R Srinivasan

Kejriwal and the rise of the urban ‘non-poor’

R Srinivasan | Updated on February 20, 2020 Published on February 19, 2020

Shrewdly-targeted urban welfarism and the politics of governance have resonated with the people of Delhi

Much has been written and analysed about the stunning victory of the Aam Aadmi Party in the recently concluded elections to the Delhi Assembly. Arvind Kejriwal proved that he is no one-off giant-killer, nearly repeating his 2015 clean sweep, bagging 62 out of 70 seats, with a vote share of 54 per cent.

This was in the face of arguably one of the most vitriolic and high-decibel campaigns mounted by the BJP, which pulled out all stops in pushing its twin trump cards of Hindutva and Narendra Modi. However, neither the magic of Modi nor the vehemence of Amit Shah — or even the ill-advised “goli maaro gaddaron ko” (shoot traitors) line pushed by some in the ruling party — resonated in the poll booth. The BJP managed to consolidate much of the Hindu vote and even improved its vote share, but had precious few seats to show for it.

Analysts and political observers have advanced a number of reasons for this remarkable performance. One popular theory is that the Delhi electorate voted purely on local issues, where the BJP’s Hindutva rhetoric failed to resonate against the AAP’s showcasing of its governance delivery, specially in education and healthcare. Delhi’s voters will continue to vote for Modi at the national level (the BJP won all seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi less than a year ago) but went for Kejriwal’s freebies, runs the argument.

All of these arguments undoubtedly are at least partially, perhaps even wholly, correct. But simply saying “Kejriwal bought his votes with free water and subsidised electricity” does not explain the massive 54 per cent-plus voteshare of the AAP. After all, “bijli, sadak, paani” (electricity, roads, water) have been an essential part of India’s electoral rhetoric for debates.

And it is not as if other parties and other governments haven’t tried the freebie route to power. The BJP itself is no mean player in the handouts game, with its income transfer scheme for farmers, free cooking gas cylinders for the poor, subsidised low-cost housing, toilets for all and so on.

Urban strength

So, why did Kejriwal’s welfarism work, while the BJP’s did not? To understand this contradiction, one needs to understand the real composition of a city-state like Delhi. The National Capital Territory of Delhi — to give it its full name — is India’s foremost urban agglomeration, with a population second only to the Greater Mumbai area (in fact, if we use the NCR region, which includes the satellite cities of Gurugram, Noida, Faridabad and Ghaziabad, it is already India’s biggest urban area). Its economy has been growing at a scorching pace, with GDP per capita growing at 6.6 per cent between 2014-16 (according to the Global Metro Monitor report by the Brookings Institute). The national capital creates over 3.1 lakh jobs per year, attracting over one lakh new economic migrants every year.

According to the Economic Survey of Delhi for 2018-19 produced by the Delhi government, Delhi’s per capita income, at ₹3,65,529, is thrice the national average and the State economy grew, in real terms, at 8.6 per cent in 2018-19 — more than 50 per cent higher than the national growth rate.

But this immense prosperity and impressive numbers hide great inequality and poverty. About 17 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, while a third of the population lives either in slums or in ‘unauthorised” colonies, without access to basic civic services. Despite the high per capita income, the distribution is very skewed. About 17 per cent of the households in Delhi have an annual income of less than ₹75,000, while a further 17 per cent has an annual household income of between ₹75,000-1.5 lakh (2015 figures). In fact, more than half the population of the city falls under the less than ₹3-lakh per annum household income bracket.

Target constituency

This creates a unique constituency in Delhi, which, to my mind, the AAP has been the first to recognise as such and specifically target with governance delivery. I call this segment the ‘urban non-poor”. These are people, who, by government and international definitions of poverty, do not fit the bill. But they are by no means rich, or even lower middle-class. They are simply “non-poor”.

This segment is extremely vulnerable to the slightest change in economic climate or personal well-being. Most of them are either marginal self-employed or service sector (which accounts for 80 per cent of all jobs in Delhi) workers in sub minimum-wage jobs. If even one wage-earner in a household loses his or her job, it has a catastrophic impact on the household economy. A lay-off, illness or injury sends these families back below poverty. Worse, coping mechanisms to deal with the crisis — borrowings or mortgaging/sale of assets — puts them firmly into the poverty trap.

Conversely, these urban “non-poor” households are the ones which require — and use — government-delivered free or subsidised services the most. For these households, a working mohalla (neighbourhood) clinic — which the AAP government made the focus of its healthcare effort — may mean the difference between living to fight another day or going back into poverty.

Likewise, an improved government school with measurably improved learning outcomes means that their children get a possible ticket out of the survival battle they wage every day. Education is the single-most important factor in social and economic mobility in India. For affluent South and West Delhi, or even large parts of middle-class East Delhi, free water or subsidised electricity may not mean much — but for this ‘non-poor’ class, it makes a vital difference.

This is the constituency Kejriwal has targeted. The difference between his and welfare thrusts in other States is that Delhi’s prosperity — it’s a revenue-surplus State — gives him the fiscal leeway to take these measures beyond tokenism. Education gets 27.36 per cent of the budget allocated for schemes/projects followed with social security and welfare at 16.63 per cent, medical and public health 14.81 per cent, housing and urban development 14.12 per cent, transport 11.67 per cent and water supply and sanitation 10.68 per cent. He has ensured that he spends 95 per cent of his budget targeting his core-target group, something which no other State Chief Minister can claim.

India is becoming largely urban. Census data suggests that 31 per cent of the population is urban, but satellite imagery of built up areas pegs it at over 63 per cent of the population. Which means that the Kejriwal formula can well resonate with a significant percentage of voters in times to come. By shifting the debate to basics like health, education and water, Kejriwal may have done more to create a fresh new political discourse than any other political leader, with the exception of Narendra Modi.

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Published on February 19, 2020
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