This Article is From Aug 26, 2014

The Problem with AAP's 'Mohalla Sabhas'

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha)

Stanley Baldwin, the 1930s British Prime Minister, infamously said of the UK press that they exercised "power without responsibility, the privilege of the harlot down the ages". The Aam Admi Party's mohalla sabhas are in danger of going down that path.

Don't get me wrong. I am all in favour of mohalla sabhas and entirely at one with the AAP in holding that the single biggest lacuna in our 66-year old democracy has been the failure to move from representative to participatory democracy. However, the idea is far from new. Back in 1931, when Gandhiji was asked what his "dream" was for independent India, he replied, "I shall work for" - note, not "dream for" - "an India in which the poorest will feel it is his nation" - emphasis added to draw attention to ownership as the key to empowerment - "in the making of which he has an effective voice" (emphasis again added to rub in the importance of "ownership" and "voice" as the necessary precursor of effectively controlling one's own destiny).

The overwhelming tragedy of Indian democracy has been that the ordinary people, the aam admi, do not believe themselves to have any ownership of the political process other their once-in-five years vote, and to be totally deprived of a voice, let alone an effective voice, in the running of affairs that impinge most directly on their everyday lives.

Recognizing this a quarter century ago, Rajiv Gandhi sought the transition from representative to participatory democracy as the centre-piece of the 73rd and 74th amendments that brought grassroots democracy as a Constitutional right to our villages and mohallas by founding the revolutionary new system of inclusive governance for inclusive development in Gram sabhas in rural India and "Ward sabhas" in urban India to whom the elected representative local authorities would be both responsive and responsible.

The AAP's mohallas sabhas are, however, Constitutionally, legally and technically flawed. The AAP's mohalla sabhas are a mob who have not elected their ward councillor or even their MLA. Who are they going to hold to account? It is all very well to pose a very broad question to the AAP's own supporters at mohalla level - such as whether or not to form a government in NCT Delhi with Congress support - and hold a kind of referendum in which the candidate, regulator and decision-maker are one and the same, namely, the AAP. But the minute real questions of governance arise, who is going to appear in the dock before the mohalla sabha? The ward councillor? But most ward councillors do not belong to the AAP. Indeed, as of today, none of the ward councillors belongs to the AAP - principally because there was no AAP when the last municipal elections were held!

Then, if not the ward councilor, the MLA? Does the NCT Delhi legislation endow MLAs (of the AAP or other parties) - all of whom have only legislative powers - to exercise the executive powers required to substantively redress public grievances? Will the AAP minster present himself in person before 2000 mohallas? And even if he does, does the legislation allow the NCT government to encroach on the authority devolved by law to the municipal authority?

Moreover, as no Municipal Councillor is of the AAP, and all NCT Delhi ministers are, who is going to carry the can of redressal? Why on earth should the councillor surrender his legal authority under the Constitutionally-sanctioned Municipalities legislation to a minister who, by law, has no jurisdiction in the realm of NCT Delhi's four municipal councils? Also, why would a municipal official listen to an AAP minister who has no authority over the official even as objections rain in from the Councillor who does? Whom would the Municipal Commissioner be reporting to? The BJP head of the Municipality, as required by law, or the AAP minister whom the law has not entitled to hold responsibility?

None of this is insuperable. They can all be solved. But for such a solution to be found, Arvind Kejriwal and his cohorts would have to get off their oratorical high horse and get down to the nitty-gritty. The papers say Digvijaya Singh's Secretary, Panchayat Raj, when he was Chief Minister Madhya Pradesh, is being drafted by the AAP to help them move from romantic notions of mohalla raj to real grass-root governance. I wish them luck, but make bold to suggest that they look at the five-volume, 1500-page report submitted last April by an Expert Committee I had the honour to chair. I would be delighted to present the Aam Admi Party a copy - if they would have the humility to accept that they do not have all the answers.

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