Winning on promising just the basics!

Isn’t a Common Man’s Party what we’ve been wanting too? Why did it happen there and not here?

Winning on promising just the basics!

The Nation – January 01, 2014

NAJMA SADEQUE

Given human nature and fallibility, few countries escape it. The degree of corruption just varies from country to country. Where the system is made as transparent and accountable as possible, problems are manageable. When it isn’t, like it’s not in South Asia, corruption in public services is horrendous enough to enrich some by impoverishing others.

 

    For the first time in history, the common man brought in a new government in Delhi. 45-year old Arvind Kejriwal, a former income-tax officer, leading the AAM ADMI Party (Common Man’s Party), was sworn in as chief minister. When he took his oath, he also administered one on his followers. They had to repeat after him twice — “I promise to never offer or accept a bribe.”

 

     Significantly, Kejriwal’s activism began in fighting corruption in the income-tax department, the electricity department and in the Public Distribution System (of basic food items) in poor localities. A broom is the party symbol – to make a clean sweep with.

 

     One party here also built on fighting corruption, but got waylaid. But its specifics weren’t as well spelt out as AAP’s. On close look, the solutions and goals are mostly common sense and obvious. 32-year old Atishi Marlena, daughter of Marxists, key policymaker and manifesto writer of AAP, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, then went to a village working on alternative lifestyles including progressive education and organic agriculture. She says basics like water and electricity have never been the priority election issues, which speaks volumes about the character of parties and candidates.

 

     AAP created 31 policy committees comprehensively covering all social and economic sectors. It drew input, expertise and knowledge from over 150 people from highly varied backgrounds, including volunteers, think-tanks, academics and hands-on folk. Apart from the general manifesto, they prepared separate manifestoes for all 70 constituencies in Delhi.

 

     Lal Bahadur Shastri’s grandson left his cushy annual 10 million rupee job at Apple to join AAP. The 25-year old Campaign manager abandoned his civil services exam for AAP.

 

     After campaigning only a year, AAP won 28 of Delhi’s 70 local assembly seats. This, despite most of AAP’s candidates being unknown newcomers, including a rickshaw driver. Congress, which slipped to an unthinkable 8 seats, then offered its unconditional support which gave AAP more than what it needed to form a government, sidelining BJP.

 

     About a dozen of AAP’s goals are possible, but not the rest, as Delhi does not have complete statehood. It can’t dictate on land, police and public order. AAP doesn’t want foreign direct investment in services either, which is a central subject – they want locals to create enterprises and employment in retail. If multinationals are made unwelcome enough, it may work.

 

     Almost half of Delhi’s 15 million population live in slums and unplanned areas. Clearly, common people can triumph without violent agitation if well organised. Top of the list – 700 free litres of water per household daily, and halving of electricity rates. The ‘experts’ say it’s not possible. AAP differs.

 

     As happens here, poor people who couldn’t afford over a few lights, were being saddled with inflated electricity bills of up to 20,000. 5 million don’t get piped water; 1.5 million don’t have toilets; 4 million don’t have sewerage lines. Households using 700 litres a day or less would get water free, whether or not they live in unauthorized settlements. There would be a clamp-down on the tanker mafia.

 

     AAP put its foot down on privatization, an issue as much intense there as here, especially of the Delhi Water Board. AAP wants small, decentralised sewage plants managed by Mohalla bodies.

 

     If anti-corruption is your party pledge, you need honest and committed people on your side. Was it possible to find such candidates who had a record of social or public service, willing to spend from his own pocket for campaigning? Campaigner Yadav reasoned there should be at least 70 – in fact, more, in a city the size of Delhi.

 

     One candidate, Kapil Kumar Dhama gave up dreams of becoming a government engineer. Another, Tripathis, a slum-dweller, has a Masters degree. Getting the message across in the language of the people was also important. That’s where, a popular Hindi poet of modern romantic verse, came in handy.

 

     AAP promised to get rid of VIP culture. No flashing lights and escort cars for ministers and parliamentarians. Government cars strictly for official purposes only. Standard housing; no luxurious ones. Senior bureaucrats will be asked to follow suit. No special police security. – This may be dangerous though, since there are always some unstable crazies and violent extremists.

 

     No exorbitant salary packages, yet to be discussed. Can we try that in Pakistan? Local development funds won’t be at the discretion of local representatives but decided by 40 local governing units (mohalla bodies) in every constituency.

 

     AAP says it has collected about Rs 190 million to date from donations from people from all walks of life. The first donation was of one-rupee which was all that one poor man could afford, but most ranged between 10 and several lacs of rupees. The party has received Rs 130 million from within the country and the rest from overseas non-resident Indians. AAP posts details of its transactions and donations on its website so that anyone can check. It refuses to accept foreign funding.

 

     An interesting goal of AAP is the right to reject a candidate. Currently, voters the world over are restricted to those who stand for election but may not want any of them. But it makes no difference as only those votes that are cast, count. AAP wants voters to have the right to reject all candidates and call for a fresh election within a month. This is different from the “none-of-the-above” non-vote which was ultimately not allowed in Pakistan.

 

     AAP also seeks the “Right to Recall” – to recall the (false) promises made by politicians not delivered and to remove them on those grounds immediately after complaining to the election commission, without having to wait for a subsequent election. It aims at swift investigation and disposal of corruption cases involving government servants, ministers, members of parliament and secretaries within six months to one year.

 

     Suspecting some sort of nexus between the government and the big corporate houses, AAP holds tax evasions and waivers responsible for price hikes, which they contend will automatically decrease when this unfairness is dealt with.

 

     Of course, nothing is achieved overnight. But a start has been made, and people all over South Asia will be watching, and may be influenced.

This article was published in The Nation on 1st January 2014.
http://www.nation.com.pk/columns/01-Jan-2014/winning-on-promising-just-the-basics

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About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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