In Gujarat, the Aam Aadmi Party has a historic opportunity

(This article first appeared in Gulf News on 17 June 2022.)

In the elections to the Guwahati Municipal Corporation in April, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) along with its allies won 58 out of 60 seats in April. Guess who won the remaining 2? No, not the opposition Congress party. It was the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

The AAP did not even contest all the seats. Apart from winning 2, they stood runner up in another 2. This is not a state where the party invested any energy. These 2 surprise seats in a civic body election tell you a larger story of Indian politics today: Indian voters are desperate to fill the vacuum a moribund Congress party is leaving behind.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Circa 2022 is a golden period for new parties and politicians. Anyone who has the patience and courage to play the long opposition game today will be rewarded in a decade or three.

Luckily for the AAP, it has virtually no challenge in pitching itself as the new main national opposition party. It can happen as soon as the 2024 general elections.

A historic opportunity

An important milestone in this regard will be the upcoming Gujarat assembly elections. The Congress has left the field open for the AAP. It is for Arvind Kejriwal to prove his mettle and win more seats and vote share than the Congress.

Despite significant traction, the AAP is at number three in Gujarat as of now. But it has at least 5 months to change that. There is little doubt the BJP will win the state, and it will likely be a handsome victory. The contest is for the number 2 spot.

If AAP can make itself the main opposition party in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, it will be a huge announcement of arrival. Across India, it will be clear to non- and anti-BJP voters that the Aam Aadmi Party is the new Congress.

The last time the Congress party won a majority in an election in Gujarat was in 1985. Most Indians alive today were not even born in 1985. Yet the Congress, by virtue of being the main opposition party, has won at least 35% votes every election.

Imagine the frustration if you are a Congress voter in Gujarat. You keep voting for Congress every election, knowing your party is going to lose. If in such a situation the AAP can’t even become the second largest party, the failure will be that of the AAP.

Urban desire

The maths of the BJP’s dominance is that it sweeps the large urban centres in and around Ahmedabad, Baroda and Surat. And then it picks up a few rural and tribal belt seats. The Congress wins almost nothing in urban Gujarat, and does middlingly well in rural and tribal seats.

There is no state in India where the urban-rural divide is reflected as acutely in elections as in Gujarat. In urban Gujarat, the Congress is not weak, it is non-existent. It is tough to even find a Congress worker in many booths. It is therefore no surprise that like Assam, the initial traction for the Aam Aadmi Party in Gujarat began from urban municipal elections.

In the municipal corporation elections in Gandhinagar, the state’s capital populated heavily with government employees, the AAP won 22% vote share last year. This was mostly at the cost of the Congress party, whose vote share fell from 47% to 28%. The AAP’s 21% vote-share converted into only one seat but it was nevertheless a huge signal that many Congress voters are looking for a better alternative to take on the BJP.

Similarly the AAP has won 28% vote-share in Surat, 17% in Rajkot, 8% in Bhavnagar and 7% in Ahmedabad municipal elections.

From city to state

Riding on these impressive debut performances in civic elections, the AAP has become a serious player in the state assembly elections, due in December this year.

However, it is as of now being seen as a ‘vote cutter’ and not a Congress demolisher. For the AAP to replace the Congress and become the main opposition party in a few months is a tough task, but not an impossible one.

The AAP could either do a campaign like Delhi 2013, in which it overnight replaced Congress with just a few months of campaigning. Or it could end up like Goa and Uttarakhand, where the initial buzz around AAP fizzled out as voters couldn’t see the possibility of AAP replacing Congress.

The hurdle for AAP is to impress the rural voters, especially farmers. It has smartly tied up with Chotubhai Vasava’s Bhartiya Tribal Party to impress the tribal voter.

The party is launching a campaign to demand free electricity with an eye on farmers, claiming that they don’t get uninterrupted electricity supply and alleging that Gujarat has the most expensive electricity in the country. Focusing on the under-developed and neglected Saurashtra region will be key.

AAP has structural weaknesses which it may not be able to overcome in a few months. Firstly, it is weak when it comes to building and strengthening the party organisation.

The national hype around AAP and its governance claims and massive advertising can only take them so far. It is workers who get out the vote. And it is recognisable, ‘winnable’ local faces whom people like to elect as their representatives in the state assembly.

AAP is not only weak on these counts, it faces an aggressive BJP out to poach AAP’s leadership across India to ensure it is unable to convert sentiment into votes.

Playing the cards right

Given the challenges it faces in Gujarat, this is a good election to test whether Arvind Kejriwal has matured as a politician. If he is smart, he will focus on 15-20 ‘winnable’ seats rather than worrying about declaring a CM candidate.

Nobody cares about the CM candidate unless they were going to have a personality cult campaign around that face. Neither their state chief Gopal Italia nor their star face Isudan Gadhvi have the ability to carry a personality cult campaign.

Convincing Gujarat’s voters that most non-BJP voters are voting for AAP is what it will take to become number 2. Arvind Kejriwal has the fire in the belly to pull this off, but does he have the ability and skills?

The AAP’s impressive performance in Punjab, winning a landslide victory, has also been explained away by critics as an exception. It is a Hindu minority state, both Akalis and Congress were unpopular, the BJP was hardly a factor, and so on.

If the AAP can show some magic in Gujarat, it can change the course of national politics.

India has achieved its population target. Why aren’t we celebrating?

If you grew up in India in the ‘90s you often heard the government slogan. “Hum Do Hamare Do”, meaning ‘We Two, Our Two’, urging families to have no more than two children each.

A just-released government study says India has achieved this aim. It is a mystery why we are not celebrating this landmark moment.

The just-released National Family Health Survey-5, a government study conducted in 2019-20, shows India’s total fertility rate (or average number of children produced by a woman) has come down to 2.0.

The replacement rate is 2.1, when it is said a population size is stabilised. Below 2.1, the size of the population starts shrinking. In other words, India no longer has to worry about population “explosion”. India’s population size should now start decreasing.

This is a huge win for population scientists, women’s rights activists and public health experts who managed to get the Indian government to shift its focus to maternal health, access to contraceptives and awareness campaigns in the ‘90s. Credit also goes to “ASHA” or Accredited Social Health Activists who have taken the revolution to the village doorstep.

A win for democracy

This was a policy of emancipation of women and enabling families to make their own decisions, rather than forcing family planning on people against their wishes.

To that extent, it is also a win for India’s democratic ideals. In some years, India’s population size may surpass China’s, because China’s total fertility rate is even lower than India’s (1.7 in 2020). But in a few decades, India will be facing the same problem as China, an ageing, shrinking population with not enough young people to add to workforce.

Democratic India has always had the impulse to force population control upon people. During Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975-77, her out-of-control son Sanjay Gandhi made the government forcibly sterilise some young men. The move is attributed to be the main reason why she lost the 1977 election.

Don’t despair for Bihar

The state-wide variations are fascinating. Only 5 states are above the replacement level of 2.1. These are Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Meghalaya and Manipur. Before you despair, it is to be noted that even these states have seen a significant decline and are well on their way to reach 2.1 in a few years. At least UP, Bihar and Jharkhand here are proof that family planning is proportional to literacy and access to health services.

When a woman can’t get an abortion or easy access to abortion pills or a poor labourer is not given free contraceptives at a government hospital, it is the failure of the government. India’s population “explosion” has been defeated with these policy interventions.

It is telling to look at the urban-rural difference. The total fertility rate of urban India according to the survey is 1.6, whereas rural India is 2.1. So while rural India has reached replacement rate, urban India is far below it. People today no longer need extra children to work as child labour. They increasingly see children as a financial responsibility, not to be undertaken lightly.

In Bihar, the worst performer with a TFR of 2.98, the rural TFR is 3.1 and the urban one is 2.4. In populous Uttar Pradesh, the urban TFR is 1.9 and rural is 2.5.

The Muslim bogey

Population “control” has long been used as a bogey against Muslims. Majoritarian extremists have spread the canard that Indian Muslims deliberately produce more kids to ensure India becomes a Muslim-majority country. Every 5 years, the National Family Health Survey has been proving this myth wrong.

The TFR for Indian Muslim women as a whole has fallen from 3.6 in 1998-99 to 2.36 in the latest survey (2019-20). Indian Muslims have seen the sharpest decline in the fertility rate. If their TFR is still slightly higher than national average, it is proof that they are socio-economically worse off.

Just like the states of UP and Bihar, the TFR of Indian Muslims is directly proportional to literacy, and access to maternal health and family planning services.

Demographic opportunity lost

This achievement should be a cause for national celebration because people have worried about population size for decades. The worry was always a little misplaced, because a young population also means cheap labour. India failed to exploit this “demographic dividend” by missing the manufacturing bus.

In some decades — sooner than you think — we will have the opposite problem. We will be ageing and poor, and politicians will face the pressure for better services for the elderly.

But for now, we should celebrate. Anyone who has walked on an Indian street can tell there are too many of us. It is a relief to know most Indians now want only one or two children.

(This article by Shivam Vij first appeared in Gulf News on 27 May 2022.)

The life and times of the 1.5 GB Indian

There are three Indias: India Unlimited, India Unconnected, and, in between those two, the India of 1.5 GB.

The Unlimited Indian has “unlimited” internet plans on both mobile and Wi-Fi. The allotted data is hundreds of GBs a month. It never runs out. It lets you keep binge-watching the streaming shows.

The Unlimited Indian is able to understand, even be comfortable with, the Unconnected Indian. Poor people who have neither literacy nor money to be on the internet.

The Unlimited Indian has a harder time understanding the 1.5 GB Indian — people with prepaid mobile internet plans that give them 1.5 GB data per day.

Cut your coat according to your cloth

Imagine watching a show and the data runs out just before the detective was to reveal the whodunnit. The Unlimited Indian thinks we have left behind such a shortage economy. In reality, most internet users in India live a life that is limited, rationed, allotted. The 1.5 GB limit defines their lives.

The universe tells them: these are your boundaries. You have to become another person to be unlimited. Try harder. Try again. Refresh. To go from 1.5 GB a day to limitless data is a rite of passage. You’ve joined the top echelons of Indian society.

The disconnect produces strange encounters. The unlimited Indian calls their domestic staff on Whatsapp, often because the unlimited Indian lives in a gated colony or a high-rise with poor mobile network. The rising rates of cancer have convinced the unlimited Indian that it’s the mobile towers which are causing abnormal cell growth in their bodies.

All the scientific fact-checks sound good but nobody wants to rent out their terrace in the posh colonies for a mobile tower. The poorer the mobile signal in urban India, the richer its occupants.

So the unlimited Indian uses fibre cables to call their domestic staff on WhatsApp. What time are you coming in today? The Unlimited Indian discovers she can’t get through to the domestic staff, who often turn off their mobile internet. They turn it on only when they need to use it. That’s how they make the 1.5 GB day last till midnight.

How to make 1.5 GB last full 24 hours

On their preferred search engine, YouTube, they use the audio-to-text option to find out: how many MBs in 1.5 GB? How does one make 1.5 GB data last a full day? What does one do if it runs out? Any tricks that don’t involve buying a special data pack?

Helpful videos in Indian languages, made by working class people looking to earn fame and dollars from YouTube, tell you to switch off auto-updates of apps, among other tricks to make your data last longer. Yet, it‘s tough to not be watching YouTube videos and wonder if the data will run out soon. It has to be preserved for better things.

When there’s a shortage of things, you have to prioritise. Often there’s only one smart phone and many sets of eyes at home. The working class patriarch reaches home at night, his wife and children waiting to get their hands on the smartphones.

They want to video call friends and family, watch the latest viral videos, or just the downloaded movie. Whether or not the man has left any data by dinner time can affect marital life and family harmony.

Watch later

For the Unlimited Indian, downloading songs and movies is a distant memory. Remember video players to run those movies? For the 1.5 GB Indian, streaming movies is a bad idea. They share pirated links on Telegram or other apps that let you know how many MBs a file is. (Apps that the Unlimited Indian hasn’t even heard of.)

That’s when they decide whether they want to download it today or there is something more important to do with the data.

The downloaded movies are watched later at leisure, without the stress of data running out. The sort of leisure with which the Unlimited Indian streams video online. The streaming apps have found a way to get into the hearts of the 1.5 GB Indian: they offer you free 28 day subscriptions with the 28 day recharge pack.

But the 1.5 GB Indian prefers to watch the downloaded movie files, often sharing it with friends via Bluetooth. Remember sharing media on Bluetooth? One man’s past is another man’s present.

The 1.5 GB Indian was put to a severe stress test when life went under lockdown. Free time at home needed more entertainment. Fine, watch TV. But children needed the internet for online classes. The Unlimited Indian’s children had online classes over Zoom. The limited, 1.5 GB Indian’s children had online ‘classes’ over WhatsApp groups.

What do you do when you have one phone and two children? You prioritise the male child, of course.

There are, of course, far too many WhatsApp chat groups. These are a nuisance when you are trying to conserve data. The 1.5 GB Indian thus exits WhatsApp groups faster and knows a WhatsApp setting the unlimited Indian does not: turn off auto-download of media on WhatsApp. They decide on a case to case basis whether they want to download a photo or video forwarded by a friend.

One smartphone, two children

Telecom companies quickly came up with special data packs for ‘work from home’ but data, like money, is never enough.

As the pandemic shrunk the economy, jobs were lost, there were people who went from unlimited to limited data. Incomes declined and jobs were lost, but online education, work from home and the anxiety of Covid needed more money to buy phones.

The cheapest smartphone could be more than what a daily wage labourer could make in a month, before Covid. India has among the cheapest internet access in the world — but cheap for whom?

Day dreaming with 1.5 GB

Yet it isn’t all that gloomy. The 1.5 GB data fills the lives of the aspirational Indian with great joy. He has the world in his hands, and instantly transfers money online without any fees. He hopes to go unlimited one day, and the smartphone will help him get there. Meanwhile, the unconnected Indian hopes to get to 1.5 GB a day to begin with.

The transition from one tier to another could take a generation. Who knows what technology may be like by that time? Perhaps the Wi-Fi-emitting fibre cables will reach the working class Indian in some years. We have nothing if we don’t have hope.

For now, he waits for the clock to strike 12 at night, so that the daily data limit is reset, and he could start dreaming with eyes wide open.

(This article by Shivam Vij first appeared in Gulf News on 21 October 2021.)