Programme, ideology and the Delhi elections

There was something of ‘David and Goliath’ in the recently concluded elections in Delhi. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) faced a mightier rival in the BJP with its vastly greater resources, including state power, and won hands down. It also braved hostility directed at it during an unprecedentedly vicious campaign. However, not all commentators seem satisfied, echoing a comment made very early in the history of the party that AAP lacks ideology, which they assert is the hallmark of a political party. Thus it is pointed out that during the election campaign  Arvind Kejriwal did not challenge aggressively enough Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism. This is largely true. He has also been silent, perhaps strategically, on some crucial issues of the day such the Citizen Amendment Act which has sparked-off widespread protests across the country, not least in Delhi. Then, he had nothing to say about the recent police violence in the city, even if he is not accountable as the police answers only to the union home ministry. Finally, there was the ostentatious temple visit. While one cannot deny faith to the politician, in a secular republic one would hope that holders of political office keep their religious observances private and avoid approaching clerics, even when they represent religions other than their own.

            Disappointing as Mr. Kejriwal’s silences may be it cannot be overlooked that he had a programme. This was one of empowering Delhi’s most vulnerable sections by supplying them with water and electricity, improving government schools, enhancing transportation and at least taking a stab at the pollution problem, which predates his arrival by over two decades. To suggest, as has been done, that improving the lives of ordinary people is not politics as even Hitler built an autobahn is no different from rejecting the ideal of a secular state on grounds that some authoritarian regimes in history have been secular. Why should not a commitment to improving the lives of ordinary people count as politics? If a democracy cannot improve the lives of people when it is possible to do so it is not worth having. Political parties with ideologies cannot change this feature.

            In the Westminster model that we find ourselves in, citizens expect political parties to not just have an ideology, a set of beliefs that they are committed to, but one that they actually articulate. Now citizens choose among parties on the basis of their ideology. But especially in India, where daily life is a grind for most, they also look for a programme. That citizens expect political parties to contribute directly to their lived experience is nowhere more evident than in Kerala, where the electorate has experimented with one of two Fronts in every electoral cycle for some decades by now. It would hardly be wise to conclude from this that the common person is somehow fickle and not so steadfast in her beliefs as the cognoscenti would like.                 

            Around the world, the political parties that have been successful in turning around the fate of their countries are parties which had a programme. Thus, Roosevelt’s New Deal was the beginning of a taming of capitalism through regulation and provision of a modicum of welfare. He was elected president of the United States for three successive terms and was instrumental in the defeat of fascism worldwide. And Britain’s Labour Party, changed the social order of a tired, old country through its health and education policy, initiated at a time when the country was reeling under aftereffects of the Second World War. By comparison India’s left parties may have invested more in ideology and less in improving the lives of people, as is evident in social indicators in the part of the country where they have been in power continuously for the longest number of years.

           While AAP is nowhere close to having transited to the levels of public provision found in the welfare states of western Europe, it has not just positioned itself politically it has actually made a beginning not seen elsewhere in this country. When stating this it would also be right to recognise that Delhi is somewhat unique among India's states when it comes to committed expenditure. Not having an agricultural sector to attend to leaves it free of an expenditure head that for most of our states has ended up serving as some kind of a blackhole, sucking in public funds without anything like commensurate returns. Delhi is also one of India's richest states, with substantial human capital and therefore taxable incomes. However, this cannot take away from the smart fiscal management by AAP. It has consistently turned in a revenue account surplus. This has the implication that it has managed to finance its welfare and establishment expenditure from current revenues. This cannot be said of the Centre or even of states in India known for high levels of welfare spending, both turning in substantial revenue account deficits. Interestingly Delhi under AAP state has mostly registered a fiscal surplus. Thus, with the revenue account in surplus, fiscal deficits have arisen only due to capital spending. It would appear that AAP has been able attain this impressive fiscal outcome due to an explicit choice made to first build the capabilities of the population before venturing into social security. This is a cruel dilemma for any caring society but the party appears to have bitten the bullet and gone for schools and hospitals first, relying on family networks to take care of the old and indigent. 

          However, AAP's success is not as much in having gathered the funds to spend as in having implemented an effective programme of health and education provision. Of the two it is the latter that has received greater notice. Central schemes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan have for well over a decade ensured heightened spending on public schools across the country but tests conducted by the educational foundation Pratham show worsening results with respect to learning outcomes. It would be too early to declare that AAP's educational thrust has been a runaway success but an impressive beginning appears to have been made. Hopefully it will have a demonstration effect on the governments of the neighbouring states.

            It is not that it would be just a little too idealistic to play down the need for a ‘constructive programme’, to borrow a phrase from Gandhi, in a political party. It would also be a failure to see that democracy without empowerment in the form of better living conditions is hollow. The result of the Delhi elections shows that it is exactly how the citizen sees it.