Kejriwal looks to 'water' down BJP campaign with a volley of freebies

Topics Arvind Kejriwal | BJP | AAP

Photo: Reuters
There is little doubt that Delhi’s population lives in fear of the air they breathe. A few months before the Assembly elections in the city, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears to have successfully planted another fear in people’s minds — the water Delhi’s people drink is infused with disease-causing coliform bacteria, generally found in human faeces, contains cancer-causing phenolic compounds found in industrial waste, has traces of household detergents called anionic detergents that can lead to skin damage, and much of it is turbid and foul-smelling.

A Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) report released by Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan says that Delhi is the only city where none of the samples was found fit to drink. The BJP’s Delhi MPs like actor-turned-politician Manoj Tiwari and cricketer-turned-politician Gautam Gambhir were quick to corner Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal after he accused Paswan of pandering to business interests of water purifier companies. The BJP even went to the extent of opening a helpline for people to report “dirty water” to the party — an assumption based on people having testing kits at home to check for Escherichia coli and hard water salts.

The BJP’s strategy seems to be simple: Make people believe that their and the lives of their loved ones are at risk with Kejriwal and his party in power. But the effectiveness of using fear as a weapon to prevent Kejriwal’s party from returning to power next year remains an unknown variable. The BJP’s challenge would be to make these voters think that despite paying for something as basic as water, the Kejriwal government has been unable to provide them potable water  which doesn’t harm them or their families. Or for that matter, free water being given to every household can make people sick.

Kejriwal, on the other hand, has unleashed his own brand of water politics — one that is based on providing this essential resource either free or at heavily subsidised rates. In 2013, when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) first came to power with the support of the Congress, Kejriwal announced 20,000 litres of water free to every household in the city. This scheme was extended after his party swept back to power in 2015. Then in August this year, Kejriwal announced waiver of water bills, a decision which was expected to benefit almost 1.3 million residents.

Kejriwal’s slew of freebies a few months before the elections have touched every stratum of society — from free power up to 200 units to all households, free bus rides for women, free treatment for victims of road accidents, and free surgeries at government and empanelled private hospitals to the city’s residents irrespective of their economic status to free wireless internet at select locations. The chief minister had created a storm earlier this year when he mooted a proposal for free metro rides for women, which subsequently ran into trouble with the central government.

“The truth is you cannot drink tap water in Delhi. The Delhi government itself doesn’t serve tap water at official meetings. But the politics over dirty air and water has negligible political repercussions for the AAP. A majority of the voters in Delhi are either middle class or low-income groups. When they are getting so many things for free, they are happy having to pay less. People do not have a long-term perspective on the unsustainability of receiving things like water and electricity for free. As long as they are getting it for free, they will vote for the government that gave them all of this. The AAP will be able to capitalise on this sentiment,” said Rumi Aijaz, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

The BJP is trying hard to make this Assembly poll count; it last came to power in Delhi in 1993. With no local leader yet to match Kejriwal’s appeal, the party’s local leaders have been training guns at him over issues like air pollution and water quality. While Kejriwal appears successful in deflecting blame on to the Centre over air pollution; thanks partly to the Supreme Court’s intervention it the issue; it remains to be seen whether he would counter the BJP’s “dirty water” assault with a volley of freebies to retain power in Delhi.

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