Swati Srivastava (Research Associate Public Health Foundation of India, currently studying at ITM)
Last December Delhi, and the whole of India, witnessed something special. The concept was too much of a fairy tale to be plausible: a new political party, founded on the principle of a “war against corruption” and rooted in a movement for reform took on the grand old dame of Indian politics, the 128 year old Indian National Congress party in a state which it had ruled unopposed for ten years, and emerged (albeit semi-) victorious. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, Common Man Party) made a spectacular debut in the Delhi Assembly elections, emerging as the second largest party and its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, a former civil servant, pulled off a remarkable win over the outgoing septuagenarian chief minister.
However, politics makes for strange bedfellows, and early January saw the AAP come to power in the Delhi Assembly with the Congress’ support. On January 2 Kejriwal and Co., backed up by the Congress to meet the requisite majority, took oath as ministers, an event that was a bit of an irony considering the AAP wanted to sweep clean Delhi’s corridors of power and VIP culture with its veritable broom (the party’s rather apt symbol). Still, Kejriwal and the youngest-ever Delhi cabinet ministers taking the Delhi Metro (instead of the ubiquitous fear-inducing and traffic-halting Ambassador cars fitted with red and blue beacons so preferred by Indian politicians) to commute on their first (and hopefully subsequent) days at work was welcome, though it had the opposition crying hoarse populism.
This aside, the AAP has some lofty ideas on where they are trying to go. What is not so clear is how they are going to get there. The Delhi elections were contested around the themes of the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill, which seeks appointment of an independent anti-corruption body to investigate corruption cases; swaraj or self governance/rule, in which people will take decisions directly in local meetings; reduction of electricity tariffs and audit of power distribution companies; water supply and distribution; safety and equality for women, and human development focused on health and education. Vis a vis health, AAP is also making all the right noises. Improving quality of government facilities, increasing the number of facilities, filling staff vacancies, making private hospitals accountable for and fulfilling their public obligations in return for public subsidies, and management of dispensaries and primary hospitals by village committees all feature prominently on their agenda. AAP also promised to open 500 government schools, improve existing schools, and regularize and appoint teachers for vacant posts. Where the money for all of this will come from is, of course, a rhetorical question.
The few days that AAP has been in power have been replete with populist promises that have left a lot of people bewildered. The first of these included providing 700 litres of free water per day to each household with a regular water connection (a move criticized for both its inability to bring water to those who need it most i.e. a fifth of Delhi residing in slums/ localities without metered connections; as well as a scant regard for water distribution and losses). This was followed by a tariff cut of 50% on electricity. On the economic front, the AAP’s committee on economic policy is yet to come up with its recommendations. Some economic stances include simplifying value added tax for traders and opposing foreign direct investment in retail. A party strategist recently stated “the party is socialist, not silly”; and will seek to increase the number of quotas for “lower” castes and women, a move that has traditionally not been welcomed by AAPs middle-class supporters. A prominent left-wing politician remarked that the lack of a clear-cut program and policy perspective means that AAP represents all things to all people. Other critiques include the presence of only three top party positions, which is rather contradictory for a party focused on decentralization.
The AAP must be appreciated for its stance on corruption. The party was formed as a break-away faction from the Anna Hazare movement, seeking to politicize the Jan Lokpal demand. They also fielded no candidates with criminal proceedings against them, which sadly cannot be said for other parties. AAP also sought feedback from voters post announcement of election results on government formation, and received nearly 450,000 SMSs, phone calls and emails. Wednesday saw the launch of an anti-corruption helpline in Delhi.
The AAP is high on ambition, and has captured the fancy of the generally politically apathetic Indian middle classes. It remains to be seen how they can sustain this momentum, and how ambition translates into substance. Delhi is different from other states, where an election based on the platform of corruption could garner the public’s support. Corruption may not be a game changer in other states, where it still may be more important for the aam aadmi (common man) to vote along caste, religious, or ideological lines. Previous experiences have also shown that populist measures to please electorates have never appealed on a long term basis with Indian voters. Trying to balance their people-centered governance while co-opting diverse groups alongside the empowered middle class and negotiating the minefield that is the Indian political spectrum may help AAP to usher in a politics of hope for India.