Thursday, January 2, 2014

On Aam Aadmi Party


Aam Aadmi Party – A Golden Bubble or an Iron Hammer? - Savera

The dramatic rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the recent Delhi assembly elections has left the country astonished, and for many, filled with hope. Those fed up with the moribund politics of the two dominant parties in the country – the Congress and the BJP – see an alternative in AAP, however nebulous its program may be. Several instant analyses have come out after the election results explaining the AAP’s rise. Till just a few days before, when votes had not yet been counted, most talking heads on TV were skeptical of AAP’s chances. Hence the astonishment.

Electoral Maths
AAP secured 28 seats and 29 percent of the votes polled in the elections held on 4th December 2013, far beyond the expectation of all pollsters and political commentators. They were within touching distance of the BJP which got 33 seats (including one seat of its ally the Akali Dal). The BJP got 33 percent of the votes polled. The Congress was decimated – it managed only 25 percent of votes and just 8 seats. Another big loser was the Bahujan Samaj Party which got no seat and its vote share plummeted to just 5 percent. 

Delhi Assembly Vote Shares (%)
1993
1998
2003
2008
2013
BJP
43
36
35
37
33
INC
34
48
48
40
25
BSP
2
4
9
14
5
AAP
Did not exist
29
Source: Election Commission

If you compare the vote shares of the principal parties over the years some strange things emerge. Apart from the first assembly election in 1993 in which it got 43 percent of votes and formed a government, the BJP has been stagnating between 35-37 percent votes. This time round, it barely managed to retain this base, slipping slightly to 33 percent votes. On the other hand AAP got a staggering 29 percent. Note that in the previous assembly elections in 2008, the Congress lost 8 percent of its vote share – a direct reflection of its growing unpopularity – but the BJP did not gain much. It was a third force, the BSP which ran away with 14 percent of the votes. But in 2013, the people found a better option in AAP and BSP dropped from 14 to 5 percent.

This has two implications: one, that people were desperate to get out of the stranglehold of the two dominant parties, the BJP and the Congress, and two, that the “Modi effect” fell flat on its face in Delhi. 

Now look at the AAP. It was formed last year in November. Before that, the core of the AAP was part of the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement. Note that the BJP was also part of this movement. Before that, Arvind Kejriwal had been fighting for strengthening of the PDS, against corruption, for a better electricity supply and tariff policy, and a host of other issues. These struggles were not huge mass movements. Often they were sectional struggles like taking up the autorickshaw drivers’ case for a fairer deal. So it was not as if AAP had built up a huge mass base across the city through representing the aspirations or demands of various sections. But, nor was he a new-comer to Delhi. 

So what explains the AAP’s rise, that too in this sudden fashion? Here are some key reasons.

Anger against Congress
This may sound trite but the Sheila Dikshit government’s 15 years of rule was one of the key factors in the rise of AAP. This needs to be emphasized because political commentators and experts have been tying themselves into knots about how Sheila Dikshit “did a lot of good work” and yet lost. The reasons put out range from the absurd (because the message of all her good work did not get across to people!) to some partially correct analyses like the unpopularity of the Central government rubbing off on Dixit, or the bitter factionalism within the Congress. But the key, over-arching fact that all these analyses miss is that the Dixit led government had been so hostile to the common people, had indulged in such open loot and partisanship towards the rich, and had become so arrogant, so steeped in hubris that the common person in Delhi was just dying to throw it out. 

This was not something that happened overnight, nor was it a contribution of Kejriwal. Dixit had dug her own grave. The city had excluded the working people. The flyovers, the malls, the stadia, the super-speciality hospitals, the futuristic airport – these were all standing monuments to the excluded common person who could only see himself or herself reflected in the glass of these alien, hostile constructs. For the common working person, the issues were relentless price rise, marginalization and contractualisation of work, longer hours of work to earn the same, crumbling infrastructure in residential localities (40 percent of Delhi’s households are not served by a sewer system and 25 percent do not get treated piped water) and a blind and deaf government.

Sheila Dikshit herself increasingly came across as an arrogant unconcerned ruler hobnobbing with Congress bigwigs, cutting the ground from below the feet of lower level leaders and MLAs. People remembered her reactions to big events that shook the people – “don’t use coolers” when electricity tariffs became unbearable, “don’t go out so late in the night” when a woman journalist was attacked and murdered late in the night, “you should take care while crossing the road” when a family was mowed down by a speeding Blueline bus, and so on. These elections were hubris meeting nemesis.

The spate of corruption exposures over the past few years, including the one related to the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi also alienated the middle class, although all of them concerned the central government. But Delhi is always influenced by the fate of those ruling the country, as it is the seat of the central government too.

Here the BJP’s culpability needs to be noted. Not only did the BJP fail to gather this anger against the Congress over the 15 long years, it was seen as part of the system. Remember – it has been running the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (and later its three successors) for the past decade. These bodies have been a hotbed of the most venal corruption, and impervious to the people’s needs. Although the BJP claims that it has been protesting against the Congress misrule, its protests have been ritualistic and never had mass participation.

This was the fertile ground on which AAP emerged. It took up all the moral and political stances that appeal to the middle class, especially its youth. It talked of corruption, of arrogance, of hypocrisy, of pandering to big business at the cost of people. And, it quickly responded to ground realities by including within its core issues such burning problems as the murderous price rise, and even job insecurity due to the widely prevalent contract work which is as pervasive in middle class jobs like BPOs and private service sector companies as in industrial units and shops.

Where it broke the back of the Congress was in the latter’s traditional constituency of dalits and poorer sections. AAP won 9 out of 11 reserved seats in Delhi. And, it won most of the constituencies with resettlement colonies like Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, Nandnagri, Dakshinpuri, Mangolpuri, Jahangirpuri where the lower middle class and poorer sections reside. So, it built a spectrum of its own – middle class, working people, dalits.

Although it lost out to the Congress in getting the Muslim minority votes, its performance has not been too bad, emerging second in many of the Muslim dominated seats. As reported in several newspapers, Muslims were slightly uncertain about the AAP’s viability and worried that it may not be able to keep the BJP out.

Minority Government
What is the future for AAP? After two weeks of uncertainty and attrition, an AAP government led by Kejriwal was sworn in on 29th December after the Congress extended support to it. The BJP, despite being the largest alliance with 33 seats has been forced to sit in opposition because there was no chance of it garnering the needed 3 members to take it across the halfway mark. 

Displaying a new kind of political agility, AAP handled the thorny issue of taking support from the discredited Congress by “taking the opinion of the people”. This was done through public meetings in all 272 municipal wards, and also by a ‘referendum’. This method put paid to the nascent criticism that AAP was striking a deal with its foes. The verdict was clear – the people wanted them to form the government with Congress support. The AAP leadership is calculating that if allowed to function for, say, 6 months, they would initiate several of their promised changes like 700 liters free water or an investigation of the electricity tariffs. And, of course, what they consider the most important matter – a Lokpal bill to fight corruption – will be initiated although it will require complicated procedures to get become a law given Delhi’s unique status where it’s legislature has limited powers.

So the immediate future of AAP can be seen. Riding on the huge wave of support and expectation, it will fulfill, or seen to be trying to fulfill, its election promises. This will keep the goodwill and support going in the near future. Meanwhile AAP has also declared that it will contest the Lok sabha elections to be held around April-May 2014. So, it has its hands full.

While it is needless to stress that if AAP wants a place in national politics it will have to go much beyond its present political stance and promises, as far as Delhi is concerned, it’s rather populist promises will require a huge battle against an entrenched system, a multiplicity of authorities and a truncated power structure. In the short run – with just the early Assembly elections or Lok Sabha in mind – it can manage. The free water promise is an example: the new government has announced within 48 hours of its swearing in, that for the next three months, Delhi Jal Board will provide 700 liters free water per family per day. It is an executive order and it simply means that water bills for up to 700 liters will be made zero. Ostensibly, in the next three months more systemic changes including plans for pipelines etc. will be worked out.  

Will it confront Privatization?
But a longer engagement will immediately bring into focus what is till now conveniently in the grey zone. And this will bring it in direct confrontation with some of the pillars of the current neoliberal dispensation, based on withdrawal of state support to welfare schemes and free hand to private sector, to name two of the most common features.

AAP will have to settle the issue of privatization of utilities which has been the scourge of Delhi for the past two decades. Power supply has already been privatized and the huge in power bill increases has been one of the key issues that turned people against the Congress. Water was nor privatized although the Dixit government had made all plans. It was the wave of protest against this move that forced the Dixit government back. A pilot project for privatized supply is running in South Delhi. And, there is hidden privatization for those who may be technically connected to the water lines but have to buy water from tankers due to short supply. 

Public road transport has gone through a full cycle – from complete privatization in the BJP regime of 1993-98 which was continued by the succeeding Congress regimes till it became complete shambles, and then reintroduction of public buses at the time of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

In reaction to the problems of privatized utilities AAP is suggesting solutions that give relief. But it is not yet willing to commit on de-privatising.

Industrial and other Workers
Similarly, in reaction to the complaints of middle class or government contract employees AAP has promised an end to the contract system of employment. But it has not yet said anything about the vast army of industrial workers that are working under very onerous contracts.

AAP has not yet said a word about wages and employment for the common man and woman. Over 80% of the industrial workers do not get minimum wages according to estimates by trade unions. Workers are forced to work for 12-16 hours in order to earn a survival wage. Legal overtime rates are never adhered to. And, relentless inflation, especially on food items, has destroyed living standards. What is needed is a substantial hike in minimum wages from the present Rs.7000 to at least Rs.10,000. But more urgently, the strict implementation of labor laws, something that has been abandoned for nearly two decades now.

Since the mid-nineties, Delhi has become a largely service sector dominated state. While this gives the impression of some kind of IT, finance and real estate based heaven, the truth is that lakhs are employed as low-wage employees in offices, shops, other commercial establishments. These are practically out of the pale of labor laws and thus suffer extreme exploitation including complete insecurity of service. AAP has not yet commented on how it proposes to change this or at the least protect the aam admi’s wage and employment. 

A vast majority of Delhi’s people work in the informal sector – from domestic servants to personal service providers to guards to rickshaw pullers to homebased workers to petty shopkeepers and so on. Wages or earnings are abysmal and living conditions are very poor. AAP has not yet addressed any of these sections specifically or generally although it seems that at least one large section of these people voted for AAP in hope.

Education & Health
On education, it has promised more government schools, and checks on high fees charged by private schools. In an announcement on 30 December, the AAP government said that seats reserved for the economically weaker sections (EWS) in private schools will be raised to 20% from the present 10%. But it is yet to commit itself to revamping the government run school system by infusing more funds, giving better facilities, appointing more and better trained teachers, ensuring better salaries and so on.

On health, it is talking of increasing the facilities but has not said anything about curbing exorbitant user charges and setting up a primary healthcare delivery system for the aam admi.

These are examples of some fundamental features of Delhi as it has developed under the tutelage of the two dominant parties till now, and which require drastic changes in favor of the aam admi. There are many other similar features that go much beyond the AAP’s present canvas.

On the crucial issue of corruption, AAP is promising the Lokpal bill which will deal with bribery and malfeasance at the government level. It has not said anything about corporate corruption or legally sanctioned plunder.

Future Battles
Any attempt, however well-meaning and driven by idealism, will come to nought if these are not addressed. It does not require a revolutionary vision or leadership to recognize these issues or to address them within the present legal framework.

But, to take a charitable view, AAP’s ideology and its approach towards the people is still a work in progress. It arose out of a handful of middle class issues – corruption, hubris, hypocrisy, blatant inequality. Electoral considerations forced it to accommodate some populist measures of the bijli-paani-sadak variety. But to claim ‘swaraj’ (self-rule) and ‘azadi’ (freedom) it needs to think much beyond this. With its largely middle class leadership it may not be able to naturally look at these issues (or worse, look at them only electorally like other dominant parties). But it’s commitment to consultation with the people and transparency may lead to the engendering of some of these concerns. Left forces, which naturally represent these sections and concerns, may seize this opportunity to press for various long standing issues like minimum wage or social security. This may in turn reflect in pressure on AAP from its own constituency. And, AAP will have to then respond in ways that may conflict with its present concerns and moorings. But that’s a battle for the future.
  
The author works for a prominent daily newspaper

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