One can probably sense the cynicism and the scoffs right away, given that the title of this piece seems to make almost a preposterous comparison. But, patience is requested, and some good humour.

It is interesting to note that what the AAP has made available to the citizens of Delhi, in terms of subsidized electricity and water, and improved – and subsidized – medical facilities, is being described as an act of “doling out freebies.”

This should sound a little exaggerated right off the bat – and many have seen through such political posturings. In a country where state subsidy has been an official policy right from the beginning of the Indian republic, and where election promises have always been accompanied by promises of heavily subsidized items in addition to loan waivers etc, AAP’s offer should not seem as something out of the ordinary, or a kind of unprecedented blandishment.

State services at subsidized rates – whether in direct or indirect form – are a fact of governments throughout the world and no less true of India, that tried its hand at being a socialist state, right after its independence. Various goods, facilities and services, from education, food items (as part of “rations”), petrol and diesel to travel and transportation etc have been subsidised over the years.

As a recent example illustrates, the hike in cooking gas prices by Indane by about 20% in Feb 2020 in one go was in spite of a hefty government subsidy. Subsidies in other petroleum products, agriculture and agricultural inputs (Rs 115569.68 crore in 2020-21) are part of the policy of every government. Come elections and every political leader and their uncle is found promising rice at Rs. 2/- per kilo and farm-loan waivers.

So, one wonders why AAP’s promises have been singled out in such a cynical manner? In an effort to counter AAP’s offers this 2020 elections, the Congress too promised free electricity while the BJP promised regularization of unauthorised colonies. What were those, if not shameless attempts at matching AAP in offering “freebies?” In a not entirely lighter vein, the ubiquitous usage of the term “freebies” has probably more to do with Indian journalists’ recent and faddish obsession with Americanisms than a real description of the process of a certain amount of state welfarism.

Come to think of it, what is one reminded of when one thinks of freebies? A T-shirt? A keychain? The Urban Dictionary, the repository of all terms and neologisms cool and woke, defines freebies as “when you get something for free – could be anything from a sample of shampoo to sweets…or anything at all.” The “anything at all” is appended at the end of a list which includes the commoner examples, such as samples or candy.

How does the provision of better education, which is subsidized anyways in state educational institutions (think IITs-IIMs-JNU etc), for which AAP increased investments in such things as  buildings, classrooms, teachers, teaching aids etc, count as a freebie? How does provision of drinking water, a scarce commodity in Delhi, but whose increased supply involved better conservation and extraction practices, count as a freebie? How does free and subsidized electricity, which also meant a certain degree of infrastructure planning and provisioning, come to be described as a gratuitous freebie?

 As a Firstpost piece explains, there were several conscious decisions and administrative steps involved in ensuring the delivery of free bijli-paani. These were non-trivial tasks, and not as is being made out, based on some hurried quick-fixes, short-term provisioning, financial fudging and budgetary hara-kiri. As the Indian Express piece states, “Despite the rollout of several so-called freebies by the AAP government, Delhi’s fiscal deficit is the lowest in the country.”

However, one must take cognizance of some worrying institutional deficits in the process, as with the Delhi Jal Board, and this is something the Delhi government will have to look into going forward (The Delhi government can also refer to SANDRP’s wonderful report on the state of Delhi’s riverine system and take lessons). What is however a certain takeaway from the support AAP received this elections is its success in delivering on its promises in solid manner and creating an environment of accountability.

State socialism is not something limited to India. Almost all countries, from outwardly socialist (or communist) nations like Russia, China and Cuba, to the market economies of the west, have some form of state socialism – and subsidies – as part of their economic and social policy. While the more aggressively market economies like the US characterize it a “dole” when it suits them, nevertheless such subsidies afford great financial benefits to various sectors of their economy, especially agriculture. Britain has its much vaunted and heavily subsidized National Health System (NHS) as does Canada, while the Scandinavian countries offer a range of services to their citizens either free of cost or heavily subsidized.

It was precisely the withdrawal of the state from its role in providing affordable services to its citizens under measures termed “austerity” that were the cause of severe hardships and protests in places like Greece and Spain. In the latter country it even resulted in the crystallization of the Indignados movement and later the constitution of the political party, Podemos in Spain.

Venezuela is also an example of a country that rejected its earlier neoliberal government and opted for its own version of socialism, under the rubric of the Bolivarian revolution or the 21st Century Socialism. To bring a level of equity in an economically unequal society,  Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez initiated several state projects. Some of those, called Misiones (“Missions”), focused on issues of Health, Affordable Housing, Education, Public Distribution Outlets etc. The more well known missions, like the Barrio Adentro, the healthcare mission, involved the establishment of free-of-charge neighborhood clinics (like Mohalla Clinics), often manned by Cuban doctors, while Mission Robinson, the educational mission, sought to improve the literacy rates, and La Gran Misión Vivienda sought to build millions of affordable homes.

The Venezuelan social missions, more than two dozen of them, have their own criticisms – but this is not a place to wade into those. What is important to note is that the provision of state services to those who need them is not a new idea at all and is a feature of various forms of governments.

What also needs to be mentioned here is that the Missions of the Venezuelan government were part of a broader conception and program to uplift and empower people. Crucial to this program was the idea of building local power through the formations of comunas (communes), local community groups which would control local government and forge ties horizontally and vertically across the nation, to form a structure of people’s government and representation.

Such a coherent project of building of people’s power through institutions does not appear to be the prime concerns of the AAP. Their promises for their next stint are a building upon the “governance model” they claim is their modus operandi.

However, the 2020 manifesto of the AAP does mention the taking up of the “Delhi Swaraj Bill,” under which the “Delhi Government had approved the formation of 2,972 Mohalla Sabhas in 70 Assembly constituencies across the city in June 2016 as the first step in devolution of power to the people and making them direct participants in solving day-to-day issues affecting their quality of life.” Thus, it seems that AAP has some conception of moving beyond a model of a top-down, city-state socialism to one which envisages a bottoms-up governance effort.

This so-called and self-acknowledged governance model of AAP has been criticised for long now, mostly as being post-ideological and populist. Such criticisms are on lines of world-wide cynicism with several such political formations and efforts. The  socialism of Chavez has often been characterized as “left-wing populism,” a term that gained recognition primarily through the work of UK-based political scientists, Chantal Mouffe and the late Ernest Laclau.

Populism, as articulated especially by Laclau, was broader and sharper in sense as compared to the common, and mostly pejorative, sense of appealing to a common popular demand for “freebies”. According to him, it entailed was an arraying of “common people (‘plebs’),” in the form of a new “we,” coming together across traditional class boundaries, against the so-called elite, the “them.”

AAP’s method of governing and their political ideology are nowhere close to a traditional left ideology and they also do not seem to be in the business of generating some sort of alternate identity among the common-people against the elite.

In 2014, in the post-IAC (India Against Corruption) days, JNU political science professor Prabhat Patnaik had characterized AAP’s political belief-system as one of “non-thought” –

The AAP ideology, which amounts to apotheosising non-thought, is therefore opposed to the Left ideology that apotheosises thought. The latter does so because it sees people as transforming themselves into a collective subject; implicit in the former is their being fixed in the role of perennial objects.

It is precisely on the issue of people’s collective agency, informed by a certain consciousness and acting around an ideology, that Patnaik had trained his attack on AAP. He had termed their brand of top-down governance a form of “substitutism,” whereby “a group of ‘morally upright’ and technically competent persons can act for the people whose agency role can be delegated to them.”

One of the roles that the Venezuelan communes had assumed was that of being a political space. As a member of a comuna had stated: “For us the comuna is a territorial space, but also a political space where the aim is to build socialism on a permanent basis, where the people take charge of their own education and political formation.”

The AAP has not exhibited any such intentions of initiating a program of political-education or political-awareness. Whether the so-called “mohalla sabhas,” if and when they become a reality, will be spaces for engagement with political ideas is yet a question that cannot even be posed. But, maybe, a more fundamental question that needs to be asked – what is this political awareness or a coherent ideology or political theory that one seeks – and faults an outfit like AAP as lacking?

According to Patnaik, in the piece referenced above, a theory or an ideology around which people can come together, is a prerequisite for the formation and expression of people’s agency:

“The people can become a collective political agency only on the basis of a theory. Not to have a theory around which they can be mobilised for acting against the structures, but to consult them in their empirical individuality on specific questions, no matter on how large a scale this is done, still constitutes a conceptual undermining of their agency role.”

However, it is also a belief held by many that theories and ideologies are forged in the process of struggle, or to put it in Marxian language, in the “production and reproduction of life.” What we regard as major features of Marxism, for instance, were arrived at only over a period of time by Marx, informed by real-world events, his continuous self-education, his participation in people’s struggles and the exchange with intellectual peers. As the academic Sydney Hook said in his book, From Hegel to Marx, regarding Marx’s intellectual evolution:

A period of intellectual maturation, surveyed and evaluated from the perspective at which a thinker has subsequently arrived, is significant more for the doctrines and attitudes which have been abandoned than for those which have been retained. Otherwise there is no explanation of the process of development and we should have to conclude that Marx was born a Marxist.

So, without a well-defined working definition of what we mean by ‘political’ and what we mean by ‘theory’ it is unfair to conclude that the governance model that AAP has followed is sans any ‘thought’, ‘theory’ and ‘ideology.’

One can easily dismiss AAP’s decision to invest in public education as merely trying to fulfil a political promise or a superficial lip-service to populist bluster. Or one could see the focus on investing in government schools as a conviction in the critical and fundamental role of education in the flourishing of students-as-responsible-citizens, especially, when such schools in India are overwhelmingly utilized by the economically weaker sections of society.

Such a conviction can work in at least two ways: it reinforces the notion of quality education as important for human development and at the same time it sends a message to the underprivileged that they are as deserving of the best education in the world as anyone else, especially the privileged who think that expensive schools are a guarantee that they continue receiving better education – and maintain their privilege.

Suddenly, not only are you not being judged because of your economic or social status in your access to education, but you are also being enabled to aspire to dream of any future path your heart desires. It is reposing implicit trust and faith in people who have never been granted easy access to anything, let alone anything of a supposedly superior quality. It is confirming people’s self-worth and their basic rights. It is a treatment based on a sense of equality and equity.

How does a belief in such ideas of equality not be considered laudable in itself, when such beliefs have not been uniformly held and put into action till now by any state authority? The counterargument to this would of course be on the lines that such a functional approach certainly addresses the lack of a resource but it does not seek to address the reason for the lack in the first place. In the case of differential access to education, say, this would mean interrogating and addressing the base causes for these social inequalities and differences.

However, this is a tall order – one that is structural in nature. To cut to the chase, in relation to a political formation like AAP with limited powers of control and jurisdiction, probably outlining a vision to take on societal inequities in all their multidimensional nature might be overreach. Instead, the manifestation of the issue as evident in the case of access to a necessary social good, education, is recognized for its true worth and an attempt is made to address it because it is understood to be fundamental to human development. The state is creating the conditions for the development of its citizens, who can turn out to be critical thinkers and social changemakers.

The logic behind affirmative action and reservations is also a kind of “substitutism,” in that it allows for a certain amount of top-down state assistance and preference till a “collective political agency” can be formed among those hitherto disadvantaged.

While charges of “non-thought,” do seem condescending, Patnaik’s 2014 piece had flagged an important aspect of AAP’s lack of a clear-cut political ideology: “a substantial segment of its support base consists of people who make no secret of their wish to vote for Narendra Modi in the parliamentary elections, and the AAP has done little to counter Modi’s ‘appeal’. It is naïve to believe that the threat of communal-fascism can be countered surreptitiously, by such tactful silence.”

While the current paradigm of “ooper Modi neeche Kejriwal,” might sound utilitarian, sort of getting the best of both worlds, it is fraught with a lurking contradiction and also potential for a barely concealed majoritarianism. The neat splitting of voting tendencies along state and national lines is not without its dangers.

And one can also be a little wary and disappointed by the “tactful silence” of Kejriwal and AAP over some very disturbing events in the capital, for example the violence at JNU, Jamia and the brutal suppression of protests elsewhere in Delhi. The expressions of people’s protests, especially from among women as at Shaheen Bagh, was also tactfully ignored by AAP. Yet, such “tact” seems not to have perturbed the voters of Delhi that much – they seemed to have gone along with the seeming need for tact and did not voice their displeasure against a party whose modus operandi till a while ago was one of agitations and confrontation of authority.

On the other side of this spectrum there is the overt display of religiosity by AAP members, including Kejriwal. Whether that is a sign of soft-Hindutva or not has by now been fed through the press-hoppers extensively. Rohit Venkatiraman of Scroll, in his rundown of the opinions on this issue so far, seems to conclude what others have also noted, that such displays did not alarm the Delhi voters, especially the Muslims. What mattered to them was non-discriminatory, equal access to all services.

This raises the larger question, one that might need to be answered at another place: whether everyone who votes for Modi and the BJP is necessarily a Hindutva-vadi, fully supportive of BJP’s corrosive politics of polarisation? Who were those who were miffed by the provocative election-sloganeering (“Goli maaron gaddaron ko”) indulged in by the BJP in Delhi and also switched their votes from the BJP to the AAP?

Are these the centrist, “independents,” who care more about access to the necessities of life (urban life?) than about ideological politics? At least one report tantalizingly attempted to provide an answer about BJP voters switching to vote AAP during assembly elections, stating: “The 2014 BJP voters who shifted to the AAP were more likely to be poor, living in under-developed colonies, less educated and exposed to media sources, and lower caste,” yet, held back from any definitive pronouncements” But as another media commentator noted, “Recent opinion polls suggest that a significant number of voters who supported the AAP in this election endorse the BJP’s ideological viewpoint.”

Such a conclusion, even if from opinion polls, should not be allowed to go unchallenged. Is endorsing an ideological viewpoint the same thing as being steeped in and loyal to an entire ideology? If the BJP has not been in power in Delhi for more than two decades, it would be hard to say that its ideology has a majority adherents. It could be said to have a core base of voters and the rest who are on the periphery, who are swayed by the personality of a Modi and also get pumped up by nationalist rhetoric, but they do not buy the entire ideology. Switching over to AAP for such voters is not such a big leap. To fear that such a set of voters could be the deciding factor in suddenly establishing majoritarianism seems a little irrational.

To all voters, local politics is very near and real. In Delhi, they have seen the benefits that have accrued from AAP’s commitment to getting things done and delivering the goods. They have seen AAP’s singular focus on making available access to public goods to everyone equally. They have seen first-hand, in the here-and-now, the effects of a government dedicated to making good on promises for rudimentary goods and services – almost on the lines of fulfilling a citizens basic rights and not as an obligation towards them. This is not just about the Signature Bridge, but quality schools for their kids and PTAs at large stadiums.

For a citizenry used to abysmal and shoddy public services – forget “GK”  and “South Ex” and some other neighborhoods of South Delhi, but look towards most of the East and North – to areas most South Delhiites do not care to think about; to Seemapuri, Burari, Nand Nagri, Seelampur, Welcome, Shahdara, Kalyanpuri, Bhalaswa, Mangolpuri, Trilokpuri – and one can easily see what state that part of the national capital has been in. For that matter even most of what was the much-vaunted South Delhi is choked and overcrowded – there is no parking space, the public open spaces are mostly rundown, the sidewalks broken, and garbage uncollected. For a city bursting at its seams as Delhi, quick and sincere attention to some kind of infrastructure renewal and provision of basic, reliable urban services matter.

This is not a case of “this is the best there is.” This is also not the case of some poll-driven “welfarism.” Given the almost unregulated cost-structures in crucial areas like healthcare and education – private healthcare and private schools, almost like monopolies, charge astronomical amounts with arbitrary fee-hikes – it is essential that such areas see some sort of government intervention that is fair, affordable and meeting certain standards.

While still weak-kneed and amorphous in its political stances, AAP has not displayed a wholesale sellout to the causes of bigotry and communalism. If anything, it has maintained a semblance of diversity that many other parties might not be able to demonstrate (all its Muslim candidates were returned in 2020 and all its Dalit leaders won from their reserved constituencies). In the early days of the party, it has shown courage by fielding several social activists such as Medha Patkar, Soni Sori etc. It seems even such fleeting radicalism has been tempered in the current avatar of AAP, which is a regression.

For social reformers like Mahatma Phule and Dr. Ambedkar, education was key to the empowerment of the subjugated castes. Phule pursued the Satyashodhak stream of thought and Ambedkar, eventually, left his followers with the emancipatory ideology of Buddhism – and not Marxism. It would be a stretch to fit the pragmatic programme being pursued by the AAP over a classical socialism template. It seems AAP has bits and pieces of a socialist project in the operative part of its programme. In its own way, it is empowering people with quality education, healthcare and some modern-day basics like electricity and water. In the process it is aiming to reduce the stress on people’s pockets. It considers people as “free agents” and of “independent will” – they will know how best to utilize the improved resources afforded them without being bound or answerable to an ideology.

As has been written before, even for the Bolivarian Socialism of Chavez, there were moments in the political process that guided him to adopt more definitely socialist positions. But a key part of that socialism, that of building people’s power never really became a widespread reality. As one analyst put it, “the problem began with Chávez’s leadership and the idea that socialism could be a state-led enterprise.”

The AAP can play the crucial role in being the provider of sorely needed inputs to develop human capital. But while doing so, it must also make the people active participants in their own uplift and betterment. It is too early to declare AAP’s model of governance as an alternate form of governance, much as Kejriwal and his adviser, Prashant Kishor, might like to call their brand of politics as transformative. It is not too late for a course correction, especially with regards to issues of discrimination and identity based on caste and religion. While hiding or jettisoning one’s religious identity is not being called for, an unambiguous position on crucial issues is called for. As journalist Saba Naqvi put it in Outlook magazine,

“Cosmetic secularism is not what minorities are interested in; besieged as they are, they are not waiting for Kejriwal to wear a skull cap and pose with the clergy. But they are looking for stronger articulation from the re-elected Delhi government against CAA/NRC/NPR. That is something that could also sit well with the many first-generation migrants that still make up the largest chunk of AAP volunteers and its most loyal voters.”

Kejriwal and AAP have a chance to craft a socialism beyond the charges of welfarism and freebieism. They will have to combine their passion for provision of public services, their belief in the rights of every citizen (or…person) to a wholesome and productive life, with commitments to building a society that rests on beliefs of equality and equity, one which rests on the power and decision-making of the people, and one that does not tolerate bigotry and discrimination.

Aviral Anand is a socially-concerned citizen of the world, currently based in Delhi. He believes in all kinds of solidarities with global struggles, such as the working class, indigenous and other marginalized peoples’ struggles around the world.

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