, though it had few takers even when the Mahatma was alive. “Economic and development policies," it says, “must suit our context and need. What people need must be determined by them not by experts and officials." In a similar vein, he told The Economic Times: “All the government schemes are made in Delhi where one Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a non-elected representative, makes schemes and allots Rs 30,000 crore to implement them across the villages of the country." (Last year, in the thick of the Jan Lok Pal stir, Mr Kejriwal had shown nothing but utter contempt and disdain for elected representatives.) So, the village committee (gram sabha), in Mr Kejriwal’s world, will be free to decide how to spend the developmental funds. But he has a to-do list ready for the committee: it must provide “free, equal and quality education" to all children, and run a hospital. Mr Kejriwal also wants alternative medicinal systems and “local health traditions" to be preserved. Since these are practiced largely in villages now, I believe that too will be the committee’s responsibility.
This faith in village committees, especially their ability to take informed and wise decisions, is misplaced. Having seen village life up close and personal, I can tell you these committees are a den of corruption and nepotism, and reek of gender and caste biases. Mr Kejriwal is naïve if he thinks the committees are islands of virtue. However, in another context, Mr Kejriwal is not so sure of the wisdom and integrity of common folk. Cash transfer of subsidies, he told The Economic Times, is “a very bad idea" because people “can create fake accounts". Next came the killer line: “The motive behind cash transfers is to completely demolish the existing infrastructure that exists in the country." This is where it gets really fuzzy. The problem with the existing infrastructure is that it leaks profusely, which has caused monumental corruption. Cash transfers cut out the pilferage significantly; two pilots, one in Karnataka and the other in Rajasthan, have proved this. This should matter to Mr Kejriwal, because his government could mean more subsidies — he, for instance, wants public hospitals to provide free treatment to everybody for all diseases.
I suggest CII and Ficci engage with Mr Kejriwal right away.