by Sriniket Bandaru
The Aam Aadmi party’s victory in Punjab has been marked as the dawn of a new political bloc making the party be reckoned amongst the likes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC). A political startup has officially achieved the status of a two-state party without aligning under any regional or ethnic identities. It has done so by focusing on delivery in sectors like education and healthcare, steering away from the headwinds of nationalism or religion. This article aims to review the ideology of the AAP and whether it can answer the BJP’s right-wing nationalism.
Contemporary Welfarism in India
The recent resurgence of welfarism in India is accredited to the Prime Minister’s comments on the AAP government’s “short-cut” political strategies. In his words, the culture of distributing freebies or the ‘Revdi’ culture will hurt the country as such politics are inconsequential to the country’s development. Even the election commission stepped in to decide whether freebies are required. They have yet to reach a consensus but came out with two strong statements: freebies have far-reaching financial ramifications, but they might aid the weaker sections of society.
On the other hand, Arvind Kejriwal, the national convenor of AAP, defended his policies. He believed that offering provisions for social necessities such as education, healthcare, and electricity is part of the administration’s responsibility. Kejriwal’s stance on welfarism is further strengthened by his government’s performance in the abovementioned sectors. Nevertheless, the central government defended its position by stating that freebies do not equate to welfarism. According to them, the provision of free houses or ration is not the same as free electricity since electricity is not a basic necessity like the others. The current dilemma over the nature of freebies is not a new trend, as it is traced back over six decades.
History of Welfarism in India
India has been a welfare state ever since its inception. One of the core pillars of India is that it is a socialist and secular republic. The Nehru administration policies in the education sector invested heavily in constructing the infrastructure required for the country’s youth. It was also evident through the adoption of the five-year plans that the Soviet social model inspired Nehru’s government. Whether it is about reservations of backward castes or tribes, tax exemption of agricultural income or providing free access to healthcare, India has never been shy of being called a welfare state. Some may argue that benefits of social welfare deplete the state’s coffers and increase dependency. However, it is tough to refute that most policy beneficiaries still live in dire conditions.
The birth of freebies, in their truest sense, was in the state of Tamil Nadu. Kumaraswami Kamaraj, the chief minister of Madras state, introduced freebies such as free education and meals for school students in 1954. CN Annadurai promised a subsidised rate for 1 Kg of rice in the following decade. The radical change to freebies as we refer to them today was in 2006 when M. Karunanidhi came to power after offering a slew of handouts like television sets, spending over Rs.3,000 crores to fulfil the promise.
Welfarism under the AAP
The first thing the administration did was increase the budgetary allocation towards both education and electricity. Thirty new schools were built while old schools were renovated with 8,000 new classrooms. Furthermore, the administration introduced the ‘Happiness curriculum’, which focussed on critical thinking and social-emotional learning for nurturing future leaders. At the end of their first term, education was sized up to a quarter of the total budget. Healthcare was so well received that UN Secretary Generals Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon commended the Delhi government’s launch of Mohalla clinics: primary healthcare centres providing free consultations and medications. Although they came short of their infrastructural promises, both sectors experienced positive policy impacts.
Electricity was another welfarist scheme which drew much criticism from the opposition. The AAP government decided to fully subsidise electricity for users who consume less than 200 units and 50% for those who consume between 201 and 400 units. The government could curb the rising electricity prices in the national capital by doing so. Many critics and opposition leaders called this a “political stunt” and a prime example of “freebies”. After initially defending the
policy, the government decided to keep it optional this year to hope wealthier consumers would opt out.
The initial electoral manifesto did not revolve around education or healthcare. In the 70-point action plan from their 2015 manifesto, the party was determined to take on corruption and empower the general public. The Jan Lokpal Bill and the Swaraj Bill were about establishing an independent body to investigate corruption cases, while the latter proposed the formation of Mohalla Sabhas, where locals can have a say in development works in the locality. Both of these electoral promises were fulfilled after much deliberation with the central government and the Lieutenant governor of Delhi.
Tackling Nationalism and New Welfarism
The AAP’s attempts to resolve institutional corruption are rooted in the ‘India Against Corruption’ (IAC) movement. The movement voiced the rising resentment of corruption in the UPA government in 2011. Anna Hazare was the face of the movement, and members like Arvind Kejriwal were prominent voices too. Inspired to form a political organisation that fights corruption like the movement, Arvind Kejriwal formed the Aam Aadmi Party alongside Yogendra Yadav and Manish Sisodia, amongst others. The party spoke against the ruling Congress and incumbent Sheila Dikshit in its first election campaign. After a short 49-day stint as CM, followed by a national campaign in 2014, the party revised their agenda. Once they returned to power in 2015, corruption and public empowerment in the legislation were not the front-runners of the party’s objective. Welfarism took control of the wheel, ditching the old principles (like the literal sacking of IAC associates Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan). The abandonment of the old rhetoric has changed the outlook from an idealistic party to a political powerhouse targeting effective delivery and setting a precedent for their political ambitions.
The party and its leader have addressed the question of nationalism very safely. For instance, when article 370 was abrogated by the central government, the party supported them but opposed the idea of making Jammu and Kashmir a Union Territory. In another instance, when right-wing forces were accused of attacking students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the party was silent and stayed at arm’s length from any question regarding the protests. The attacks were in retaliation to the massive student-led protests against CAA, a divisive policy which raised the issue of religious persecution under the NDA government. The AAP has steered clear from questions regarding religion and nationalism as they are highly divisive for a party with no religious identity and the predominantly Hindu voter base they are trying to woo. Any statement that directly criticises such policies would vilify the party from its voter bases. Instead, the party blames the BJP for conspiring hate against them, like the accusations of collusion between AAP and Khalistani elements during the Punjab elections. This gives the party an excuse for not commenting or acting on any of the abovementioned issues.
Apart from nationalism, the AAP had to tackle the BJP’s adoption of a new wave of welfarism, termed ‘new welfarism’ (Arvind Subramanian’s original article where he termed it). New welfarism has become a popular cheat code for governments across India, such as TRS in Telangana and TMC in West Bengal. Much like the AAP, the BJP campaigned along the lines of
“maximum governance, minimum government”, expressing their administration’s continual work towards keeping the role of the government small, an idea rooted in classical economics. Unfortunately, the minimum government led to distancing the poor, especially the majority of rural India, from the government. In order to correct this, the central government began to launch welfare schemes that distribute gas cylinders, build toilets or open back accounts. Unlike education or healthcare, tangible goods can be monitored and measurable. With the help of these schemes, the central government could defeat rising inflation in the country.
Cynicism and Political Astuteness
The great comedian and social critic George Carlin once said, “Inside every cynical person, there is an idealist”. The case of both AAP and BJP are a testament to the statement; the former entered politics to defeat institutional corruption, while the latter intended to form a government that ran on the motto of reducing the role of the government. Oddly, both parties could not overcome the great Indian elephant of the ‘big government’ (from Vivek Kaul’s India’s Big Government). This phrase symbolises the tendency of governments to maximise their presence in every policy rolled out. Be it the case of Tamil Nadu or Telangana, Indian politicians love to imprint themselves anywhere they can.
The AAP, with its policies on education and healthcare, has resolved the problems of nationalism and new welfarism. The Delhi model, which the AAP proudly flaunts when campaigning in Gujarat, is a call for voters to compare the two models of welfarism and decide which is more beneficial. Sadly, the AAP has turned towards the worst by going after the same old model, promising benefits for cow owners and women and allowances for the unemployed. The party has also not mentioned unemployment in their press briefings, an issue the Delhi government was criticised for not addressing. Meanwhile, the BJP said it was not in the race for ‘freebies’.
The AAP continues to take over the Congress as they go from one state to another in their long battle against the BJP. In his piece about AAP’s rise, Shekhar Gupta said it best, “Politics is all about cynicism, and Kejriwal is the master of it.” Sadly, cynicism will only lead to higher degrees of welfare populism until someone calls to quit.
By Sriniket Bandaru, a B.A. Economics (Hons.) student from O.P. Jindal Global University
Image Source: The Print