Opinion polls predict the worstever defeat for the Congress in the coming election. The party swore by the aam aadmi for a decade, promising him succour through a rights-based approach . Alas, the aam aadmi rejects this categorically.
In 2009, Sonia Gandhi created the powerful National Advisory Council with the top names in the NGO/activist circuit, claiming to be true champions of the aam admi. They prodded Sonia to enact the Right to Education Act, a sort of Right to Work (MNREGA), and a sort of Right to Food (the Food Security Act).
Had these met the needs of the aam aadmi, the Congress would be poised for victory. Why, instead, is it being thrashed? Mainly because Indians no longer want to be treated as objects of pity, or be bought off with doles and freebies even as crooked Congressmen mint money. Narendra Modi has soared in opinion polls by emphasizing development and opportunity, not sops and entitlements. Indians have become aspirers to a better life, seeking good governance more than sops.
Activists say their rights-based approach was fine, but implementation was flawed. Sorry, but any approach that ignores implementation realities is not worth wiping your bum with. Everybody knew that government schools were non-functional because of absenteeism, that employment schemes and food distribution were corrupt and wasteful. Nevertheless the activists persuaded Sonia Gandhi to pour ever more money into these leaky buckets. They argued that some states had performed well, so if others did equally well, the approach would be a big success. This was like arguing that if only all Indian cricketers played like Sachin Tendulkar, India would become world champion. The logic was not wrong, simply irrelevant.
Others said the rights-based approach was correct but overtaken by scams, inflation, and a slowing economy. Surely this shows that the activists wrongly claimed that their pet priorities were those of the aam aadmi. A big gap has appeared between the aam activist and aam aadmi.
Activists seek to convert entitlements into universal rights. This is conceptually flawed. Mukesh Ambani must have traditional rights (right to vote, right to follow any religion) but why on earth should he have a right to free food or education? Rights must be universal, whereas entitlements should be targeted at the needy.
Neither entitlements nor rights mean much without strong implementation. Sonia steered clear of any radical implementation measures. The Right to Education Act says children must be in school, but imposes no penalty on states that fail to provide schools, and no penalty on teachers who do not teach. Rights without accountability are frauds. Surveys show that children in class V cannot read passages meant for Class II, and children can be functionally illiterate on graduating from school. If Sonia had focused on ensuring strong accountability of schools and other government services to voters, they might have been happy. Instead she and the activists focused on larger budgets and near-universal provision.
Entitlements have existed for decades. Converting them into formal rights has made no practical difference. In theory, a right enables the aam aadmi to take the government to court. But do activists really think that the aam aadmi will go to court every time a teacher is absent or a ration shop says it has no wheat? The courts are clogged and suffer massive delays. Voters know how fraudulent it is to suggest that they have been empowered by new rights to claim redress from the courts.
Sonia has also missed a simple political insight. Despite Central laws converting entitlements to rights, implementation is done by the states. Over 90% of villagers have never seen a central government officer — the only government they know is the state government. If schools or ration shops work well or badly, voters give the credit or discredit to the state government, not New Delhi. In 2009, Sonia’s sycophants claimed that MNREGA had won her the election. In fact she swept the cities while the poorest states most in need of MNREGA voted for Opposition parties. This reflected support for dynamic Opposition CMs (Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Shivraj Chouhan and Raman Singh) rather than central laws.
This explains why the aam aadmi doesn’t give a damn for Sonia’s rights-based approach. In practice this simply expands old, flawed entitlements. The supposed right to take the administration to the courts is meaningless. Implementation is all-important, so what matters is not any central law but a good chief minister. The aam aadmi is sick of grandiose promises, and wants good governance plus a dynamic economy that creates opportunities. Kejriwal and Modi have grasped this. Sonia has yet to come to terms with this.