In AAP’s victory, a lesson in transformative politics | Opinion
It broke down barriers between the wealthy and poor; it developed the ethics of care; and it stuck to its recordUpdated: Feb 11, 2020 21:22 IST
The extraordinary political process that Delhi has witnessed this past month represents at once the maturing of the electorate within this “ordinary city” with all its diversity, complexity and peculiarities. With a clear mandate in favour of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), citizens have affirmed that issues matter, and that their vote has a particular meaning, which is not subject to identity-based polarisation.
Delhi is a city that has been an epitome of historical aspirations of a post-colonial society, as also a space for poor migrants in search of better opportunities. Its assembly is among the smallest in the country with 70 legislators, and has severely truncated powers. Without power over public order, police and land, the AAP has sought to make a mark for itself by working on schools, affordable electricity and water. It asked the electorate to judge it on this performance. In a very unevenly poised challenge, its key electoral opponent was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), armed with a massive national mandate. The key plank for the BJP was to ask Delhi voters to choose between the “Mughal Raj, or Modi”.
That AAP victories have been registered in all parts of the city — from Chandni Chowk, Rajendra Nagar, and New Delhi to the wealthy areas of South Delhi with large populations of Punjabi Hindu migrants, from the unauthorised colonies of Sangam Vihar-Deoli to the outlying nearly rural areas of Burari, and much more decidedly among the poorer sections of the population — will be the subject of extended political study. This is all the more so since the AAP outwitted the Opposition’s charge that it was distributing freebies among the poor, or that there was more publicity than substance on its educational endeavours, or even that it was implicitly aligned with the protesters of Shaheen Bagh.
Three distinct aspects emerge from the AAP’s victory. First, closely focused on its governance of the city, the AAP broke down the city binaries, between its wealthy and poorer areas. The power subsidy, for example, was far from being a dole for the poor. It touched nearly 90% of the city’s population, with the most benefits going to the least advantaged. As per data available with the distribution companies, nearly 4.8 million were getting subsidised power bills in December 2019. The subsidy was organised such that there were cuts in fixed costs, which benefited an array of the relatively well-off sections, and those consuming between 0-200 units were given 100% subsidy. In non-peak electricity demand months (October-December), many more households got zero bills, ensuring a mixed distribution of benefits.
Second, the AAP increased State capacity to build the capabilities of its poor and vulnerable citizens in health, but even more in education. It increased its education spending to over one-fourth of its gross budgetary spend (26%), and delivered quality education. I met parents (mothers) and students, who came from a Scheduled Caste background, in schools at Sangam Vihar. Students enjoyed new facilities such computer classes, laboratories, and sports clubs. Their parents were in precarious modes of employment such as household cleaners, cooks, or office support staff. Some had lost their jobs. Good quality education builds what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls the “capacity to aspire” among the young.
Many students said their schools are now cleaned by “aunties” employed for this purpose — earlier, students were asked to clean the schools in the morning. A class 9 girl student told me how the “structure of atoms, molecules, sound” were her favourite topics. Another student said he loved solving linear equations, and wanted to be a scientist. Another student picked Premchand as her favourite writer. There is a learning revolution among the underclass unlike any other I have seen around the world. Mothers spoke about the dignity with which they were treated when they were invited to parent-teacher meetings. Political economists of education confirm how difficult it is for politicians globally to invest in quality-enhancing reforms; they generally support access-oriented reforms, involving the creation of new jobs and construction of buildings. The investments in education, the changed school culture, and better outcomes speak of an ethic of care. These themes were iterated in the efforts to provide clean drinking water, and reduce the hold of the mafia in the provision of basic services to the poor.
Third, it was the “politics of language” that the AAP used to keep the focus on its achievements, even as its adversaries enhanced the vitriol in their “language of politics”. The citizen-led protests in Shaheen Bagh were the cornerstone of the BJP’s attacks. Its minister Anurag Thakur helped a crowd raise the chorus against an imagined set of “desh ke gaddaron”who should be shot; a leader labelled Kejriwal a “terrorist”. The CM took offence to the last one, saying his parent would be offended to hear this, for they had raised him as a patriot who made it to IIT by dint of his hard work. When the AAP schools were ridiculed, Kejriwal and the party asked for the focus to be steadily kept on the “politics of work”. It was an insult to the hard work of Delhi’s schoolchildren, he insisted.
At the end, it was a focus on the life of the common man, woman and child that tilted the unequal battle between the Centre and this small state in favour of the AAP. The result also calls for a change in mindset, which sees urban politics and development as only about the provision of infrastructure and construction projects. For Delhi, it was about building trust networks with citizens especially in disadvantaged spatial segregations, hitherto invisible to its politics.