Draft election manifestos of the ruling AAP, the BJP and the Congress for the February 8 Delhi Assembly elections have triggered a battle of offering freebies as voters wait greedily for pocketing the maximum benefits at the city government's cost.
The politically significant race for capturing the seat of power in Delhi, the heart of the nation, has begun. For the February 8 Assembly elections, the ruling AAP appears to be competing with challengers – BJP and Congress – in offering freebies to voters on basic issues related to quality of life. All three parties are virtually promising the moon on issues dealing with water, electricity, bus rides for women, pollution and clean Yamuna, development in recently-regularised illegal colonies, hospitals and mohalla clinics and enhanced pension for the elderly.
Almost seven years after Arvind Kejriwal led the AAP to a big electoral victory to end Congress' 15-year rule, the new outfit has realised that it not only needs to add money to voters' pockets by offering subsidy on basic amenities but also requires to remind the electorate repeatedly about the AAP government's spending on them.
There are strong indications that in the run up to the voting on February 8, the political landscape in the city is going to witness caustic skirmishes on matters related to basic amenities, with each party striving to woo Delhiites with a “better-than-others” poll promise.
BJP president Amit Shah also gave a strong indication of his party's armour against the Kejriwal government during a worker's convention in Delhi when he questioned the Chief Minister over installation of CCTV cameras, free Wi-Fi, building new school classroom and colleges and the cleaning of the Yamuna. He even promised a “Yamuna River Front” in Delhi like the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad for facilitating Poorvanchalis to undertake Chhath Puja in river water. “There will be no need to offer worship in temporary water tanks after the new river front,” Shah said, hinting that the party would rely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's charisma to claw back to power and end its power drought since 1998 when the last BJP government was voted out by the Congress..
Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari, while releasing a vision document of the party, backed his party chief's allegations against Kejriwal government and promised to offer residents five times more than the AAP government. “We will not only continue the existing subsidy but enhance it further along with the assurance that people get clean drinking water in their homes and the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) also does not suffer financial losses,” he said. While offering a monthly 25,000 litres of free water – 5,000 litre more than the AAP government's current scheme - for every metered connection, Tiwari said if the BJP comes to power, it will ensure that the subsidy offered to voters is for the entire period of 5 years and not a few months.
Tiwari's announcements seem to have broadly defined the contours of the election campaign of the three players – AAP, BJP and Congress – that is likely to centre around making populist announcements that help voters save money and use free facilities.
Delhi Congress chief Subhash Chopra made his party's intentions clear by offering a three-times more competitive power subsidy scheme for consumers and offering 600 units of electricity free of cost to all. The AAP government has so far been offering 200 units of power free to people, mainly middle class and residents of small dwellings which form the core of the ruling party's vote bank.
The Congress has lost this large chunk of low-income voters to the AAP and, therefore, appears to be making competing offers to residents. Chopra's blueprint on electricity subsidy for residential users also has a special package for small traders and shopkeepers operating from their homes and carries an element of direct subsidy transfer to bank accounts of consumers.
Apart from proposing to launch a Sheila Pension Yojana – named after late party leader and former CM of Delhi, the Congress has also vowed to enhance pension amount from Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000 a month. The pension currently is offered to 5.3 lakh beneficiaries but the Congress has promised to increase the number of pension beneficiaries – senior citizens, widows and differently-abled people – to 7.5 lakh.
While the BJP and the Congress try to copy the populist schemes of the AAP government, the trump card of such vote-grabbing policies appears to lie with Kejriwal. It was he who pioneered the populist schemes of free water, free power up to 200 units and free ride in public transport buses for women. In the fight against air-pollution, the Chief Minister came up with the idea of distribution of free face masks for school children.
After Kejriwal led the AAP to a big electoral victory to unseat Sheila Dikshit as the CM in 2013 and again in 2015, the new outfit and its spearhead Kejriwal seem to have matured in politics. Now, the AAP also has three Rajya Sabha MPs, including its vocal leader Sanjay Singh, and a support base of about 22% voters in Delhi who seriously consider it as an alternative to traditional rivals - Congress and BJP. The AAP, which has 63 MLAs in the 70-member Delhi Assembly, has asked all its legislators to popularise the Kejriwal government's proposal on free water, power, Mohalla Clinics, free bus rides for women and the proposal to offer free bus rides to students and the elderly.
Quite contrary to Congress leader Kapil Sibal's predictions seven years ago that the AAP would fail as a political outfit, Kejriwal has managed to give a stable government in Delhi while holding out a promise to improve the quality of life of voters and offering many free services. Despite the several run-ins with the Central government and its representative, Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, Kejriwal has mastered the craft avoiding personal attacks on Modi and yet lead stinging attacks against the BJP on a range of issues like development in illegal colonies to availability of land for Mohalla Clinics and new Delhi Transport Corporation bus depots.
With battle lines drawn for the Assembly polls on February 8, whose result will be announced on February 11, Delhi is expected to serve as a laboratory for experiments on appeasement politics and, perhaps, set the tone for similar offerings at a much larger scale at the national level where elections are presently dominated by schemes like farm loan waivers, enhanced minimum support price and other income support schemes for farmers.
Kejriwal as always maintained that the money needed by his government for footing the bill of freebies comes from the savings his government makes by checking wastage of public funds and corruption. His political opponents initially tried to talk economics and educate Delhi voters that the free offerings would mean reduced spending on building roads, flyovers, schools and flyovers but the greedy Delhi voters were not convinced. As it became clear, after Kejriwal's success, that Delhiites understand only the language of free facilities and services, the BJP and the Congress also corrected their strategy. Unwilling to lose out on electoral gains in exchange for freebies, the BJP and the Congress have now copiedini the AAP's strategy and presented their respective models of sops for voters.
Sadly enough, none of the players in the triangular electoral battle for Delhi is keen anymore to discuss the adverse financial implications or the ill-effect of spending on freebies at the cost of ignoring infrastructure development in the city. Partly, it is Delhiites' fault in showing a greed for politics of appeasement and caring little for public debate on populist promises that come with invisible consequence of ruining the Delhi government’s finances and endangering the future of the next generation.