[ This article was published in the New Indian Express on 10th Feb. 2017.]
The Yamuna river in Delhi symbolises the city’s poverty line. To its east live Delhi’s “ have nots”: almost 30% of the population crammed into just 15% of the city’s area, comprising the lower- middle and working classes, including lakhs of migrant labour and most of its 1600 odd slums. To its west reside the “ have lots”: the millionaires, politicians, bureaucrats, business magnates, media barons and their opinionated anchors, the upper crest as it were.
The Delhi west of the Yamuna ( New Delhi) has a visceral hatred for Kejriwal and considers him a charlatan, anarchist, populist, bad-mouth. East Delhi’s marginalised millions love him, with the same vigour with which all previous govts. have ignored them. The Yamuna is not, therefore, just a 200 feet wide ribbon of sludge, it is the fault line which defines and explains the politics of Kejriwal.
New Delhi has historically thrived by being status quoist, its hands firmly clasped on all the levers of power. It appropriates the major share of the budget to maintain its broad avenues and verdant parks, its per capita consumption of public resources is many times that of East Delhi. It has the best schools, hospitals,hotels, malls and clubs. The East, on the other hand, has the largest number of garbage dumps and the biggest sanitary landfills. New Delhi has profited handsomely from the status quo, at the cost of its poor easterly cousin, and both the Centre and the state have been comfortable with this arrangement. Kejriwal is not, and this is his calling card.
Kejriwal is challenging this status quo. He rejects the centre’s version of the Queensbury rules which have made Chief Ministers of Union Territories helpless puppets, a judicial dispensation which is conservatively inclined to the status quo, a bureaucracy which welcomes this dichotomy of power because it renders it unaccountable. Kejriwal has started channelizing the state’s resources to the hitherto neglected millions symbolised by East Delhi. Deprived by the Centre and the Lieutenant Governor of a say in most areas of governance, he has concentrated on the three still with him, and this has not gone down too well with the pampered elite.
In Education he has added 10000 class rooms, put a tight leash on private schools’ hunger for fee hikes, made admission to EWS seats on-line to remove discretion. In the Health sector he has allocated 16% of the budget ( Rs.5292 crore), the highest percentage for any state . His initiatives in providing Universal Health Care include opening of 100 Mohalla Clinics( 300 more have been sanctioned last week), free diagnostic tests at private labs, free operations at empanelled private hospitals if the waiting period in govt. hospitals exceeds one month, have been applauded internationally by Kofi Annan and the WHO, and have been held up as a model even for developed countries .He has provided free power upto 400 units per month and free “ lifeline” water of 20000 litres per month: the former covers 86% of Delhi’s poorest residents, and the latter benefits 12.56 households. 8000 public toilets have been constructed in two years, whereas only 4875 had been built in the preceding 4 years.The slums( unauthorised colonies, JJ colonies) have been his main focus; Delhi has 309 of the first and 700 of the latter and they house 40% of the city’s population but no govt. had really thought of them earlier.
New Delhi is not impressed, naturally: its residents don’t need public toilets, they have private ones “ en suite”, lifeline water is irrelevant: they use more water to wash their cars; Mohalla Clinics and free diagnostics don’t matter because they go to 5-star private hospitals or CGHS dispensaries; fee hikes don’t bother them either: their children go to air conditioned schools anyway. But they strongly resent the fact that Kejriwal dares to put the interests of the under-privileged before their own. They decry the fact that he spends 1200 crores on free power, forgetting that the 12000 members of the Gymkhana and Golf Clubs benefit from a subsidy of Rs. 50 lakhs, per member per year ( the annual interest on the value of the 200 acres of land they are sitting on, minus the pittance they pay as lease rent)!
New/ South Delhi feel threatened by Kejriwal and his AAP because of his attempts to redraft the rules of governance and the definition of “ public interest.” So do all the mainstream political parties, because he is appealing across the traditional paradigms of caste, class and religion. His policy concerns are centered on the 50% of India which owns only 1% of its wealth, not on the 1% who have cornered 49% of it ( Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2014). If there is one thing they all agree on it is the imperative to stop him before he does any more damage to the self-serving edifice so assiduously built by them, before he upends the apple cart.
But Kejriwal and AAP are not unique: they can be better understood if they are seen as part of the “ Populism” movement that has captured the USA and is sweeping across Europe. As John Judis explains so well in his new book THE POPULIST EXPLOSION, this is a trend/doctrine that is here to stay, drawing its sustenance from “ the deep well of discontent” with the status quo. “Populism”, as exemplified by the likes of Donald Trump, Italy’s Beppe Grillo, UK’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine La Pen is a push-back against the traditionally powerful elite: journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists. It rejects the existing systems which it sees as rigged against the poor and the lower middle class by a liberal elite.
If the AAP does well in Punjab and Goa it shall become only the seventh national party and can become a nucleus around which the regional parties can coalesce for 2019. The latter are powerful in their own states but lack a pan India appeal or agenda, which the AAP can provide. Kejriwal is perhaps proving that globalisation is not merely an economic phenomenon but also a political one. He is still the underdog but he may yet prove Mark Twain was right when he said: “ Its not about the size of the dog in the fight, its about the size of the fight in the dog.”