Aam Aadmi Party gets it wrong

AAP will have to concentrate on governance, managerial skills, capable institutions and clear policy frameworks.

AAP pic

AAP pulled off a spectacular victory in Delhi. This, with their confidence and ambitious promises has raised expectations. A nation that has endured plenty of overbearing and destructive policies for decades from all quarters can afford to give some leeway to newcomers. But herein lies the hope and potential dangers of the AAP phenomenon.

Established parties from across the world promise the moon but are shrewd enough to drop them when faced with fiscal or policy impossibilities. But righteousness that is fueling the rise of AAP makes such practical fine-tuning or even U-turns difficult. Especially for motley of disgruntled citizens, armed with a nebulous one point agenda of anti-corruption.

While fighting corruption is welcome, AAP will have to take sides among myriad choices in the coming days. A quick perusal of their manifesto holds hope, dangers and much vagueness – to be expected from a nascent party rapidly achieving power. Some cautionary notes and constructive suggestions are in order.

For all practical purposes Delhi is a city-state akin to Singapore– a great opportunity to reform the third tier of governance. While there is much mention about Mohalla Committees (MC) as a way for citizens to take up all kinds of responsibilities and monitoring functions, there is no mention of a Mayor or a Council. While AAP promises to “demand full statehood to Delhi, so that MCD, DDA and Delhi Police are directly controlled by the Delhi government” it says nothing about devolving power to the MCD. Will the CM act as the Mayor? Will AAP help India realise that it takes a strong city administration, to raise funds, regulate and coordinate among various agencies immediately tasked with delivering city services, translate  citizens’ aspirations into better quality of life – govern without constant need to get permissions and handouts from the state or Centre?

Here the AAP government should show generosity and vision to devolve power to MCD and resist reluctance shown by other states when it comes to devolution of their powers. Interestingly AAP promises these to villages surrounding Delhi via Gram Sabhas. Why not remove the distinction between cities and villages and treat them all as cities that are small, medium, or big? Delhi poses a serious challenge as it is national capital and hence is burdened with fragmented power centres and ambiguous responsibilities – a malady suffered by many national capitals including Washington DC. Delivering infrastructure and services, while navigating such vexing waters would be challenging even for seasoned players.

Over emphasis on MC also poses a risk. As much as public participation is vital in a democracy, as a vehicle to bubble up aspirations and frustrations of citizens, MC can easily be mistaken as a fount of expertise and alternative to governance. Public participation, like building world class roads and bus systems, requires systemic capacity to manage dialogue, complaints, suggestions, feedback – something the Indian cities just does not have. AAP may also soon discover that citizens want governance and do not have the inclination to substitute themselves for governance expected from Mayors, Councillors, and city bureaucracies.

Critics have compared AAP’s two promises – free water for household using up to 700 litres per day and reduction of consumers’ electricity expenditure by 50 percent – to freebies like TV or grinders – and point to the financial damages they cause. This misses the greater damage these do, not just to finances, but also to institutions delivering these services.

When government delivers, say, free TV, it benefits the manufacturers and the citizens who receive it, albeit costing the exchequer funds that could have been used for more productive purposes. Services forced out of private or public companies, when not accompanied by compensation for resulting losses, cause incalculable damages to them. It hampers their ability to make capital and operational investments and improvements, which further hamper their capabilities and starts a spiral of decay. This is the bane of much of India’s public companies that deliver services like public buses, water, public trains, electricity, etc.

Subsidies are a feature of politics. But smart governance ensures service providers are shielded from losses and inefficiencies these subsidies create. Bogota’s Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) is a classic example that can serve as a model. Good politics ensures subsidies achieve common good of equitable, low cost public transportation. But well designed competition among service providers and transparent compensation for losses incurred due to the subsidies ensures financial sustainability and efficiency of the system.

For a party that emphasises much on referendums – as in people’s choice – there is little mention or philosophical commitment in their manifesto to choice for citizens, and competition among service providers when it comes to education, health, water, and electricity.

There is encouraging mention about electricity consumers choosing among the two companies and shift to alternate energy. But it would be advisable to implement a framework that provides further choice among suppliers and distributors, and also – in a fast evolving alternate energy market – not straightjacket consumers into solar energy only. Let there be competition among sources, suppliers and distributors, and genuine choice for consumers.

But for the rest, the manifesto offers mostly threats of audits, regulation and vilification – of both public and private provider. In education, AAP promising to improve government schools on par with private schools – a worthy goal that acknowledges the superior delivery by private schools. But AAP also promises to regularise all “contractual/temporary teachers in both government and private schools and college” and “regulate high fees and donations in private schools and college”. How the schools are expected to absorb higher costs with lower, regulated revenues without shutting down or diluting their quality is something AAP will have to explain in due course.

In transportation AAP has made all the right promises. Expansion of Delhi Metro and DTC bus service, improving last mile connectivity, providing pavements and cycle tracks, progressive sophistication in auto rickshaw and rickshaw policy and establishing a Unified Transport Authority for a holistic transport policy. But two cautionary notes. One, lack of clarity on Delhi’s statehood will complicate and frustrate matters. Two, Delhi has the highest rate of car ownership. While carrots are relatively easier to implement, imperative sticks in the form of restrictions and taxes on cars and congestion, not to mention an equally imperative BRTS that comply with global standards, will be extremely difficult for even the most determined political leadership. One can only hope that the AAP government can counter its excited base and use its public goodwill to do what is right and what is needed.

AAP is no longer an NGO with time to build capacity of the city to deliver. It is a political party with limited time to deliver and hope to get reelected. AAP riding on the public frustration and getting elected on an anti-corruption platform will be a text book case study some day. But delivering electricity, water, roads, transportation, etc. – things that citizens will sooner than later want delivered – requires governance, managerial skills, capable institutions and clear policy frameworks.

Even fighting corruption – a symptom often confused for the disease – requires checks and balances, institutional capacity to delve into public participation, grievances redressal etc. It also requires clarity in policy and what social and individual behaviour it encourages or discourages.

One can contend that even if corruption were to miraculously disappear from Delhi tomorrow, there would be little change in the quality of life of its citizens. Eliminating corruption while desirable – and will be the byproduct of policy reforms, robust implementation, and not simple mob inquisitions – is not sufficient if AAP government is to bring improvement to lives of Delhi citizens. A city that cannot keep its traffic lights functioning 24 hours a day cannot be expected to combat corruption.

One can get philosophical. Should government subsidise housing with in-situ construction or on nearby, maybe expensive land to replace slum huts? Should it otherwise subsidise transportation and hence access from further away locations? Should the government “clamp down” on encroachment to protect the environment, as promised in manifesto? Or should it regularise unauthorised colonies on river banks instead of creating public spaces? Which path is corruption? Each is a tough choice as some argue that while the rich have their malls and private spaces, it is the poor, who live in cramped quarters, and need public spaces, even at the cost of uprooting some fellow poor from encroached river banks and public spaces.

Even the most seasoned flounder in their inability to shift from rebel mode to governance mode. While most of the nation is excited about the rise of AAP, one can be pardoned if one remains pessimistic given the daunting task ahead of them and their penchant for off-the-cuff pronouncements as substitute for thoughtful policy; dalliance with unsavoury, tried and failed leaders and ideologies. But given that the hopes of so many ride on their success, one can only wish them luck.

Photo: Sivesh Kumar