In an interview, just before Delhi elections, Arvind Kejriwal, said Indians were “first-class citizens who were victims of third-class governance”. I have been ruminating over that statement; here are the fruits of my musings.

First and foremost, I think Kejriwal is using shorthand to boil down a critical issue into an understandable sound-bite. To me it appears as much of a dumbing-down as “Two legs bad; four legs good” slogan used in Animal Farm. In any case, what was he to do? On the eve of the elections that he contested, he could hardly have called voters dishonest!

Second, I am assuming that first-class means ‘good’ and third-class means ‘abysmal’. This clarification is also for those who are not familiar with Indianese. In Europe, third-class rail carriages are quite nice actually.

My musings went in three directions

  1. Are Indians good citizens in India?
  2. Are politicians in India offering good governance?
  3. Are these two issues interconnected?

Are Indians good citizens in India?

There are many ways to define what a good citizen is. I will use a couple of definitions. The first by Theodore Roosevelt who said, “The first requisite of a good citizen is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight.” Joel Westheimer has defined good citizens of three types  (1) the personally responsible citizen (who acts responsibly in his community, (2) the participatory citizen (who is an active member of community organizations and / or improvement efforts) and (3) the justice-oriented citizen (who critically assesses social, political, and economic structures to see beyond surface causes).

Whatever the way we look at it, the majority of Indians will fail the ‘good citizenship’ test. Let me look at some metrics

  • In Financial Year 2011-12, only 2.89% of Indian citizens filed tax returns (compared to 45% Americans who did). I do not for one moment believe that a country that has been growing at more than 5% for over 20 years now has only these many tax payers. The others are either evading brazenly or slipping through the inefficient net. What happened to the Great Indian Middle Class?
  • A look around any middle-class (I am using this as a short hand of educated, reasonably well off citizens) neighbourhood shows little or no interest in any community related actions. In the apartment complex I live in few even bother coming for the Annual Meetings though many complain when the committee (volunteers all) fails to buy tanker water on time! I am sure the story is the same everywhere.
  • Voting percentages are abysmal especially in urban areas where the educated / elite live.
  • The educated middle-class, in most cases, cares hugely about rule of law – when applied to someone else. No one protests when slums are demolished but when middle class neighbourhoods face the same issue, that is when the fur flies. I have seen this myself in Mumbai, Delhi, Thane, Nagpur and Surat. This article carries a recent case from Mumbai where the wealthy are involved.

I am not even going to mention civic sense, politeness, courtesy and respect of public property. There is no need to. Interestingly I had to add “In India” to the first question because I find that in most other settings, people of Indian origin make excellent (model in fact) citizens. Sadly, not in India.

Are politicians in India offering good governance?

Governance is a process by which decisions are taken and implemented. Good governance implies that these decisions are inclusive, just and far-sighted.

The collective political class of whatever stripe and colour, fails this test. Governance has been reduced to, what Hacker described in Yes Prime Minister, “all about surviving till Friday afternoon”.

Most decisions are knee-jerk, populist and based on either cynical vote-grubbing or realpolitik.

Some of the excellent decisions have been forced on governments by foreign bodies (opening of the economy in 1991) or local civil society (Right to Information Act – which was a brilliant, if rare, example of civil society acting as ‘good citizens’)

I cannot think of any political leader in the national / regional space today, who can be called a Statesman.

Are these two issues interconnected?

These two issues are not only connected, they are intertwined.

  • Because educated citizens don’t care beyond themselves and short term gains, governments & political leaders do not care to deliver for society & think about longer term strategic interests. When you can buy votes by building a cement road in a village, why would a MLA bother with building a school?
  • Because the poor are too busy fighting to survive, they can be appeased by a few sops. Interestingly no government has let the poor reach a stage where they have nothing to lose by revolting. They have been kept hopeful by a few sops that keep them alive but do not help them climb out of poverty. Here I am talking of the very poor.
  • Because educated people think that their engagement in governance is beneath them, we are faced with choices between the bad and the terrible. Noam Chomsky is of the opinion that voting for the lesser of two evils is a very plausible & sensible action, but in reality it makes for terrible long term governance.

The first two represent a vicious circle. They feed on and strengthen each other. I do not think that “citizens-good: politicians-bad” is a true representation in India. There are no victims here, only perpetrators. In fact I would say that it is more a case of “Yatha Praja:Tatha Raja” (The citizens get the king they deserve) and vice versa.

Hopefully with the AAP doing well in India, there is hope for democracy as I argue here.