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India's 'Common Man' faces high expectations in New Delhi

Arvind Kejriwal and his upstart “Common Man's Party" won almost complete control of Delhi's legislative assembly last month. But will the new chief minister be able to deliver on his lofty campaign promises?

Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters/file
Arvind Kejriwal addresses his supporters after taking the oath as the new chief minister of New Delhi on Feb. 14.

From a jerry-built tea stall in the Bawana resettlement colony, one of New Delhi's newest neighborhoods, the huge challenges confronting the city's charismatic new chief minister are glaring.

Forced to move here when central slums were demolished to make way for stadiums and metro stations nearly a decade ago, thousands of people are still living without proper houses, a functioning sewer system, or a regular water supply.

“We're hoping that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will finally give us the houses we were promised,” says Leelawati Gupta, the tea stall’s owner.

In February, Arvind Kejriwal led his fledgling AAP, or “Common Man's Party,” to a surprise trouncing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hugely popular Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi elections by building a new coalition of voters like Ms. Gupta.

But analysts warn that Mr. Kejriwal’s unexpected success could lead to his undoing as Delhi residents eagerly wait for him to follow through on his sweeping campaign promises, from clean water to free wireless Internet. It’s a task made increasingly difficult by India’s fragmented and schadenfreude-fueled political system, which threatens to impede delivery of even the most basic services.

“They have raised expectations that cannot be met,” says Raghav Gaiha, a former professor of public policy at Delhi University. “They could try to deliver on a smaller scale. But the massive election victory [gets] in the way of thinking small."

A media-savvy former tax collector with a flare for civil disobedience, Kejriwal rose to prominence through a mass movement against corruption in 2011 and squeaked into the Delhi chief minister's post for the first time in December 2013. But he resigned in disgust after only 49 days in office, claiming that rivals in the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were stonewalling to prevent the passage of a landmark corruption bill that had been the centerpiece of his campaign.

Storming back to take 67 of 70 seats in Delhi’s legislative assembly last month was tantamount to pulling an elephant out of a hat. But even with that strong mandate, he faces the same kind of obstructions that made him quit his first term.

After handing Prime Minister Modi's BJP a huge slap in the face in the capital he calls home, Kejriwal now depends on Modi for the federal funds he needs to deliver. A tangled system puts federal agencies or municipal corporations in charge of large problem areas for which voters will nevertheless hold Kejriwal accountable.

“The same people who voted for Modi in the national elections voted for Kejriwal in Delhi,” says Brahma Pandey, a housing rights activists who works with the non-profit Hazard Center. “If they don't fulfill their aspirations, then people will take revenge with their thumb,” he added.

Water troubles

Along with neglected legal settlements like Bawana, Delhi groans under the weight of some 1,600 so-called “unauthorized colonies” that have emerged as a result of the city’s chronic housing shortage. Like the rest of Delhi, Kejriwal promised them 5,300 gallons of free water per month. But many such communities are not connected to water or sewer lines and instead rely on borewells or tanker trucks for their supply.

Though Kejriwal must provide for these colonies, he cannot make them legal or build much in the way of alternative housing. Land is the purview of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which is controlled by the federal government, where the BJP is in charge.

Even if Delhi's new chief minister succeeds in building water pipes or connecting sewer lines, the BJP government in the upstream state of Haryana is refusing to release water that is needed not only to meet household demand, but also to get a new wastewater treatment plant in Bawana up and running. 

And because Modi has been slow to make good on promises of an economic boom, his party cannot allow the upstart Kejriwal to succeed in Delhi's spotlight.

“The politics of it are really, really discouraging,” says Mr. Gaiha.

So far, Kejriwal's response has been a mix of his usual theatrics and some more promising pragmatism. He’s publicly blasted Modi's central government for withholding funds for Delhi’s development. And on Wednesday, he vowed that if Haryana does not supply the city with water, then the wealthy residents living in the capital's orderly government enclaves – including himself – will be the first to go dry.

“If there is a water shortage in Delhi, only the poor should not face the scarcity,” he said at a meeting of the legislative assembly. “It should be faced by all citizens equally, starting with me.”

A new way forward

Kejriwal has also signaled a willingness to grab low-hanging fruit where he can. Confronted with the holes in his water proposal, he presented a rough scheme to provide the promised free water through tanker trucks to residents who don't have metered connections. And to compensate for the slow-moving DDA, he unveiled plans to build 27,000 middle-income apartments through a state-level agency called the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board.

But those measures could well seem like nothing to the residents of Bawana and other benighted parts of Delhi, where more is at stake than the fate of a savvy reformer or rising demagogue.

Just outside the pucca, or “proper,” brick-and-mortar houses built by the DDA lies a maze of shacks built out of tree branches, thatch, corrugated metal, and plastic sheets. Many of the people living here say they were also promised a pucca house. But they have been fighting to get one for as long as nine years.

“We're living like refugees in our own country,” says Ram Lal, vice president of the local residents' association.

Years of neglect by India’s two main political parties have helped turn this community into a stronghold of AAP supporters.

Two years ago, after a raging fire killed two children and destroying some 400 shacks, the Congress Party chief minister never came to the site to address the victims, says Usha Devi, a migrant worker who is still registered to vote in her home state of Bihar.

“They did nothing for us,” she says.

The question now is whether Kejriwal's band of activists-turned-politicians can deliver more – or if he's set himself up for failure by promising too much.

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