By Paolo von Schirach
December 29, 2013
WASHINGTON – The Financial Times reports about the high hopes and expectations created in New Delhi by the election of an outsider, Arvind Kejriwal, as chief minister of the New Delhi state government. Kejriwal is the leader of an anti-corruption movement that surprisingly jellied into a new AAP party whose name means “Common Man”. This stunning political upset is highly unusual in India, a country in which traditional political parties are deeply entrenched.
Kejriwal electoral success can be explained only by taking into account the voters’ simple desire to have a more accountable government. And here is the issue: “Accountability“. If we think about it, accountability (and other issues directly tied to it, including honesty, transparency, fairness, fair play) is at the foundation of a healthy democracy.
To the extent that voters feel that their elected leaders are not accountable, to the extent that they feel that officials run the government as a private domain, abusing power and engaging in corruption, then that particular society no longer has a real democracy. It may keep the formal institutions, including elections at regular intervals, but the bond of trust between those who govern and the governed has been broken. As a result, the system lost its legitimacy. Nothing good comes out of a society run in this way.
“Consent of the governed”
Thomas Jefferson put it well, long time ago in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Governments are established to secure the enjoyment of individual freedoms. And they derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed“. In other words, those in government have to make sure that they keep the trust of the people who elected them. Hence the duty to be accountable. By this definition of the proper relationship between elected leaders and citizens, governments that abuse power, that engage in corrupt practices or worse, have lost the essential “consent of the governed“. Therefore they have lost their legitimacy.
No more trust
And this –lack of real legitimacy– is the great malady of modern democracies, often run by professional politicians mostly loyal to their party or just pursuing personal interests, and therefore oblivious of the precious bond of trust between themselves and those who voted them into office. All this may seem truly elementary. And yet the crisis of many modern republics, (India, Italy, Greece, Ukraine, Brazil and the United States, among others), is largely caused by voters’ perceptions that elected leaders are pursuing a personal or factional agenda, and therefore are hardly interested in securing the common welfare.
Republican government is extremely simple in principle. But in practice it is based on a deep and nuanced understanding of what it takes to carry out “the will of the people“. And please note that being a good public servant should not be misunderstood with “bringing home the bacon“, a simple and much abused way to “buy consent” and therefore re-election through “gifts”, (subsidies, fake jobs, tax brakes, entitlements), paid for by tax payers.
The right balance
In fairness, it is really difficult to find the right balance so that wise leaders will enact good policies, always keeping in mind the need to nurture the public trust. In principle, practicing accountability, honesty and transparency sounds simple enough. In practice, things get murky, as the business of running a modern state is very complicated. Still, the only way to keep republican government alive, vibrant and meaningful is for the people to really believe that their elected leaders are honest and are doing their very best.
What the Indian upset means
The emergence, out of nothing, of a powerful new political force in New Delhi is an indication of the exasperation of many Indian voters with rampant corruption, self-dealing and ineptitude. This does not mean that Mr. Arvind Kejriwal and his followers will be successful.
In fact, the road ahead looks very difficult for his minority government. But it surely means that many Indians, as well as other people elsewhere, are fed up with professional politicians who have no clue about their sacred duties towards those who elected them.