Old wine in India's new antigraft bottle
An activist's much-vaunted political party will prove to be a damp squib.

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  • On Oct. 2, Arvind Kejriwal announced a new political party dedicated to ending corruption in India.

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  • Kejriwal’s new political party marks a milestone in the evolution of India’s recent antigraft movement.

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  • Kejriwal & his party represent a sorry reminder that political discourse in India remains hostage to discredited ideas.

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In terms of symbolism, Arvind Kejriwal could scarcely have chosen a better date to found a new political party dedicated to ending corruption in India. On Oct. 2, the birthday of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the 44-year-old activist announced to a gaggle of followers and a battery of cameras, "We declare that from today this country's public is jumping into electoral politics. Corruptors, you start counting your days!"

The as-yet unnamed party marks a milestone in the evolution of India's recent antigraft movement. These activists burst into national and international consciousness 14 months ago when the movement's iconic leader Anna Hazare went on a hunger strike to force the government to create a powerful new anticorruption ombudsman.

Now the 75-year-old Mr. Hazare has parted ways with his one-time acolyte Mr. Kejriwal over the new party, declaring, "Politics is filth." So at least in principle, the younger activist's decision to grapple with politics is superior to Mr. Hazare's vow to shun it as incurably dirty.

In practice, however, Mr. Kejriwal and his party don't represent a breath of fresh air so much as a sorry reminder that political discourse in India remains hostage to discredited ideas. The "draft vision document" he unveiled Tuesday reads like a politician's stump speech in the socialist 1970s. It shows the party is too suspicious of private initiative and too welcoming of government action.

To be fair, Mr. Kejriwal—by some accounts the brains behind the rustic Mr. Hazare's rise from an obscure regional social reformer to a national icon—retains an uncanny ability to tap into the fount of middle-class India's rage against its rulers. Many Indians would nod in agreement with Mr. Kejriwal's observation that the country's scandal-plagued political parties have become machines designed to "convert money into power and power back into more money."

Nor is his statement, that a system marked by dynastic politics and sleaze "puts off and scares the best elements of our society," easy to refute. His promise to institute intra-party elections and shun the trappings of power—cars with flashing beacons and ostentatious security details—will likely appeal to the crowds that swelled last year's anticorruption rallies.

These Indians should consider, though, how Mr. Kejriwal plans to implement his promises. In a crude echo of the civil disobedience Gandhi pioneered to fight British rule, Mr. Kejriwal has publicly called on consumers to break the law by not paying electricity bills—which are allegedly unjust. Astute observers criticized Gandhi's methods back in the 1940s as a recipe for anarchy if they continued in a democracy, and Mr. Kejriwal is bearing this out.

Then there's the party's pompously named "vision document," which rails against "the logic of capital, market mechanisms and profit motivation," and exhorts the state to "accept responsibility for full employment." The document also declares that "our development must not imitate models from outside," pandering to ultra-nationalist sentiments that echo India's autarkic past.

Mr. Kejriwal also threatened Tuesday to launch government audits against private power companies he accuses of making "heavy profits." And like virtually every other rabble-rouser, he wants the government to roll back a recent hike in fuel prices that are necessary to rein in a ballooning fiscal deficit.

In other words, Mr. Kejriwal's party, like his movement, represents a profound misreading of modern history. In his garden-variety leftist vision, India can only be rid of graft by a gargantuan new government body armed with overriding powers. He doesn't acknowledge that it's the failure to fully dismantle the infamous License Raj that breeds corruption in the first place.

India's 1991 reforms were limited in scaling back government powers, which is why the country's biggest corruption scandals today are found in areas—land, coal or telecom spectrum—that still suffer from, or have seen a rise in, government discretion. Red tape too is still abundant in India. The World Bank's annual report on the ease of doing business ranks it a dismal 132 out of 183 countries surveyed.

As importantly, the experience of the industrialized world shows that over time rising wealth and education create precisely the kind of informed citizenry less likely to tolerate blatant corruption. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York is a far cry from the 19th century city synonymous with the patronage of Tammany Hall. Ironically, Mr. Kejriwal's own movement, egged on by college-educated youth and a savvy electronic media, is evidence that a similar process is already under way in India.

It's true that India's middle class, long divorced from politics out of a belief that it lacked the numbers to influence outcomes, needs exactly the kind of awakening Mr. Kejriwal's anticorruption party promises. But unless India's moral fervor is yoked to an accurate understanding of what ails the country—politicians with too much say in business rather than the other way round—it could end up doing more harm than good.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01

 

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