Wednesday, 8 January 2014

AAP’s volunteers shouldn’t be Youth Congress redux

`This is like a return to the Emergency days.’ That startling comment came from my mother yesterday as she was reading the newspapers. She was referring to this report in the Indian Express Newsline which said that the Delhi health minister Satyendra Jain has dismissed the existing hospital management societies, Rogi Kalyan Samitis, and that Aam Aadmi Party volunteers, with their trademark caps, were conducting inspections and helping out with administration in government hospitals, apparently without formal orders.
The RKSs were headed by the local MLA and comprised representatives of hospital administrations, doctors, civil society members and patients. They were part of the National Rural Health Mission eco-system and were the interface between hospitals and the public. Jain said the samitis were defunct and that he had received a lot of complaints of corruption and malfunctioning.    
Three days earlier, Delhi’s education minister Manish Sisodia had announced that volunteers would be recruited to monitor government schools. They will visit government schools and monitor toilets, water supply, cleanliness and presence of teachers and report their findings to the education minister every day.
So what’s all this to do with the Emergency? Apparently during those dark days, similar volunteers from the Youth Congress would go around `checking’ various things – from the working of government babus to the number of guests and the quantity and kinds of food being served at weddings (those were the days of guest control order). Needless to say, bullying and muscle flexing was common and the `volunteers’ would often be `pacified’ in various ways. 
Going by the Indian Express report, the muscle flexing may have already started. Hospital administrators and doctors are complaining about the AAP volunteers barging into labour rooms and calling doctors out of surgeries to complain and threatening filing of Right to Information (RTI) applications.
One needs to allow for a measure of hyperbole in these reports. Let’s face it, public hospitals are not the best run places and any attempt at reform will affect those who are benefiting from the current mess. The Indian Express journalist does not appear to have personally witnessed any bullying but is going by the accounts of doctors and managers. It would be natural for them to exaggerate things in the hope of derailing what could be a welcome initiative by discrediting it.
It’s also a bit unfair to liken the AAP volunteers to members of the Youth Congress which, at least in Delhi, was viewed with a fair bit of alarm. In contrast, AAP has come to power on the wings of a lot of goodwill from the public and its activists are fired by a sense of idealism about changing the way politics is conducted – the kind of politics the Youth Congress represented.
And yet, there is need to set off the alarm bells.
The current system of governance in Delhi needs to be overhauled completely but little is to be achieved by dismantling existing structures in a hurry. Jain, according to the Indian Express report, plans to replace the RKSs with new Jan Swasthya Samitis, which will be devoid of political interference. But shouldn’t that have been done before the RKSs were wound up? Why create an anarchic situation with volunteers having a free run of hospitals? Anarchy is romantic and even acceptable as long as an organization is in an activist mode. Once it comes into a position of responsibility, it has to function according to a set of rules and procedures. If these procedures are blocking reforms, then change them by all means but creating a vacuum is not the answer.
Delhi needs an active and vigilant citizenry; but this should not become an aggressive vigilante mode, which is susceptible to misuse. The initial lot of AAP volunteers may be an idealistic bunch which would not misuse powers, but can AAP stand guarantee for each and every volunteer, especially those flocking to it in droves after it formed the government?
Even if there is no misuse, reckless vigilantism is also dangerous. People who believe they are morally superior – as many AAP volunteers do – invariably adopt to a `my way or the highway’ route. This was precisely the attitude of Anna Hazare, from whose Jan Lokpal movement AAP was born. There is a certain impatience with and disdain for any criticism or urging of caution.
So it wouldn’t be surprising for overzealous volunteers to refuse to accept perfectly valid reasons for some official not being able to do things the way they want it to be done. Not all of them will be able to distinguish between genuine problems in doing things their way and clear attempts to block reform. The Delhi law minister forcing the law secretary to call a meeting with judges (something only the High Court can do) and accusing him of siding with the old regime is a case in point. When this is the case with the law minister, can ordinary volunteers be capable of more discretion?
A Firstpost article had wondered if the AAP revolution was similar to the French or the American revolution? But remember what happened during the French revolution, when vigilantism gave way to mob rule?
Governance in Delhi needs to be shaken up, no doubt. Only AAP has this as an agenda. But in implementing this agenda, the party needs to take care that its cadres don’t become like the vigilantes of the French revolution. Or like the Youth Congress during the Emergency.

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