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Monday, March 2, 2015

Open Source Politics And Aam Aadmi Party (beta)

Who would have thought even five years ago that a political party with all India appeal could coalesce as if by magic out of social activism by several thousand volunteers and supporters scattered all over the planet, connected only by the tenuous strands of an Idea ?

The above paragraph is actually taken from Eric S Raymond's essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, considered as the Bible of the Open Source Software Movement, the highlighted words are substitutions I have made to suit the present context; the original text is as follows:

Who would have thought even five years ago (1991) that a world-class operating system could coalesce as if by magic out of part-time hacking by several thousand developers scattered all over the planet, connected only by the tenuous strands of the Internet? [source: http://www.catb.org/esr/.. ]
Aam Aadmi Party's rise is in many ways similar to the rise of Open Source Software paradigm which later inspired numerous movements such as Open Source Hardware, Open Content (Wikipedia), Open Data, Open Access, Open-source Robotics, Open Source Education, Open Source Economics,Open Source Governance, Open Source Politics (not what I mean here) and whole lot of "Open Source" things  including Open Source Cola and Open Source Terrorism !

Not all movements may have been drawn from Open Source Initiative but the key principles they share are collaboration,transparency and crowdsourcing. However, when I draw analogy between AAP and Open Source Politics, I am not referring to the existing definitions which have more to do with political campaign and governance using Internet technologies to connect with the people. Call it Politics 2.0, Governance 2.0, AAP does embrace the concept and with good results too but I wish to investigate more on organisational aspect of it. There is a reason why, in the opening paragraph I said "connected by an idea" and not "connected by the Internet".

The Cathedral & The Bazaar
Buy Cathedral and
 the Bazaar
For that it would be prudent to go back to the doctrine of the Open Source Initiative. Like AAP, Open Source Movement started as a movement challenging software giants such as Microsoft, Apple and others, the open source operating system Linux was a tremendous success and today the Open Source model is ubiquitous, embraced even by its strongest opponents. If your smartphone runs on Android you already know how ubiquitous it is.

ESR compares software development by commercial software companies as building cathedrals, "carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time" in contrast  Open Source community or rather the "Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who’d take submissions from anyone ) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles."

In Indian politics, traditional parties function reverentially, following hierarchies of power, maintaining secrecy and delivering, if at all , in a grand manner after a lot of time.  In contrast, AAP came together as a motley group of individuals from diverse backgrounds and differing views held together by the common thread of fighting against a corrupt and exploitative establishment by forming a party. It did seem that for AAP to become a formidable political force it required a succession of miracles. Well, it  did,  today, AAP is able to majorly influence the national civil/political discourse in the country.

Raymond lays down a set of aphorisms/principles that he through experiment found key to the success of the Linux methodology, I am reproducing some of them which are analogous to the AAP  methodology:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.
  
Most AAP volunteers joined up to scratch their personal itch, but that the itch was to cleanse the political system from corruption, VIP culture, sectarian and divisive politics and general decadence. After all AAP emerged from the hugely successful, Anna Hazare led India Against Corruption movement.  The movement paved way for emergence of a political party that sought to  eliminate corruption, crony capitalism and bring systemic change. Even in politics scratching an itch caused by  altruism is certainly a virtue. 

Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse)

AAP did not come up with a stereotypical political ideology but instead sought to stick to constitutional principles. For this party, secularism as a single point agenda or development as single point agenda were simply moot points. The state is supposed to preserve secularism, ensure social equality and one of its function is economic development. None of these are negotiable enough to become single point agenda,more so because they are too abstract.  AAP also adopted the "bijli,sadak , pani" agenda (electricity,roads,water) which political parties had used earlier but only as electioneering slogan. Again, AAP did not offer these as sops but as rights people were already entitled to but were denied by corrupt system. 

Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow.

Well, Arvind actually had to throw away his chief ministership because it was not working out without a majority. Unfortunately he had to apologize for the mistake but looking back, continuing as a minority government, which means dependence on these two for passage of bills, would have given Congress and BJP lots of options to obstruct and discredit him. The risk paid off with AAP sweeping the Delhi Assembly polls 2015 by capturing 67 out of 70 seats. 

Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.  

When attempting to deliver solutions to people's problems, involve them in the process , Delhi Dialogues, Residents Welfare Associations, Mohalla Sabha's are mechanism implemented/planned by AAP to take proactive roles in decision making in solving issues of their respective areas. 

Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.

The AAP government did not wait to make a grand press conference to declare new schemes which would take years to begin. Instead it started delivering its promises from day one itself. The long term solutions by definition require time but there is no reason why short term relief can't be delivered immediately.

Linus’s Law : Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.

From the beginning Arvind has made transparency in funding and governance an integral part of his party's working style. In fact, in his speech, he has warned volunteers from becoming arrogant and has within a week set up several mechanism for the people to address  their grievances to him or his government.

It needs to be mentioned here that organisations do need faces and if the current election had all components of a contest of personalities, personality cult need not be an outcome. Like Arvind Kejriwal becoming face of AAP, Linus Torvald became the rallying point of hackers developing the Open Source Operating System so much so that it came to be known as Linux (named after Linus) . Yet,Linus never became the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or even Steve Ballmer. 

Now can lessons learned from Open Source Software model be adopted to scale AAP to a national alternative without relying on Arvind Kejriwal to take proactive role. 

Decentralization played an important role in open source software movement, there was no chain of command, there just principle and the rule- share the source code. Small agile teams took the movement forward, rapidly innovating and creating world class software application. I am not sure how the chain of command runs in AAP but it does have a core doctrine, starting with Arvind Kejriwal's book Swaraj.

If you treat your beta-testers as if they're your most valuable resource,they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.

Now that Aam Aadmi Party has formed government in Delhi, it is but natural that it would face a lot of criticism now and then, mostly politically motivated but some very genuine criticisms too. The latter should be identified and their opinions taken seriously, one of the biggest drawbacks of traditional political parties is that their leaders, surrounded by sycophants are so indifferent to criticism that they just can't see the ground realities.
I do feel Aam Aadmi Party members and active volunteers do not take positive criticism well enough nor value their "beta-testers" which might turn out a drawback when not on their own turf.
   

Provided the development coordinator has a medium at least as good as the Internet, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one.   

AAP already has presence in most states but in absence of a strong volunteer and support base as in Delhi, it has to ensure that those in charge of local units are able to take along as much volunteers with them as possible. Politics is a lucrative career in India, which is why corruption and party infighting is so rampant across party lines. A threat AAP now faces especially outside Delhi and regions where it already has a strong foothold, is influx of political opportunists . Apart from that, even well meaning individuals are not immune from ego clashes or plain arrogance. Official posts, hierarchies may not be such a great idea in regions where their volunteer base is not strong enough. They can lead to friction among individuals seeking to exert more influence and even to ego clashes. The biggest challenge that the party would face during expansion is to keep many heads together, without letting the lead appear coercive.



Note : In keeping with Open Source methodology, this is an early release. Expect revisions, more so if you leave feedback :) 

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