The Aam Admi Party has begun 2016 with a bang, both in Delhi and Punjab. Arvind Kejriwal addressed a big rally in Punjab that must be seen as an indicator of the party moving beyond an urban metropolis to enter new terrain in India.
But it’s in Delhi that AAP has begun to make a mark in policy and governance. The much-debated odd-even policy, whose trial period now comes to an end, was put into effect in Delhi without any great mishap. Traffic was smoother in the capital, and the impact on pollution is being debated.
Politically, what the policy achieved is to re-emphasise the special ability of Kejriwal and his young party to do unconventional things. For all the criticism of AAP, they could engage citizens in an initiative that is at its core about civic consciousness. As a result of that, they head towards the party’s first anniversary in power on February 14 with some of its image restored.
Another key step that AAP has taken in the past year is to cancel management quotas in private schools. Many private schools are upset, and those that go about business honestly complain that there is a certain tonality in the directives from Delhi government that suggest that all schools are running rackets. However, that doesn’t negate the fact some schools certainly are. So what the policy has done is again revealed AAP’s ability to act against some entrenched interests.
There are more big initiatives in the offing. The Delhi government has begun the process of issuing tenders to set up 1,000 mohalla clinics, after the pilot clinic was hailed a success by health experts who see it as a way to provide diagnostic tests to the poor.
Besides, AAP is also working on a universal health insurance scheme for all residents of Delhi, with a ceiling of Rs 3 lakh per person for inpatient care. The details are not final but insiders say the costs could be around Rs 300 crore annually: the Delhi government would possibly pay insurance companies for patients who would be free to land up in private hospitals.
It’s an ambitious scheme that they hope to unveil later this year. If it does go according to the blueprint being prepared, then the AAP government would be offering Delhi the best benefits among any health insurance schemes of this kind in the country.
In 2008, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had launched the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna that provides inpatient coverage to families living below the poverty line up to Rs 30,000. The AAP scheme now wants to extend health insurance beyond the below poverty line category to all those who can claim to be residents of Delhi.
In state schemes operational in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the spending limit for health insurance schemes range from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh. The Delhi government is aiming for Rs 3 lakh.
Can things work?
Be it on the issue of controlling pollution, reforming the private school sector or expanding healthcare, AAP has ambitious plans. Whether they work will only become clear after some time when the ground impact has been assessed.
If AAP does actually end up making the poorer sections of the city feel they have greater access to health and education (and do not have to fear their homes being demolished), then it would get a stronger hold over the capital. In that case, the high-profile fights with the lieutenant governor and the Bharatiya Janata Party would only have traction in the conventional and social media spaces. For a chunk of the city’s citizens, these run-ins would hardly matter.
In the 2015 state assembly election, all sections of society voted for AAP, but the post-poll analyses show that the richer the voter, the less the appeal. Conversely, the poor overwhelmingly supported AAP and the leadership is clear that it is this voter bloc that would remain loyal to them.
Yet, AAP is also very different from other political forces that rose as representatives of the poor. The communists in India, for one, saw themselves as taking up the cause of the downtrodden. But they principally viewed the world from the prism of class. In West Bengal, for instance, they brought about land reforms that were transformative but beyond that they did not actually add to the efficiency of systems and structures that are meant to deliver to the people.
The same trend can be seen in the approach of the political parties that rose in the age of Mandal. They were transformative in bringing about social change and breaking the domination of the upper castes. Certainly, the Dalits and Other Backward Classes of the Gangetic belt were beneficiaries. But they too did not focus on creating structures of governance and administration. Their focus was empowerment.
AAP’s raison d’etre is very different. Once a civil servant, Arvind Kejriwal took leave from the income tax department in 2000 and began a movement called Parivartan in East Delhi to address grievances linked to the public distribution system, electricity, water and social welfare schemes. His politics is not about some grand social change. It is about making systems work and keeping them accountable.
Kejriwal, the activist, understands the issues of bijli-sadak-paani (electricity-roads-water), the processes involved, how money is siphoned off and how systems meant to deliver do not. Governance is therefore the area where AAP logically should succeed.
But it’s in the arena of politics that Kejriwal has so far proven his mettle. This was also visible in the manner in which he took command of the narrative after the raid on the Delhi secretariat. The Delhi chief minister gave a round of interviews, putting his telegenic personality to full effect. The damage was eventually done to the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership.
Meanwhile, AAP is in the midst of expansion plans. It has sneaked up as a force in Punjab, the state where the party will contest the 2017 assembly elections. The AAP electoral blueprint for Delhi had consisted of putting a detailed logistical structure in place that could translate the goodwill of potential voters into actual votes. They are trying a similar exercise in the very different terrain of Punjab.
Arvind Kejriwal is someone who actually built AAP from scratch and those who disagreed with that orientation have exited the party after high-voltage drama last year. Consequently, after the dizzying heights of victory, 2015 was often a bumpy ride for AAP.
It has begun 2016 by again getting into their stride. The AAP volunteer-based model is at work and interesting plans, schemes and strategies are in the offing.
Saba Naqvi is a Delhi-based author and journalist.