Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal
Arvind Kejriwal waves at his supporters in New Delhi (File) Image Credit: AFP

Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, of Aam Aadmi Party, is a very lucky man. He has almost no power, and hence no responsibility. All he has to do is waste the Delhi taxpayer’s money bombarding the country with advertising. This assures people that he’s up to something. Like a hot air balloon, he keeps rising.

He is the most powerless chief minister in the country. He can make no substantial policy decision without the central government’s nod, through the Lt. Governor of Delhi.

This is sad. A city of at least 20 million people should be run by its elected government. The central government should run only central Delhi. But Arvind Kejriwal doesn’t make the case for decentralisation of power.

He did once publish a slim book, a manifesto of sorts, demanding exactly that. Gone are those days when he used to want to change the system. The system has changed him.

Delhi is still far

Delhi is suffering from a deadly outbreak of dengue, the sky is sepia tinted with the annual winter pollution, law and order is deteriorating, and hundreds of thousands of job seekers are trying to get back on their feet after two devastating waves of Covid.

Kejriwal is calmly handling all these crises with advertising. His attention is occupied with the longstanding pent-up desire to expand out of Delhi. In Goa, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party has gone open and made a spree of tall promises.

Kejriwal is arguing before voters that he’s already done and achieved these promised things in Delhi, and should therefore be trusted to deliver them in these states.

Free lunch?

The biggest claim is “free electricity”. In Delhi, if you consume less than 200 units in a month, your electricity bill is zero. Kejriwal and his party are going around promising “free electricity” in every state as if the first 200 units are going to be free for everyone. What he’s mischievously not telling them is that if you exceed 200 units in Delhi, it’s no longer free for you. The Delhi government charges you for all units according to the slab in which you electricity bill falls in.

Nevertheless, it is true that many in Delhi are having to spend less on electricity, and the poor who don’t use ACs and heaters are often paying no bill at all. But Delhi is a rich state with very high revenues as compared to the population. In states like Uttar Pradesh, the budget just won’t allow free electricity.

In Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Goa, where the AAP knows it is not in the race to form government, it is promising 300 units of free electricity. If he can promise 300 units in these states, why not give 300 units free in Delhi?

As far as political imagination goes, there is nothing new about freebies or even free electricity. Politicians have been giving freebies to win elections forever. These day most Indians are getting rice and wheat for free. And as for electricity is concerned, politicians have been giving that to farmers for decades now. There is no new ‘system’-changing vision here.

Hospitals Kejriwal’s colleagues don’t use

Another big claim by Kejriwal is that he has revolutionised public healthcare in Delhi, giving the best possible health services for free. This is an outright lie. A few months ago his own ministerial colleagues were checking into expensive private hospitals to recover from Covid.

Hospitals run by the Delhi government resembled hell in both waves of Covid. He and his government looked clueless, unable to do the simplest of things like manage hospital admissions as people died in the capital city. By comparison, the Uddhav Thackeray-led government did a much better job in Maharastra in the second wave.

I have personally had the misfortune of trying to get a domestic worker operated upon in a hospital run by the Delhi government. After a few visits, we gave up.

Kejriwal’s government did come up with a good idea, the Mohalla Clinics, providing OPD services to the poor. But this hasn’t been scaled up, and its limitations are clear when we see Covid and dengue unchecked in Delhi.

Managing the ‘outcomes’

The greatest amount of AAP propaganda is around school education. The Delhi government prevents weak students from taking board exams. Thousands of students are shifted to ‘correspondence’ courses away from the formal school system.

Thereafter, the Delhi government claims a very high pass percentage as proof of their education ‘reforms’, appropriating the language of education rights activists, claiming that they have improved 'education outcomes'. To students who are even denied a chance to take the board exam, this is adding insult to injury.

Gimmickry as governance

The AAP has been a failure in what used to be its core promise, waging war against corruption, as the central government took away the anti-corruption bureau from its wings. It has been utterly unable to solve any of Delhi’s big problems: air pollution, drainage and water supply in slums, women’s safety, and the shortage of buses.

There are many lofty promises it made to Delhi voters it has conveniently forgotten, such as free wifi. All it has to offer is gimmickry. One year they will come up with “odd-even” rationing of cars to reduce pollution. They will nastily troll and abuse anyone who dares to point out “odd-even” is not reducing pollution.

They will torture data to claim success. Next year, they will conveniently forget “odd-even” and come up with a new gimmick. They’ll install a “smog tower” or two, which is like trying to clean an ocean with a filter jar. They know it’s not going to work, but precious public money has to be wasted on gimmicks so that the common man can say, “at least he’s trying”.

Arvind Kejriwal is practically conceding he has no original political or governance vision when he decides to become ‘BJP lite’, using Hindu identity politics and Indian nationalism to project himself as the new reformer. One of these days, the non-stop radio ads may actually bring down the hot air balloon.