Ordinary Infrastructures and the AAP sweep in Delhi

The Aam Aadmi Party’s stupendous victory in Delhi has been explained by several observers as the rise of populism constructed around the promise of various kinds of ‘freebies’ to, in particular, subaltern urban residents. This argument has been critiqued by AAP sympathizers as an elitist one that fails to recognize the various subsidies and state largesse that are availed by the upper classes as well, including public education and water.

A second matter of interest has been the mystery around why the debate around development that first, the Congress and then Narendra Modi-led BJP have politically benefitted from has fallen flat this time? This is a far cry not only from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections but also previous elections in Delhi in 2003 and 2008. I argue that both these matters must be considered together to contextualize the decisive verdict for AAP, and in particular the overwhelming support the party has received from the urban subalterns over the last year and a half.

Unraveling of the Congress Compact

It is instructive here to recall Congress’ electoral victories in Delhi. Those fifteen years of rule were politically achieved through a marriage of two different constituencies: the first is what political scientist Partha Chatterjee called ‘political society’, or the loose collection of the urban poor divided by a high degree of segmentation of workplaces but united within so many disparate neighborhoods where they live. Their basic conditions of living have been long characterized by high degree of insecurity. Having been priced out of what are known locally as ‘planned colonies’, millions in Delhi live in the so-called unauthorized colonies or in slums (bastis).

Political parties have traditionally been extremely active in these spaces, and through networks of patronage have extended certain guarantees of continued existence and some basic services in return for political support. Elections have for a long time then been won and lost around the ability of the given party to find suitable anchorage in these neighborhoods through locally influential patrons. The Congress in Delhi had managed to secure entrench its hold in these spaces especially effectively. Even during these elections one of the very few serious arguments the Congress made was that its MLAs presided over an ecosystem that ‘got things done’ for people. What they forgot was that this system not only encourages but also demands a general governance deficit and distance between the state and the poor. This is the precise void that the patronage system promises to suture.

The second key constituency that supported Sheila Dixit-led Congress in Delhi was the middle-class, who live in the planned parts of the city and though a smaller proportion of the population, have a disproportionate handle on the institutional apparatuses of the city (media, education, judiciary etc). The broadly governance-focused and peaceful years under the Dixit regime, coupled with an emphasis on the creation of urban infrastructures (Metro, flyovers, shopping districts) centered on the objective of making Delhi a ‘World Class’ city bought the middle class over to the Congress.
From a few of years prior to the 2013 elections, however, the support of both of these blocs was splintered. Through the 2000s, court-mandated enforcement of property rights led to the displacement of several slums, which were relegated to the fringes of the city. The previous complex of patronage-linked access to rights was concomitantly torn. In the unauthorized colonies, it was increasingly clear that legal regularisation did not translate into livable living spaces.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games of 2010, which were supposed to be the crowning achievement of the Dixit regime in reality effectively undermined the government due to the well-publicized instances of corruption and ineptness that preceded the event. A further series of scams under UPA-2 (2G, coal allocation etc) and the Congress’ confrontational attitude towards the emergent urban mobilizations around first, anti-corruption and later, against gender violence further put paid to its chances of regaining middle-class support. While the first bloc moved to AAP (below), surveys show a divide down the middle in the second, between BJP and AAP.

The Terror of Infrastructure
In a 2008 article, Geographer Colin McFarlane quotes a Mumbai journalist, who, after the 2006 bombings targeting the city’s train system, remarked that residents did not worry as much about ‘terror on infrastructure’ as they did about the everyday ‘terror of infrastructure’ constitutive of lives in the city. The latter is the key, I believe, to deciphering the recent political currents of Delhi, and the consolidation of support around AAP. For so many in Delhi, even those not objectively poor, urban life is symbolised by the everyday terror of infrastructure: from drinking water to the absence of clean toilets, and from uncertain transportation to streets that become treacherous after dark.

A closer look at transportation in the city beyond the Metro/flyover narrative reveals an entire world of crumbling infrastructure bursting at the seams. Hundreds of thousands of working people must jostle for space in buses while others are precariously positioned in electric rickshaws and the ubiquitous Grameen Seva, forever fearful of toppling over. Still others cannot afford any public transportation at all and cycle for hours to work. Doing so, they become particularly vulnerable to accidents in a city composed of drivers with little self-discipline and overall lax mechanisms of state-enforced punishment.

Observers looking through frameworks and methodologies of classical Left politics are still grasping with the fact that it is this basic architecture of everyday life rather than demands emanating from the workplace (not that those are unimportant) that define the new urban politics. It is therefore not, as many have described mockingly, a hankering for freebies but a call to action for re-claiming infrastructures critical to material lives, which have been denied to a significant majority of the population. It is this crucial distinction between the aspirational and ordinary infrastructures that explains the lack of traction that the PM’s development discourse managed in Delhi. It is now clear to see that AAP did not have much to say about development via large-scale projects (such as Smart Cities and bullet trains) but its candidates across the city articulated their proposals for infrastructures that scaffold everyday lives. It is to this concrete situatedness that visions of the Global City lost on 7th February.

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