03 June, 2016

Just another rotten mango?

By Samarth Bansal

Aam Aadmi Party began its journey as a symbol of hope and inspiration for the people seeking a real and substantive change in politics and governance. Nearly half a decade on, the hope has been crushed by theatrics, rhetoric and politicking.

When I left Delhi in 2011 for pursuing my undergraduate education, I didn’t realise that I would miss witnessing one of the largest citizen movements in our country, the anti-corruption movement, which would eventually lead to a (supposedly) ‘political revolution’ — the establishment and rise of the Aam Aadmi Party.

The idealist in me got a new life when Arvind Kejriwal became the Chief Minister of Delhi after conquering the 2013 Assembly Elections. The victory was an answer to every cynic who disbelieved in the power of a common man. AAP, for me, was a symbol of hope and change. The charismatic victory in 2015 elections, after 2014 Lok Sabha elections debacle, reaffirmed my belief that Kejriwal and team meant serious business.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

~ Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist

AAP offered a refreshing new alternative for the youth who might be worried about the state of Indian politics. I figured that their leaders — not all, but most of them — would break all the stereotypes associated with traditional politicians, ones who are primarily interested in occupying a position of power.

After coming back home last December, I have been actively following Delhi politics. And I realise, things have changed. AAP is no longer what it claimed it would be. Or rather, in any case, AAP is not what I had expected it to be.

So what had I expected from AAP?

First, that they would focus on development and improve the quality of life via good governance.

Second, they would change the very nature of Indian politics — often synonymised with dishonesty and corruption. They would show the world that politics can be devoid of mud-slinging, rhetoric and focus on issues rather than cheap political gimmicks.

Third, with Arvind Kejriwal at the helm, the party would set an example on how effective leadership can unite various sections of our society and spread love, as opposed to hatred.

Governance-wise, AAP seems to be on track, at least in the field of education and healthcare. When AAP says they intend to make government schools better than private schools, their actions speak louder than their words. The budget of education has been doubled. Very recently, estate managers were appointed in every government school to take the burden of administrative tasks away from teachers so they can focus on teaching. Education Minister Manish Sisodia is proactively looking at the issues being raised, making sure private schools don’t cross their lines.

In healthcare too, the intent is visible. In order to decongest government hospitals and make healthcare accessible to all, Mohalla Clinics (local clinics) are being opened up in Delhi. Serving as the first point of contact with the healthcare system, these clinics provide free treatment, medicines and diagnostic facilities. Interestingly, the government has drastically reduced the cost of setting up these clinics.

All this is not to say that everything in every sphere is just alright. But well, given that the party has been in power for just a year-and-a-half — that too, in its first stint with governance — it is too early to judge them on their policy initiatives, which takes time to yield tangible results.

This apart, AAP has miserably failed on the other points. Though they advocate ‘alternative’ politics, they are far from being there. Instances in the past few months have taken AAP’s rhetoric to another level, something that is becoming increasingly difficult for me to come to terms with. Here is why I say so.

Rumours

On April 21, when the second phase of the Odd-Even scheme was underway, a fire broke out in Delhi's largest dumping ground at Bhalaswa. In response to that, Dilip Pandey, convener of the Delhi unit of AAP, tweeted: "BJP is stooping to the lowest in Delhi to fail odd-even. MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi] burning dump yards, creating health hazard. BJP pollutes Delhi.” He went on to say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is playing with the lives of Delhiites through MCD.

The Facebook post of the party reiterated that point:

AAP was fierce in its campaign. #BJPPollutesDelhi was all over Twitter. And then I get to know that this was nothing but a rumour; a big open lie. My colleague told me that landfill fires were a regular affair in Delhi. In fact, smoke had been rising up steadily from that garbage dump for the past three weeks. A week before this fire incident, The Hindu had reported: “Every summer as the mercury rises, small fires erupt in the landfills due to the buildup of methane gas, which is highly combustible.” Officials made it very clear that it was methane gas which was the reason why landfill was in flames and not a mal-intended deliberate action of a BJP leader. It was not a conspiracy but an old unsolved problem. Surprisingly, at the time of writing this, that facebook post is still up on AAP’s official page, even when the government’s own inquiry committee had ruled out any involvement of BJP.

Logic doesn't matter

AAP has turned the Odd-Even scheme — a public policy experiment — into a political debate, choosing to disregard any efforts at scientific analysis. Experts and analysts have different views on the success of this scheme but the attitude of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has been utterly disappointing. While, recently, he did say that ‘pollution levels didn't go down as much as expected’ and that the scheme won't be made permanent until public transport is strengthened, his misleading statements on social media can’t be ignored.

During Odd Even 2.0, he tweeted:

Bizarre conclusions by some media - less petrol consumption, less vehicles n yet pollution increased?https://t.co/IPGsFrwjW3

— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) April 19, 2016


The Chief Minister, while making this statement, took no cognisance of the fact that there are multiple sources of air pollution in the city; and vehicular emission happens to be just one of them. Even if you control one source — vehicles here — the variation in other sources might result in an overall increase in pollution levels. No one is saying that taking cars off the road will increase pollution. How foolish that conclusion would be. But other factors, including weather and meteorological conditions, might do so.

The Chief Minister of a government which has heavily invested in this large-scale experiment is expected to have an understanding of this basic phenomenon. With misleading statements like these, Kejriwal attempts to downplay any effort of analytical and data-driven reporting on the Odd-Even experiment by discrediting the media, accusing them of running a campaign against the party. But now that the Central Pollution Control Board, comparing air quality data before and during Odd-Even, has found that “there was increase in concentration of pollutants at most of the monitoring locations during the period under reference [Odd-Even]”, I wonder what the Chief Minister might have to say.

Further, when WHO released a report finding that Delhi has improved a few positions from having been the most polluted city, AAP credited their party's policy initiatives for this shift. This again, was misleading. WHO study made use of 2013 data for Delhi pollution levels, the time when neither AAP government or its policy measures were in place. But who cares?

The Fake Degree Row

And well, the furore over the Prime Minister’s degrees has taken the political discourse to a new low. While the party, or any citizen for that matter, has all the right to question the Prime Minister’s educational credentials and the authenticity of his degree certificates, rationality is the least that one would expect. But the extent to which this party went in ‘proving’ that the certificates were forged or fake was beyond imagination. In the process, logic died a thousand deaths. For instance, look at this tweet of senior leader Ashutosh — AAP’s own Sherlock Holmes — posted after BJP publicly released Modi’s degree certificates.

Modi claimed that during emergency he was underground.Then how he appeared for BA exam ?

— ashutosh (@ashutosh83B)May 9, 2016


Why Modi's degree scandal is Indian Watergate - writes Ashutoshhttps://t.co/41DNvZKSLh

— ashutosh (@ashutosh83B)May 10, 2016


Really now? Well-investigated and thought-about arguments are in the interest of the public; but making irrelevant arguments to force a point results in loss of credibility. The next time this party talks about an “exposé”, I will wait for a fact-check by another organisation before paying heed to their arguments, because I can’t trust this party anymore. I have come to realise that when AAP raises an issue, it is more often politically motivated than in public interest.

AAP has resorted to all means that stand against the very principles they stood for. In the process, they have exposed their own style of politics. Truth has taken a backseat and rhetoric is now an integral component of AAP. Social media, the medium that was used to mobilise the masses during the anti-corruption movement, is now being extensively used to mislead them.

When I mention the reasons for my disappointment towards AAP, people say, “Don’t other parties do the same? What’s the big deal?” The answer lies in the response itself. AAP has turned out to be just another party.

When it comes to political parties, we do need alternatives, as that makes the parties slightly more accountable. But while AAP is an alternative, it does not practice “alternative” politics as it claims.

I might still vote for them, saying that “they are still better than other parties”. But maybe I will reject them outright if they continue with these theatrics, and fail to deliver. But my disappointment with AAP is not relative, it’s absolute. It’s about the shattering of the dreams of many a young gun who saw a hero in Arvind Kejriwal.

I wonder whether the party insiders — the ones who passionately worked day and night during AAP’s initial days — have not been repulsed by what’s going on? Those thousands of volunteers, many of whom left their day-jobs to be a part of this movement, have no objection to the means adopted by the party? Or is that they don’t have a say in front of the party supremo?

Arvind Kejriwal is and was the face of AAP. But the AAP that I knew and understood — the abstract concept of honesty and sincerity personified — holds that AAP is not Arvind and Arvind is not AAP. AAP was, should, and always be about the aam aadmi.

The real test for an organisation comes as it achieves scale — be it a tech startup or a political party. As AAP is getting politically active in other Indian States, now gearing up for elections, I am concerned about how things would turn out. Will it continue compromising on the foundational ideals or will a change happen in the party’s internal functioning and approach? Time will tell. But before AAP marches on a journey to change the country for the good, Arvind Kejriwal and team must introspect as to what they said and what they are doing.




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