The Yamuna river in Delhi symbolises the city’s poverty line. To its east live Delhi’s “have-nots”: Almost 30 per cent of the population crammed into just 15 per cent of the city’s area, comprising the lower-middle and working classes, including lakhs of migrant labourers and most of its 1,600-odd slums. To its west reside the “have-lots”: The millionaires, politicians, bureaucrats, business magnates and media barons, the upper crust.
The Delhi west of the Yamuna (New Delhi) has a visceral hatred for Kejriwal and considers him a charlatan, anarchist and populist. East Delhi’s marginalised millions love him with the same vigour with which all earlier governments 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 budget’s major share 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 and clubs. The East, in contrast, 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 cousin. Both the Centre and 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 Queensberry rules which have made CMs of Union Territories helpless puppets, the judicial dispensation which is inclined to the status quo and the bureaucracy which welcomes this dichotomy of power because it renders it unaccountable. Kejriwal has started channelling 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 10,000 class rooms, put a tight leash on private schools’ hunger for fee hikes and moved admission to seats reserved for the economically weaker sections online to remove discretion. He has allocated 16 per cent of the budget to the health sector, the highest percentage for any State. His initiatives in providing Universal Health Care include opening of 100 mohalla clinics (300 more sanctioned recently), free diagnostic tests at private labs and free operations at empanelled private hospitals if the waiting period in government hospitals exceeds one month, have been applauded by Kofi Annan and the WHO, and held up as a model even for developed countries. He has provided free power upto 400 units per month and free “lifeline” water of 20,000 litres per month: The former covers 86 per cent of Delhi’s poorest, and the latter benefits 12.56 lakh households. Around 8,000 public toilets have been constructed in two years, whereas only 4,875 were built in the preceding four years. The slums have been his main focus: Delhi’s 309 unauthorised colonies and 700 Jhuggi Jhopdi colonies house 40 per cent of its population, but no government had thought of them earlier.
New Delhi is not impressed. Its residents don’t need public toilets, they have private ones “en suite”; lifeline water is irrelevant as they use more water to wash their cars; mohalla clinics and free diagnostics don’t matter because they go to five-star private hospitals or CGHS dispensaries. But they strongly resent the fact that Kejriwal dares to put the interests of the underprivileged before their own. They decry that he spends Rs 1,200 crore on free power, forgetting the 12,000 members of the Gymkhana and golf clubs benefit from an annual subsidy of Rs 50 lakh per member (annual interest on the value of the 200 acres of land they are sitting on, minus the pittance they pay as lease rent)!
New Delhi feels threatened by Kejriwal because of his attempts to redraft the rules of governance and the definition of “public interest”. The mainstream political parties are alarmed, because he is appealing across the traditional paradigms of caste, class and religion. His policy concerns are centred on the 50 per cent of India who own only 1 per cent of its wealth, not on the 1 per cent who have cornered 49 per cent (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 seen as part of the populist movement that has captured the US and is sweeping across Europe. As John Judis explains so well in his new book The Populist Explosion, it’s a trend that is here to stay, drawing its sustenance from “the deep well of discontent” with the status quo. Populism, as exemplified by Donald Trump, Italy’s Beppe Grillo, UK’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen is a pushback against the traditionally powerful elite. It rejects 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 in 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, “It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, its about the size of the fight in the dog.”
The author served in the IAS for 35 years and retired as Additional Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh.