Populism vs. Political Pragmatism In AAP Ki Delhi

Posted on January 2, 2014 in Politics

By Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar:

Aam Aadmi Party has formed the state government in the national capital, albeit with the support of a party that Kejriwal described as: ‘Congress, as a party, is a corrupt party’! Convenience, circumstances or conviction, whatever it may be, we have the youngest Chief Minister of Delhi. And one simply cannot flinch away from praising the party for its sincerity and commitment to fulfilling some of the promises the party made in its manifesto(s). Within 48 hours of taking over the reins of the state at the Ram Lila Maidan, Kejriwal set down to the task of changing ‘the system completely’, firstly by making good his promise of free supply of 700 litres of water to Delhi households daily. Let’s not bicker over the numbers (667 litres it will be), but evidently this man was not going to sit back and enjoy the ride, as he claimed the other parties are used to doing, in various ways (he went on to say, on quite a few occasions, that corruption was the sole agenda of the Congress and the BJP!). However, let’s just retreat for a moment from the benevolent shower of populist measures and analyze their constitution, as responsible members of this society.


The 20 kilolitres per month per household water-scheme has been realized using the Jal Board’s assurance of taking the financial burden for a three month period. The funny part about this whole exercise is made up of the clauses and conditions attached to the measure. Firstly, the measure is only for those households which have ‘functional water meters’. Great! That brings us bang onto the basic issue we should be discussing. Infrastructure and near 24×7 water supply are the tougher tasks that need to be implemented for this benevolence to reach the nooks and corners of the city. When the plumbing of various sections of the society are in shambles (leakages: a major concern), when the water that many colonies receive is through the rounds of the mobile water tanks, when around 20% (Census, 2011) of the city’s households are not connected to the water-grid that will benefit from this scheme, why are we being so happy with this re-allocation of finances of the Jal Board? Waiting for a few more months and implementing a more all-rounded water circulation policy, possibly to all households, would surely have done as much good if not any better, as this wonderful yet limited measure of Kejriwal.

Moreover, Kejriwal’s measure is being done using a subsidy-based model. As Sandeep Dikshit pointed out recently, the Congress government already had provided around 90% subsidies on 20 kilolitres of water for a month. If I may remind the reader, AAP had always been claiming that the malpractices of certain individuals were responsible for a big burden on the state economics, and regulation of finances. Getting rid of these practises and individuals, could be enough to give the people some of the measures AAP promises (read: the 700 litre-per-day-per-household water promise). But what we now have is just an economic re-calculation with an emphasis on greater subsidies and greater burden on the state finances in the long run. After the first three months, and once the General Elections have passed (convenient timing?), how does AAP propose to continue this model? Also, without chalking out a comprehensive plan and water-sharing agreement with Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, how is the AAP government going to regulate the Yamuna waters it has based its policies on? I find it a horrendous waste of resources too: it gives enough resource-margin to account for water consumption in quite a few European countries!

I’d like to come to the promise on slashing electricity prices to half, mentioned by AAP in its main manifesto. The exact words of the promise are: “Delhi’s consumers have been getting inflated bills due to malpractices by Discoms. AAP promises a reduction of consumers’ electricity expenditure by 50%.” Well and good. But please tell me, Mr. Kejriwal or Mr. Yogendra Yadav, are you actually going to do this using anything other than subsidies again? Let me inform those who are not aware of this, the government cannot have a say in fixing tariffs. The only thing it can do is to subsidise the prices for the electricity provided. The cost of producing electricity is determined by a number of factors such as the human resource and the infrastructure involved, and this cost is what determines the amounts we get in our bills. It is a ‘regulatory issue’ as PD Sudhakar, Chairman of Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission (DERC) has said. Simple. So how can one have any space for considering the idea of an ‘audit of discoms, rectifying inflated bills and getting electricity bills checked by independent agencies’ for the 50% slash?

I am not sure if AAP was referring to independent agencies such as the CAG of India. If so, one may still have chances of a minor change. One simply has no control over state-run generation costs, as determined by firms such as the National Thermal Power Corp. As mentioned in the document circulated by BSES and titled ‘What Determines Electricity Tariff: A Perspective’, one has seen a 300% increase in Bulk Power costs (comprising of generation and transmission costs) from Fiscal Year 03 to Fiscal Year 13, as compared with the mere 65% tariff hike in the same time-period. One major reason has been the stellar performance of certain discoms in controlling losses and theft of power. This well regulated and analyzed scene is sharply contrasting with the one sketched by Mr. Kejriwal and AAP. Going by its statements, it needs to rehash the discom distribution schemes and out of the muck it believes to find therein, one can get a massive 50% tariff dip, conveniently forgetting the 7500 crore annual financial burden on the state as a result of the measure! Simply too good, don’t you think? I guess most of the task will be done once Mr. Kejriwal again has a meeting in his Ghaziabad flat and accepts the subsidies possible.

I would quickly like to review two other issues raised by AAP: Swaraj and the Jan Lokpal Bill, since I am not too well informed with the ground realities related to the various other issues raised by AAP as part of the policies in its main manifesto, most of which I must admit sound progressive and interesting. Hence, I will not discuss them in this article. Firstly, the Jan Lokpal Bill: the resolve is there as is the need. No one can argue against that. Having been passed in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, albeit in a different form (‘toothless’ bill opposed by AAP), the Jan Lokpal Bill is a legislative bill the AAP promises to pass in the Vidhan Sabha within 15 days. The only problem they may face with that would be a technical one. The passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill would require as per Transaction of Business Rules, which was amended in 2002 to include an added clause mentioning that the state government will have to take permission from the Central government while introducing any law. This raises multiple possibilities: the Congress may abjectly reject the bill and face derision, given its anti-corruption drive, or it may find a path to accommodate the AAP version and its own version of the Jan Lokpal Bill and yet face contempt in certain quarters of society for this self-defeating move. But for a party, which having been decimated in Delhi, went on to support the party that has tried to humiliate it in a number of occasions and ways, anything is possible.

As for Kejriwal’s Swaraj, the idea has a populist tint alright but can be a constructive step, if implemented properly. The core element of this idea is the Mohalla Sabha. Kejriwal intends to set up 2700 Sabhas in the city. The major concern, as I see it, for this measure relates to the constitution and finances of these Sabhas. Without proper constitution and regulation of these Sabhas, we may have urban Panchayats with prevalence of malpractices. Another concern related to this model is that of it being time-consuming. With this massive drive of decentralization (a welcome move), the key would be regulation.

I am in no way apprehensive or cynical about AAP’s progress. It is a welcome change in the political dynamics of the country. However, I am against the idea of populism over pragmatism in policy-making, a trend that AAP has seemingly followed in a few of its pursuits. I also look forward to the AAP government making good its promises, after having raised expectations so high that it may be easy to provide quick-fire solutions (with the proverbial magic-wand?) that may not be beneficial for the Delhiites in the long run.