In the Marxist study circles of the 70s in Mumbai, among the earnest youngsters who opted to spend their weekends banging their heads against the concepts of “wage, labour and capital”, there were two groups: Those who grasped these complex concepts, and those for whom Revolution simply meant a society where every Indian would be assured of leading a life of dignity, with his/her essential needs met by the state. It seemed an impossible dream, given the nature of governments both at the state and the Centre.
Half a century later, the Revolution is still a dream. But one government has taken the first steps towards enabling that life of dignity to the common citizen. On prime time news, a rickshaw-driver couldn’t hide his pride as he told a rather skeptical interviewer that his child went to the best school in Delhi. Nor could the obviously lower-middle-class mother stop smiling, as she complained that her child no longer liked holidays, so fond was he of his primary school. Both were referring to government schools.
In the feudal world of our political parties, where even ministers rush to touch their leader’s feet, which government bothers to bring smiles to the faces of auto drivers and low-end housewives? The same government that invites people like them - the government school teacher, the bus conductor who saved a six-year-old from being kidnapped, the mohalla clinic doctor - to share the stage with the chief minister at his swearing-in ceremony and introduces them as ‘city builders’. One thing we learnt in those Marxist study circles was the importance of free universal primary education in transforming society. The Indian state after Independence, instead of focusing on getting all children into school, had chosen instead to spend more on higher education. This had benefited those already privileged enough to reach college. What about parents who couldn’t afford to send their children to school? There was a method to this madness, of course. A policy of keeping people illiterate could only benefit the rulers, especially with a populace as conservative and superstitious as ours.
Now comes a chief minister who declares at his swearing-in that the very thought of collecting fees in schools run by his government was an insult to him. He would feel accursed if people had to pay to use his government’s hospitals. Communist governments in Kerala and Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu provided low-cost education and health to their citizens long back, but in the country’s financial capital, we have seen municipal schools close down one by one. In Mumbai’s renowned public hospitals, relatives wheel patients to wards and buy medicines in the open market. Across the country, the lack of beds, stretchers and ambulances in public hospitals makes headlines routinely.
So, for this Mumbaikar, the events of the last week have been no less than a miracle. A government that made schools, hospitals, water and electricity its priorities has been swept to power again, with barely any dent in its popularity, breaking even Narendra Modi’s record in Gujarat. Lest we forget, this government was subject to the worst kind of obstructionist policies from a hostile Centre. Arvind Kejriwal spoke at his swearing-in about the tricolour achieving its full glory only after every child is educated and every citizen gets basic necessities and a job. That was the Revolution many of us had imagined. It was fitting that he ended his speech with a rendition of Hum Honge Kaamyaab, the Hindi version of the famous Civil Rights and Labour song We Shall Overcome.
But the icing on the cake lies in the party he defeated. The ruling party at the Centre let loose its full arsenal of communal vitriol at him. Yet, a mere 6% of Delhi’s Hindus, the BJP’s target audience, got swayed. The BJP has always had a core base of 32% in Delhi’s Assembly elections; this time it got 38%. That’s almost 20% less than those who voted for it eight months ago. Over the last six months, fewer Hindus have voted for the BJP’s majoritarian rhetoric than it expected, given its Lok Sabha sweep last May. The electoral outcomes in Jharkhand, Haryana and Maharashtra have therefore brought much relief to those who fear the way the party’s divisive politics is changing the majority community and thereby the country itself. Even the BJP’s increase in vote share in Jharkhand and Haryana, compared to the 2014 Assembly polls there, hasn’t diluted this sense of relief.
Why, in Maharashtra, even a three-way alliance between a party infamous for communal violence and two ‘secular’ parties, whose record on secularism has been nothing less than shameful, was welcomed as a better option than a government committed to Hindutva. The effects on the ground of BJP-mukt governments have been evident, and the upcoming Rajya Sabha polls can only enhance these. But AAP’s victory is on a different footing. A ruling party which did what a socialist government is supposed to do, without discrimination against anyone, has decisively defeated the country’s most powerful and divisive party. It’s been voted back by all castes and communities, primarily by women, without resorting to identity politics. It treated its people as citizens with common needs, and they, in turn, voted as citizens. You couldn’t get a more emphatic assertion of secular politics and rejection of hate campaigns.
Jyoti Punwani is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. You can reach her on mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.