Going beyond tokenism

Print edition : January 24, 2014

Arvind Kejriwal taking a metro train to the Ramlila Maidan to be sworn in as Chief Minister. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Arvind Kejriwal talking to Uttar Pradesh policemen when they came to his residence to provide security, which was refused by the Chief Minister designate, on December 26. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

A volunteer for the Aam Aadmi Party at the party's office in New Delhi. Photo: MANSI THAPLIYAL/REUTERS

By taking definite action immediately after coming to power, the AAP has shown that its promises are not part of mere populist propaganda but are well-researched, people-centric plans.

Even as political rivals pretended not to take Arvind Kejriwal seriously, his integrity, matter-of-fact demeanour, and willingness to take on the political establishment earned him more and more admirers.

His party speaks a different political language; his own speeches are bereft of the jargon used in 20th century political discourses as he projects himself as a true representative of the people. The innovative campaign methods used by his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), such as 70 different manifestos for the 70 different constituencies of Delhi, volunteer-based campaigning, and crowdsourcing of funds, have changed the political landscape of Delhi. Some critics said he was indulging in tokenisms, some others called him an impractical idealist, and some observers felt that his promises were nothing more than populist gestures. But Kejriwal, as Chief Minister, fulfilled four of the promises made in the party’s manifesto in just four days after assuming power. In a significant decision, he ordered his officials to build 45 new shelters for homeless people so that they can survive the biting cold of Delhi. Every year, many homeless people die and erstwhile governments had turned a deaf ear to persistent campaigns by activists and the media.

On the first day, he delivered on the promise that none of Delhi’s legislators would be allowed VIP security and no one could use a VIP vehicle with red beacons, a status symbol in the Hindi heartland. In keeping with the spirit of the party’s manifesto, the AAP government in Delhi, on its second day in power, announced that 666 litres of potable water would be provided to all households free of cost every day. On the third day in office, Kejriwal announced a 50 per cent cut in power tariffs and ordered an audit of the private power distribution companies (discoms).

While many observers have called these decisions populist, Kejriwal has defended them by saying that it is the duty of any government to provide basic amenities like water, shelter, food and electricity at affordable rates. He tweeted to say that water was not a utilitarian commodity.

Kejriwal’s supporters say that these measures are strategic decisions. Only households using less than 666 litres of water a day and those which have water meters can avail themselves of the free water facility. This, they say, will encourage people to install meters. Because a vast number of slums do not have water meters, Kejriwal has instructed the Delhi Jal Board, the State’s water regulatory body, to provide water free of cost through tankers. Until now, slum dwellers bought water at hefty prices from the tanker mafia operating in the city. Taking on the tanker mafia was one of the AAP’s poll promises.

Water scarcity is an issue close to Kejriwal’s heart. Before he became a politician, he had waged a bitter struggle against the Delhi Jal Board for its non-transparency and alleged corruption. From 2005 to 2007, through Right to Information applications, he accessed documents which exposed the Delhi government’s attempts to privatise the Jal Board clandestinely. He showed how a cash-surplus government had applied for a loan to the World Bank, which had insisted that the loan would be approved only if a multinational company, PricewaterhouseCoopers, was given the contract to distribute water. The salary component for the World Bank officials monitoring the privatisation process was to be Rs.108 crore a year in a project that had a budget of Rs.163 crore. All this was done in the name of “efficiency”. The Delhi government was forced to withdraw the loan application.

Kejriwal’s decision to announce a 50 per cent cut in the power tariff is again a well-calculated move. The subsidy will be applicable only to those households which use less than 400 units of electricity in a month. He has not changed the existing power tariffs as it is a regulatory issue but has decided to grant Rs.201 crore as subsidy from the State’s exchequer. Kejriwal said in a press conference: “Rs.141 crore will be generated from the dues of the discoms, so eventually the State will have to spend only Rs.60 crore.”

The decision to audit the power discoms was met with universal approval. The discoms, despite charging high electricity tariffs, had shown only losses, generating no revenue for the government since 2004. Some of his party members told Frontline that the government’s decisions were not populist measures as Kejriwal had subsidised essential commodities only for the poor while the rich would continue to pay the unsubsidised rates. They pointed out that his decisions could also encourage conservation of water and electricity by middle-class households.

Kejriwal has surely made a good start, but will he be able to keep up the tempo over the next five years? Given the resistance the government has faced from the bureaucracy in the first four days, it is definitely a huge task. However, Prashant Bhushan, national executive member of the AAP, told Frontline: “It all depends on the political environment. Bureaucrats will eventually come on board. They were awarded for not working until now, but now they will be encouraged to work and will be rewarded for performance.” Similarly, another member of the AAP, Dilip Pandey, dispelled these apprehensions: “Would anyone have predicted that such drastic measures will be taken in a few days? We have shown the world that this is possible. We will focus on our 18-point programme and will fulfil all the promises we have made even in our local manifestos.”

The AAP had submitted to the Lieutenant General of Delhi a charter of 18 essential points that it wanted to implement if it formed the government with Congress support. It is this charter which will be the AAP’s priority in the days to come, apart from the simultaneous resolution of local issues such as sewage, maintenance of roads, and local infrastructure.

The charter was drawn up because the AAP feared that the Congress would withdraw its support later because the demands involved a conflict of interest for many individuals in the Congress party. The Congress, however, has stated that 16 of the 18 demands are executive decisions which can be implemented without passing legislation in the Assembly. It has also said that it had always supported in principle the other two demands—full Statehood to Delhi and a Jan Lokpal Bill, the AAP’s primary campaign issue.

The AAP’s programmes will require heavy spending by the government. The party is in principle opposed to the illogical privatisation of government bodies and plans to reconstitute most of them. Firstly, it wants to implement a swaraj law that will empower residential colonies to resolve their problems at the local level in consultation with the residents. Mohalla sabhas would decide on matters like street lighting, waterworks, repair of public infrastructure, and sensitisation programmes for women’s security. The idea is to restore the authority of the people in their own spaces.

Secondly, it aims to reconstitute government bodies such as the Delhi Jal Board, replace electricity and water meters, and make the concerned bodies transparent in functioning and financially viable. Party members told Frontline that it was working out ways in which the application process for tenders for public infrastructure could be made transparent.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the bulk of the AAP’s programmes are for the provision of basic facilities to the poor. It aims to subsidise education for the poor, prohibit private schools from taking donations, and put a cap on their tuition fees. Kejriwal has said that his government will fund more than 3,000 government-run schools so that the poor have access to quality education. It has also promised to open more than 500 modern schools which will provide education at subsidised rates. Similarly, the AAP claims that it will form committees to rehabilitate slum dwellers within the city’s limits. One of its promises was that it would end the system of contract labour in the capital, which leaves the urban poor with no legal or financial security. Kejriwal has specifically said that his government will first end the practice in government bodies and create more permanent posts.

The AAP has made detailed plans to protect the interests of small and medium traders. It is opposed to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the retail sector. According to AAP sources, farmers, who are spread across outer Delhi, will be given huge subsidies to meet the increasing costs of farming. The AAP has categorically said that outer and rural Delhi will get specific attention so that all the facilities available to people in central Delhi are made available in these regions too.

Fourthly, it aims to renovate all the existing government hospitals and open new ones, a party leader said. He added that there was a plan to open dispensaries in the poorer colonies to provide basic health amenities.

A close look at the manifesto of the AAP indicates that none of these is a superficial statement. Every promise is clearly thought out and has been explained in detail. “We have not promised anything without thinking about it properly. Every single promise has been discussed with experts who suggested the best possible ways to implement it. We have specific plans and programmes for every promise. It may not be easy to implement them but we will work on this,” Prashant Bhushan told Frontline.

For example, the AAP’s manifesto states that the discoms had shown a loss of Rs.630 crore, but the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission, the umbrella organisation, claimed that it had made a profit of Rs.3,577 crore. Many such contradictions convinced the AAP to make the promise of an audit in its manifesto. Besides, the party has a specific plan for sewage management and water treatment centres with people’s participation. “Our critics have no idea about the amount of research we did before publishing our manifesto,” said Prashant Bhushan.

Kejriwal’s focus is on increasing government expenditure to facilitate better access to basic amenities and to raise government revenues by streamlining the administrative machinery. His aim to run an efficient government depends on a mix of austerity measures and increased tax revenue. Most of what the AAP advocates has been long-standing demands of the Left, but the AAP’s uniqueness lies in its political connect with the people of Delhi. The AAP has made the old-school politics of the welfare state fashionable again. It has raised people’s hopes about better politics. And perhaps, this is its biggest victory.

What Dilip Pandey of the AAP told Frontline sums up its philosophy: “We never told people that we would do something for them. We told them we were not running a shop. If they want to rid India of corruption and other malpractices, they will have to cleanse it by joining politics. No one was doing a favour. We know that we are not perfect. We, like everyone, have to improve ourselves, get rid of our own evils. The people, as stakeholders in our system, will also have to do that. This was all our campaign was about, not the number of issues we pointed out. They already knew what plagued India.”