With an eye on the upcoming elections, Kejriwal has resorted to a spree of freebies to bolster its prospects, a far cry from the ideology of “politics of change” on which the party came to power.
Close to completing five years in office, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has virtually sounded the bugle for the Assembly polls scheduled in February 2020 by opening his bag of freebies to woo voters. And no body among the voters is complaining as they lap up each and every populist scheme of Kejriwal ranging from free water and power to free travel for women in public transport buses. Political rivals of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are publicly criticising Kejriwal's largesse but not without a sense of insecurity and realisation that his populist announcements are making their road to capturing power in the Capital an uphill task.
The Supreme Court, economists and political rivals like the BJP have labelled Kejriwal's freebies as bad economics and indirect burden on tax-paying Delhiites. The Supreme Court blasted the Kejriwal government for toying with the idea of free Metro rides for women. "On the one hand, the Delhi government is extending sops but, on the other, in court it wants direction to the Centre to bear 50% operational losses ...if you allow people to travel free then it will be a problem," said a bench comprising Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta.
Kejriwal's criticism not withstanding, the electoral implications of such populist schemes has forced BJP leaders to approach Delhi unit incharge, Prakash Javadekar, to try and make the Narendra Modi government expedite the process to regularise unauthorised colonies and give ownership rights to residents so that the saffron party can take credit for the big move and counter the AAP government's freebie spree.
AAP leaders and some Opposition leaders admit in private that the Chief Minister seems to have correctly read the pulse of Delhiites who apparently value freebies more than new flyovers and roads.
City planners warn that in the long run, the populist announcements by Kejriwal may take the city backwards as the cash dole outs may eat into the Delhi government's resources for taking up infrastructure projects like new flyovers, roads, hospitals and schools.
Kejriwal, who has faced flak from rivals like the BJP and the Congress for allegedly not initiating new infrastructure projects in the city during his tenure, has dismissed all allegations of wastage of public money on freebies and bill waivers. While seeking a re-election, Kejriwal, an anti-corruption campaigner-turned-politician, has been showcasing his achievements like his gift of free water and electricity to small households, waiver of water bill arrears, colony-based Mohalla Clinics, enhanced government school infrastructure, steps for cleaner air and an 80% decline in dengue cases in the city. The control over onion and tomato prices, despite shooting up of wholesale price due to supply disruption during rains, by the state government has also earned the Kejriwal government praise.
From October 29, Delhi women will ride for free on Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and private-run public transport buses. However, the big bang freebie would be free rides for women on the Delhi Metro, a proposal that has come under the Supreme Court's lens. "The government is considering waiving fares for women in DTC buses and Metro to encourage them to use public transport in view of their safety," said Kejriwal, highlighting that cost of the programme would be around Rs 700 crore. He has also said that those who can afford to buy tickets would be encouraged to do so.
Kejriwal, whose party has over 60 MLAs in the 70-member Delhi Assembly, is hoping to sail through in the next Assembly polls by reminding voters that there has been no hike in electricity tariffs in the national capital for five successive years, as compared to annual tariff hikes that city dwellers experienced during the tenure of Diskshit.
"Congratulations Delhi For fifth consecutive year no electricity tariff hike. On the contrary, for fifth consecutive year, tariffs reduced. Delhi has the lowest electricity tariffs in the country now," Kejriwal tweeted recently.
Targeting BJP governments in UP and Haryana and the Congress government in Rajasthan, Kejriwal has repeatedly been highlighting the fact that a Delhi consumer using electricity up to 200 units per month has to pay Rs 408, but in Gurgaon and Noida, he or she has to shell out Rs 910 and Rs 1,310 respectively. In Rajasthan, one has to pay Rs 1,588 every month for consuming electricity up to 200 units, but in Mumbai, it is Rs 1,400, he said giving an example of inflated bills.
Meanwhile, ahead of the Assembly polls, the Congress on its part is looking to put in place a new leadership to take on both the BJP and the AAP after former chief minister Sheila Dikshit died of cardiac arrest this year and former MP and Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken ruled himself out of the race. A meeting between AAP's firebrand MLA Alka Lamba, a former leader of Congress' student wing NSUI, and Sonia Gandhi has brought the Chandni Chowk legislator back to the Congress fold, sparking speculation about a possible new leadership role for her.
The Delhi Congress has been without a president since July 20, the day when Dikshit died, and the names doing the rounds for taking up the post include former MP J P Aggarwal, former Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) chief Arvinder Singh Lovely and three working presidents — Rajesh Lilothia, Devender Yadav, Haroon Yusuf. Dikshit's son Sandeep is also said to be in the race.
The BJP is preparing for the elections by highlighting allegations of corruption during Kejriwal's tenure as CM and seeking votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For confronting the Kejriwal government, the saffron party has narrowed down to two alleged scams – irregular appointment of marshals in public transport buses and a Rs 2,000 crore scam in construction of classrooms in Delhi government schools.
Recently, a team of BJP MLAs was led by Leader of Opposition Vijender Gupta to the office of CBI director to seek a thorough investigation into the alleged "irregularities" in the appointment of marshals for women safety in public buses.
Gupta claimed that the matter had "wide ramifications", alleging involvement of senior officers and politicians. The BJP also lodged a complaint with the Anti-Corruption Branch (ACB) for a probe into the matter, alleging nepotism and violation of recruitment norms by the transport department that had appointed the marshals. The department had taken a list of 10,000 civil defence volunteers from district magistrates for deployment as marshals in DTC and cluster buses but some candidates, who were not residents of the Capital and who had procured fabricated domicile certificates, managed to get appointment as bus marshals, the BJP alleged.
The matter recently hit headlines when the AAP government received a complaint that an East Delhi official had allegedly issued fake Delhi domicile certificates to scores of youths from Rajasthan to help them enrol as civil defence volunteers and marshals. In the alleged Rs 2,000 crore scam in the construction of classrooms in Delhi schools, the BJP's Delhi unit alleged that AAP government officials and contractors were involved in the construction of classrooms of Delhi government schools at rates that were five times higher than the usual cost.
BJP president Manoj Tiwari has also slammed Kejriwal for offering freebies, warning against the huge burden that the largesse may impose on the exchequer. “With elections on his mind, Kejriwal is going to continue making outlandish announcements... Kejriwal has lost his mental balance," Tiwari said, adding that the Chief Minister is making populist announcements or free facilities to cover-up his administration's failures.
On the political front, the AAP has also been battling internal upheaval. Delhi Assembly Speaker Ram Niwas Goel recently disqualified AAP MLAs Anil Bajpai, Devinder Sehrawat and Kapil Mishra for violating the anti-defection law, thus, bringing down the strength of the ruling party in the House to 63 but it appeared to be only a temporary setback for the party which still enjoys a brute majority in the 70-member House.
Five years after Kejriwal led the AAP to a big electoral victory to unseat Sheila Dikshit as the CM, the new outfit and its spearhead Kejriwal have matured in politics. Now, the AAP also has three Rajya Sabha MPs, including its vocal leader Sanjay Singh, representing the city in the Upper House and a support base of about 22% voters in Delhi who seriously consider it as an alternative to traditional rivals - Congress and BJP.
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 further increase concessions and benefits for Delhi voters. Despite the several run-ins with the Central government, Lieutenant Governor and officials, Kejriwal has managed to lead a team whose anti-corruption agenda has appealed to the masses.
The AAP had failed to win even a single seat out of the seven Lok Sabha seats in the city in May. However, the party appears to have regrouped its forces and also overcome setbacks like a few AAP MLAs being booked in criminal cases. The freebies being offered by Kejriwal seem to be a part of the AAP's blueprint to win back voters from the BJP after they handed city's all 7 LS seats to the BJP under a strong Modi wave 2.0.
The fight to capture the Delhi Durbar in February will test the Congress' ability to bounce back from its worst low – as it does not have even a single MLA in the House. For the BJP, which has 3 MLAs and support from the lone Akali legislator, attempts to run down Kejriwal with a plethora of allegations are not yielding rich dividend. Each allegation against Kejriwal by his rivals appears to be swelling voter sympathy for him. In this complex and ever-changing scenario, it remains to be seen if Kejriwal proves political pundits wrong by recapturing power in the heart of the country and stays the course despite his populist policies facing intense scrutiny.
As reminded by the Supreme Court, Kejriwal cannot overlook the fact that in the long-run politics of monetary appeasement of voters is counter productive for the city's development. Observers feel that a true test for his fledgling party and his own popularity would be an election that is not preceded by cash offers and freebie schemes that help Delhiites avoid making payment for the services and facilities that they use.