The sweep shot in Delhi elections

Shriya Mohan | Updated on January 31, 2020

Tightrope walk: Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to steer clear of the NRC-CAA debate is expected attract voters on both sides of the divide   -  THE HINDU / R V MOORTHY

Can the AAP government’s focus on education, health, water and electricity triumph over identity politics in the upcoming Delhi elections?

In the quiet lanes of west Delhi, the sounds of drums reach the upper balconies of the large bungalows that dot the residential colony. The residents gather to meet a young Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader contesting in the Delhi Assembly elections slated for February 8.

Rakesh takes his hot iron off a pile of creased clothes and soaks in the commotion. A party worker going past his roadside ironing stall thrusts a white AAP cap in his hand while another gives him an AAP calendar with chief minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal beaming from its pages. But Rakesh already knows who is getting his vote.

His four children study in government schools. Rakesh and his wife never made it past primary school so his children’s education and their renewed interest in studies fill him with hope. A year ago, he underwent an appendix surgery at a government hospital, and didn’t have to pay a rupee for it. When his family falls sick, they go to the mohalla clinic (an AAP initiative for neighbourhood clinics launched in 2015) to consult a doctor and collect medicines.

To health: The Delhi government’s 450 Mohalla clinics saw over two crore patient in five years   -  THE HINDU / SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR


“My vote goes to the people who worked hard these five years to make our lives better,” he says.

Five years ago, when AAP won 67 of Delhi’s 70 Assembly seats, it was clear that people had backed its promise of ridding Delhi of corruption. The Capital had earlier tried out — and been disillusioned by — the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). AAP, a newbie formed in 2012, came riding on hope, on an anti-corruption wave triggered by the 2011 mass movement led by social activist Anna Hazare. The party took over the reins of Delhi in 2013, but the Kejriwal government, which did not have a clear majority in the Assembly, resigned within two months. Then, in 2015, it swept to power.

Pre-poll surveys predict another AAP victory, but 2020, as many observers point out, is different from 2015. The Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre has pushed the emotive and polarising issues of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) to the forefront of the poll campaign. “When you press the button (of EVM) on February 8, do so with such anger that its current is felt at Shaheen Bagh,” BJP leader and Union home minister Amit Shah said at a recent meeting, referring to a site of popular protests against NRC and CAA in the Capital.

Clearly, for the BJP, the election is being fought on the issue of identity, while the AAP seeks to play up its work in areas such as education, health, water and electricity. Will Delhi vote for better schooling over ousting illegal migrants? “The BJP has promised a more credible governance, and as per our ground reports, it is emerging as a clear alternative,” Member of Parliament and BJP national vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe says.

Development works

AAP worker Vinay Kadam disagrees. Residents welcome him warmly when he walks down the lanes of Sunder nagri in east Delhi. “It’s almost impossible to separate an ordinary resident from an AAP volunteer here,” Kadam says. For this is where Kejriwal — then a former officer with the Income Tax department, itching to bring about change — founded his non-governmental organisation (NGO), Parivartan, some two decades ago. The residents of Sunder nagari were weighed down by poverty, corruption and misgovernance. For Kejriwal, who went on to win a Magsaysay Award in 2006 for his work in the region, the neighbourhood epitomised the problems of the poor, his associates stress.

The residents still remember how the Parivartan team, of which deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia was also a part, worked out of the basement of a tiny office and, invoking the right to information (RTI) Act, got thousands of residents their ration cards and water and electricity supply. For most residents today, electricity supply is free, since the government decided in August 2019 that those consuming less than 200 KW need not pay. Water supply is limited to two hours every morning and evening, but the residents — who earlier had to queue up in front of a hand pump — now have piped water at home.

“During the Parivartan days we residents would be encouraged to discuss our problems at team meetings. We brought up everything — whether it was children falling into open drains or cases of dengue,” recalls Radha Devi, a Sundernagari resident and AAP supporter. The area today has several schools, seven mohalla clinics, four ration outlets and 500 CCTV cameras, the last of which, residents hold, have significantly brought down instances of harassment of women and theft of two-wheelers.

Setting an agenda

The last five years, AAP members point out, were dedicated to health, education, water and electricity. Sisodia tells BLink that with health and education, the government is dealing with the present and the future of its residents (see interview). In education, he adds, the focus has been three-pronged: School infrastructure, teacher training and curricula.

If you are happy and you know it...


Road to zen: Students learn a lesson in integrity   -  SHAILENDRA KUMAR SHARMA


Government schools impart empathy and mindfulness through the happiness curriculum

The students take deep breaths in a classroom decorated with colourful charts. Class 7 F of a government school in south Delhi is quiet, except for the rhythmic sounds of breathing. “It isn’t meditation. It is mindfulness,” a teacher says, adding that the students have been asked to focus on one aspect of life. Sometimes the topic is sports or a conversation with their parents. Today, their mind is on storytelling.

The subject is a part of a “happiness curriculum”, introduced in schools by the Delhi government in 2018 for students from Std 1 to Std 8. Week after week the students discuss subjects such as duty, friendship, respect and love.

The spell breaks, and the teacher tells the class the story of a footballer who won a match by a foul move that only he knew of. When it’s time to pick up the trophy for his team, he is overcome by guilt and gives up the prize. What should the students opt for, the teacher asks. To lose with integrity or win by betrayal?

The students are vocal. Their own stories pour in about shopkeepers who had given them extra change that they returned honestly or about refusing to cheat in an examination or about winning a game by foul play and then feeling a pang of guilt. “We’ll never be believed again if we cheat once. I’d rather be respected than lose respect,” says Shubham Jha, a student.

In 2019, AAP increased the education allocation to 26 per cent of the entire budget. According to the Delhi government, it has invested ₹4,500 crore in school infrastructure alone. Today many government schools have top-end facilities including air-conditioned auditoriums, swimming pools, football grounds, gymnasiums, science labs, IT rooms and libraries.

“When a child walks into a dilapidated classroom, he loses confidence in his own hopes for a brighter future,” says Shailendra Sharma, principal advisor to Delhi’s directorate of education. The infrastructure boost has also led to lower dropout rates, he tells BLink.

Government school results have improved considerably in the last three years. In 2019, the number of students appearing for the Std 12 board exams was 15 per cent higher compared to the figure of the year before. For the first time, more than 1,000 students from government schools secured over 90 per cent marks and the pass percentage increased to 96.2 per cent (from 87 per cent in 2014). The Maharashtra government announced late last month that it would implement the Delhi school model in the state.

According to government data, the 450 mohalla clinics — equipped to provide basic medical care — have treated over 2 crore patients and conducted 15 lakh laboratory tests since its inception in 2015. “I have saved thousands of rupees ever since this mohalla clinic was set up at Shaheen Bagh,” Saba Ahmed, a mother of seven, tells BLink.” Nobody has done more for us than Kejriwal,” says Ahmed, whose husband is a barber. “Our children’s future is made. What more can we ask for?”

Paving strategy

“In the past, too, people voted for MGNREGS, Right to Education, roti kapda makaan or on the slogan of Garibi hatao. But it’s after a long time that an election is being contested on these issues and that’s a welcome change,” says Shivam Shankar Singh, former BJP data analyst and author of How to Win An Indian Election. Singh predicts that AAP will win 55-60 seats.

The party with the broom symbol has faced its share of criticism — from spending over ₹250 crore on advertisements since 2015 (four times more than the Congress party), resorting to “freebies” to lure votes, ignoring the upper middle class vote share to even wasting half its tenure “complaining” about the Centre instead of focusing on the development it could bring within its power.

A Supreme Court judgment, however, has made clear that apart from police, land and public order, all other matters rest with the Delhi government. The verdict helped turn around its image in the nick of time — and Kejriwal has drawn support of those who do not directly benefit from his party’s policies.

“As long as a government is doing deserving work for the needy and isn’t being communal, it deserves a second chance. I was earlier doubtful about Kejriwal’s dharna instigating image. But he has since changed and has delivered on his promises,” says RS Ramasubramaniam, co-chairman of Feedback Infra Pvt Ltd., a leading infrastructure services company in Delhi NCR.

A recent study by the think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicates that 86 per cent of Delhi’s respondents have been satisfied with the AAP government. “Elections are largely about perception,” says CSDS director Sanjay Kumar. Focusing on local governance, not taking a clear stand on the NRC-CAA issue and staying away from Hindu-Muslim politics are smart moves, Singh adds. “So the pro-NRC-CAA voter base will also be voting AAP for Delhi,” he says.

Kejriwal, once derided as the “Muffler Man” (he was rarely seen without a scarf around his throat because of a chronic cough), is being largely perceived as a man of action who takes his own decisions. “As a society, there is a premium we place on a person such as Modi, who takes strong decisions by himself. Kejriwal, too, has prime ministerial aspirations,” Kumar says.

The opposition, however, is not convinced of an AAP victory. The Congress has lost its base — its popular state leader Sheila Dikshit died last year — while the BJP points to its thumping victory in the Capital’s municipal and Lok Sabha elections, bagging all seven seats.

“The romanticism that was there with AAP five years ago has withered away. People don’t want everything free. They want everything professionally managed and delivered as per promise. This is politics of performance and we are the pioneers in this,” says Sahasrabuddhe. “Our promise is that of a pollution-free Delhi, free from life-threatening pollution in climate, in the waters and also free from the dirt of politics of deception brazenly played out by the current dispensation,” he says in an email interview to BLink.

But the success of AAP also indicates that people are pinning their hopes on leaders that they think will take the old order on.

“The India Against Corruption movement produced leaders such as Kejriwal, whom the media covered intensively. If there is a movement out of which a leader emerges, then it’s a possibility [of the birth of local parties and leaders]. But otherwise, even financially, it isn’t feasible,” Singh observes. Finances have been one of the problems afflicting AAP, which also failed miserably in trying to make its presence felt in states neighbouring Delhi. It has mostly been relying on crowd-funding.

These are not issues that trouble Ishan Gohar, a 30-year-old auto driver and father of two small children. His vote, he stresses, will go to the AAP. “I want my kids to be literate,” he says.

‘What matters is that people accompanied us’

Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia offers a checklist of AAP’s successes and failures


Front man: Sisodia says Delhi’s increased tax collection is proof of reduced corruption   -  RAMESH SHARMA


You handle several ministries — education, finance, planning, tourism and more. Are you the real chief minister of Delhi?

CM is CM but, yes, I’m the deputy CM (laughs). I coordinate a lot of things on behalf of the CM but Arvind [Kejriwal] ji is the ultimate decision maker. Ideas come from him and he discusses them with the team and asks me to coordinate, especially when it concerns inter-ministerial engagements. While the CM and ministers have legitimate powers, the deputy CM’s role isn’t chalked out so clearly. When an idea comes from the top, my job is to ensure that it gets effectively implemented.


When AAP came to power in 2015, anti-corruption was the big electoral promise. How successful have you been in tackling corruption in the state?

As Arvind ji says, we’re all products of the anti-corruption movement. Let us make it clear that delivering corruption-free governance is our medium, not the target. We know clearly what we want to deliver through corruption-free governance: Good education, electricity and water, women’s security and more.

We have been able to combat corruption. There are two types of corruption: Mutual corruption and extortionist corruption. Mutual is when both parties mutually engage in corruption, willingly. Extortionist is when one party tells another: ‘I’m going to take money from you so you can enjoy what is legitimately yours’. Extortionist corruption has greatly reduced. Mutual corruption has also reduced in the top leadership and senior bureaucrats. At the lower rungs, I still get complaints and each time we hear of a case we are quick in taking action. The problem has been that we don’t have the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) under us. If we had the ACB, all extortionist corruption would come to an end, with a helpline we had set up for corruption-related complaints. In May 2015, the ACB was snatched from us; it was made to report to the lieutenant governor, not the CM.

The biggest example I can give you of reduced corruption is tax collection. Because of AAP, Delhi’s tax budget went up from ₹30,000 crore to ₹60,000 crore. Corruption happens at two points: Either at the tax collection (stage) or tax expenditure. Earlier, tax collection used to increase by ₹5,000 crore in five years; now it’s doubled. People’s trust in us has increased.

How has AAP changed people’s lives in Delhi?

In many ways, but health and education are the key areas where we’ve made a difference. Education determines a child’s future. Health determines the present. We have given the confidence to the people that for small ailments they will not have to spend anything. For major illnesses you can trust government hospitals. If government hospitals are not able to fulfil your needs then we’ll take you to private hospitals and bear the cost. That’s our scheme for everybody, although it gets availed of mostly by poor people. Then (the change) has been about quality education. Our other big interventions are in ensuring 24-hour electricity supply and improving water supply across Delhi. We’ve bettered public transport and women’s safety. The CCTV cameras we have installed across the streets act as a deterrent to crimes against women and thefts.

Aren’t CCTV cameras surface-level interventions, especially when you don’t have the Delhi Police under your control? When studies show that the death penalty isn’t a deterrence to rape, how can CCTVs help?

It is working as a deterrence. Even if we had the Delhi Police in our control we would have wanted CCTV cameras. Today boys are terrified that their parents will get to see their condemnable behaviour towards women. There is proof [of this]. Creating social pressure is a larger deterrent than capital punishment.

Will Delhi really vote for local issues such as education and healthcare when the national narrative is about identity politics?

I am quite optimistic. If you go by the state elections, you can see that, one by one, people have been rejecting that idea [of identity politics]. In state elections people vote for local issues. This is a nationwide trend.

AAP was earlier more confrontational with the Centre. Today you toe a careful line and have learnt to work around the state-centre conflict…

One major breakthrough was the 2018 SC judgment. Before that, the LG’s office used to stop or delay all our interventions, raise unnecessary queries and send back files.

Let me give you an example. Four years ago, the Delhi government wanted to implement a scheme under which people could get legal documents delivered to their doorstep by calling a toll-free number. The LG rejected the idea, stating that it was a bad idea because if executives went to people’s houses, there would be more traffic on the roads and thus more pollution. Ispey toh ladna banta tha, yaar (This deserved a fight). So I took media people to crowded government offices where people had queued up to get their paperwork done, and showed them the reality of what we were trying to change.

In 2018, the SC said that in Delhi, barring three subjects — police, public order and land — the government meant the elected government. There was no need to fight after that.

Why did you fail to make an impact in the general elections?

We were quite hopeful. But our guess was wrong. We couldn’t estimate BJP and Modi ji’s popularity. Time will tell what we could’ve done differently.

AAP is seen as a party that can’t hold people together.

It’s a new party. And a rapidly growing party. We are the product of a spontaneous movement. And the movement brought together a lot of people from different segments, who had different ambitions. Eventually, we culled out a party from the movement. We set targets. We had to sacrifice much to achieve those targets. There were ideological and working-style differences. What matters is that people accompanied us, it doesn’t matter for how long. It’s a process of evolution.


Published on January 31, 2020

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