Victory and celebrations: Arvind Kejriwal with wife Sunita and AAP leaders
Is AAP the future?
Umesh Anand, New Delhi
This story appeared in Civil Society's March 2015 edition.
A little over two years after it was launched, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has earned a popular mandate that breaks all records. Arvind Kejriwal told a sea of supporters at his public swearing-in that such a stunning verdict for a young political party could only be the hand of God — the desire of a superior force to bring big change in India.
The victory also seems providential because the party was all but given up for being politically finished. It had frittered away goodwill after it formed a minority government in Delhi and quit in just 49 days in 2014. This was followed by a punishing rout in the Lok Sabha elections. The AAP story, it seemed, was over. Yet, miraculously, it bounced back.
But, divine intervention aside, closer to the ground, AAP’s resurrection is the result of courage and hard work. AAP workers and leaders have changed the rules of the game by owning their mistakes. Politicians aren’t known to do that. They have been listening to voters, making themselves accessible and raising issues like water, housing, transportation, healthcare, electricity charges, school education and pollution. No other party has been so relevant or convincing or persistent.
In crucial ways, AAP seems to have redefined how a political party will have to connect with voters. It has made funding transparent, brought professionals into politics and defined inclusive goals for raising standards of living. In status conscious Delhi, AAP seeks to bring everyone on board on equal terms. All this is new and refreshing.
Is AAP, therefore, the future? has it raised the bar for what people will expect of political parties? Much will depend on the performance of AAP in office. It needs to meet the standards of openness and accountability that AAP has professed in its campaign. AAP will also have to set itself apart with a vision for a modern and inclusive India. It will be expected to lead with ideas and go beyond slogans. It will have to carry forward the trust it has built with its voters.
The determination of AAP cadres to revive the party and shake off failure has undoubtedly come from Kejriwal himself. Before becoming a politician he spent a decade taking up causes and plunging into campaigns and clashing with local authorities. he failed more often than he succeeded, but he hung in as activists often do because they believe in themselves.
It won’t be remembered now, but in the early days Kejriwal sat with a table outside the passport office to help people use RTI to track their applications. he led an agitation against ration shop owners who siphoned off supplies. he reached out to the middle class on electricity bills.
There was public hearing after public hearing, often in remote and rundown corners of Delhi where politicians wouldn’t go because they knew the votes would come one way or the other. Kejriwal, a revenue service officer on long leave, was there as an activist with a young team, which soon came to include Manish Sisodia, now his Deputy Chief Minister. They were supported by other, more experienced, campaigners — Shankar, Aruna Roy, Shekhar Singh, Jean Dreze, Nikhil Dey and many others.
Civil Society had a ringside view of these developments. It was the only magazine consistently reporting those efforts to strengthen RTI and make governance accountable. Our first issue of Civil Society 11 years ago, in September 2003, had Arvind Kejriwal on the cover with the heading: TAXMAN’S BURDeN.
The slogan, ‘Apna paisa apna hisab’, came from the grassroots in Rajasthan, but resonated in Sundernagari, where Kejriwal and his NGO, Parivartan, had based themselves. Soon, samples of road material were being checked and civic assets audited. Contractors were being exposed at public hearings for getting payments for work they hadn’t done.
But for all the energy that was poured into these efforts success was minimal. People related to the issues, but a system mired in corruption and privilege always seemed to prevail. Multiple reversals at the local level perhaps taught Kejriwal the importance of scale. he achieved it with Anna hazare and the campaign for a Lok Pal. highdecibel exposure of corruption, Anna’s personal credibility and the selling of the Lok Pal idea as a silver bullet solution galvanised public attention nationally. And as TV channels and newspapers provided saturation coverage of this upsurge, a political role for Kejriwal was just a hop, step and jump away.
When AAP was formed it was with the sum total of these experiences. The origin of many of its methods can be traced to social movements. So also its core values of transparency, accountability and participation. AAP’s popular appeal is clearly linked to its roots in the anti-corruption efforts of civil society groups beginning with Sundernagari and ending with the Lok Pal blockbuster. There are many expectations of AAP now that it is in office. To demand that it deliver on all counts would be unrealistic and even unfair, given the record of previous governments in Delhi.
But the one count on which it cannot afford to fall short is the activist spirit which brought the party to power. Consultations with citizens worked well in its favour. The Delhi Dialogues and neighbourhood meetings were refreshingly different. AAP now has the responsibility of running an open government with the participation of citizens.
“This is an opportunity and a challenge to fashion a real example of a transparent, accountable and participatory government. AAP has certainly received a strong mandate to do so,” says Aruna Roy of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).
Kejriwal was closely associated with the MKSS in his early years and drew on its methods. He regarded Roy, a veteran campaigner for RTI, as a mentor. They have differed later on ways of combating corruption, strategy and choices.
“There are many things AAP could do immediately,” explains Roy. “It could ensure that all expenditure in every department and office is put online in real time. The party could make sure that the decision-making process and policies are opened to public participation and all meetings in government are carefully recorded, with minutes out in the public domain in real time. It could allow for participatory budgeting and planning, and ensure that all expenditures and beneficiary selections are subject to social audits.”
“AAP can reach out to the vast range and depth of expertise that exists in the social sector on water, electricity, housing, health, urban poverty and anti-corruption issues,” says Roy. “Most people and organisations would readily contribute their time and energy to help build a better and more inclusive form of development.”
AAP’s influence in the unorganised sector can be judged from the response of street vendors. They look forward to special zones where they can have their stalls. AAP included vendor certification in its manifesto. But it was after Kejriwal addressed them that they were completely won over and voted in large numbers for AAP.
“AAP comes as a ray of hope for the unorganised sector in Delhi for which nothing has been done all these years,” says Arbind Singh of the National Association of Street Vendors in India (NASVI). “There are no provisions for healthcare, insurance and affordable housing for construction workers, vendors, domestic servants or drivers. There is harassment by the police. On the other hand the unorganised sector provides a whole range of services.”
“AAP’s votes have come not just from the poor, but also from the middle class and the rich. It is uniquely positioned to be a bridge and create better awareness,” says Singh. “The neglect of the unorganised sector is not the result of some class struggle, but because of lack of understanding. AAP can change things.”
Dunu Roy of the Hazards Centre has been working on issues of the urban poor and has often come to the rescue of people facing eviction in Delhi and getting dumped in resettlement colonies like Bawana.
“The vote of the poor went to AAP because none of the expectations with regard to housing and livelihoods were met by the Congress in the 15 years it was in power. The BJP, on the other hand, was seen as being pro-rich,” says Roy. he believes that people are looking to AAP for the basic security to pursue their livelihoods.
“They aren’t asking for jobs. People come to the city in search of work. They settle where they do because it is affordable and near work. These are choices that are made within the constraints of the system,” says Roy.
“The expectations from the AAP government are access to finance, work insurance in terms of a basic minimum wage and security from evictions,” says Roy. “People also need an identity. If it can’t be where they live it should be where they work. But an identity is essential so that their rights as citizens are recognised.”
Ratish Nanda, an architect, has led the Aga Khan Foundation’s urban renewal project in the Nizamuddin Bustee, the cradle of hindustani culture. Monuments like humayun’s tomb have been brilliantly restored and at the same time infrastructure and access to services in the Nizamuddin slum have been improved.
Nanda says it would be good if the AAP government promoted community ownership of civic assets as has been successfully done through the Nizamuddin project. he laments the “engineering approach” to city development with its emphasis on flyovers and large infrastructure projects. “It doesn’t work and only leads to commissions,” he says.
“For too long we have looked at Delhi as the capital. What about Delhi the city with its own heritage and culture? We need to showcase Delhi’s diversity. The state archaeological department looks after just 22 buildings in Delhi,” Nanda says. “We have to promote local awareness, pride and ownership. Conservation of heritage zones has so far been penalty driven. Instead we need to give people incentives to preserve heritage. Community ownership works. In Nizamuddin we handed over toilets, parks and schools to the community and there were improvements because people became interested in their upkeep.”
CLEAN UP FOR HEALTHCARE
Dr Ravikant Singh of Doctors For You says it is significant that AAP has promised more hospitals and primary health centres. But in public health terms it is equally important to provide sewer lines, toilets, clean drinking water and clearance of garbage. A hygienic environment translates into better public health. Awareness campaigns are needed and AAP with its cadre base can reach out, he says.
Dr Ravikant points out that though Delhi is the capital, 20 per cent of deliveries continue to be at home. In the slum areas the figure goes up to 50 per cent.
“It is shameful that we don’t have 100 per cent institutional deliveries in Delhi. A special scheme could be launched to offer incentives for institutional deliveries,” says Dr Ravikant. “With every primary health centre there should be a subcentre with a nurse to do vaccinations and make home visits to check on the health of families. If there are going to be more hospitals, many more doctors will be needed. In Maharashtra it is mandatory to spend one year in the government health service. In Delhi it should be two years. Salaries are good and it is anyway a city posting.”
Dr Ravikant suggests special OPDs for chronic ailments. Diabetes and hypertension are widespread in urban slum areas. So is tuberculosis. Better public health facilities will mean investments in infrastructure and human resources. The AAP government should prepare to double its spending on health.
Dealing with environmental issues will be a test of AAP’s inclusiveness. It is the only party to formally accept that air pollution is a problem that needs to be fixed.
“With AAP, the language of politics around pollution has changed,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive Director of the Centre for Science and environment (CSE). “This is very welcome. It addresses the need for public transport for the poor and raises your expectations that such changes will be on a meaningful scale, not mere beautification. What we need is a functional network for people to walk, cycle, catch buses, take the metro and drive.”
“The expectation from AAP is that its government put in place a clear action plan on vehicular traffic that can be monitored so that the city is able to move to cleaner standards,” says Roychowdhury.
She feels the need for a smog alert system to inform people on a daily basis about the levels of pollution. When there are smog episodes, there should be emergency measures such as discouraging people from using personal vehicles and ensuring that garbage is not burnt.
An integrated transport system is required to bring down vehicular emissions. In the short and medium term the government should increase the frequency and reliability of buses and extend the routes on which they ply.
A master plan should be prepared so that road space can be used for cycling and walking. A parking policy could restrict the use of private vehicles. It should seek to manage demand and curtail supply of parking spaces with high charges for authorised parking and stiff penalties for illegal parking.
“Modernity is about collective solutions,” says Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General, CSe. “AAP should look at the city’s problems in a holistic manner rather than go in for piecemeal solutions that will get it into trouble over the long term.”
“In transportation solutions should be end to end. Transportation is linked to where people live and work. It is about economics and land use. So, AAP will have to make a choice: does it want to spend on roads and flyovers or does it want to invest in public transport?”
“Similarly, on water it has to decide whether it wants to provide clean drinking water for all or whether it wants to supply unclean drinking water free to the poor”, says Bhushan. “The way to go would be to regulate, cut losses and ensure quality. The poor should get a subsidy and the rich should pay more.”