By Kartikeya Batra
The nature of India’s current political discourse is such that an opinion of the following nature merits an outright disclaimer. I am no ardent supporter of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), neither am I a fan of everything that their spokespersons defend (read: have to defend) every night on prime time television. Furthermore, much like almost every other resident of New Delhi, I too harbour skepticism towards the “odd-even” plan, which kicks in on January 1, 2016. Yet, I pray the plan works.
Though seemingly similar to the concerns of every other citizen of Delhi, my anxiety has a second source apart from the tactical battle against Delhi’s air pollution. As a student of India’s politico-legal system, I fear that the policy’s fate will have a bearing on the entire strategic narrative around bold (read: “out-of-the-box”) policy decisions in Delhi.
AAP Govt went a step ahead
Since the day when the policy was first announced, I have held that in the absence of a direct diktat from the judiciary, a Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government may not have initiated such a audacious policy, which, despite hitting the Government’s likability, is no certain solution to the issue at hand. After all, the Delhi High Court, in its now famous statement wherein it compared living in Delhi to staying in a “gas chamber”, did not specifically mention the idea of rolling out the “odd-even” plan. It simply chided the Union Government and the Government of NCT of Delhi, and asked them to come up with a comprehensive plan of action.
On several occasions in the past, tough policy decisions have been force-fed to the Delhi Government by the judiciary. Two prominent cases of such radical policy drives come to mind- transition to CNG in 2001 and sealing illegal commercial outlets in 2006. On both occasions, the incumbent Congress government was arm-twisted into taking action by the judiciary. Yet, while transition to CNG was relentlessly pursued, interference and legislative action by the Union and Delhi Governments disallowed the sealing drive to reach its intended conclusion. On this occasion though, the Delhi Government had not been told by the court to implement an unpopular measure, which has risked the former’s credibility.
AAP’s legitimacy for Unconventional Policy Action
In the given context, the Delhi Government has shown ample courage and audacity, thus capturing the popular imagination of large sections of Delhi’s population, which have been yearning for innovative governance in the face of the city’s over-stretched infrastructure. For a handful of important factors, the AAP is currently in a position to fiddle with such a policy option previously unheard of in the Indian context. With its current electoral base widespread across income groups (as indicated by the 2015 Delhi Assembly Election Results) on issues of corruption and governance, the AAP does not have to maintain homogenous vote banks- unlike the BJP, for instance, which has always been wary of offending the trader community. (The only vote bank that the AAP can be said to have constructed and maintained is the urban poor, who will not be affected by the policy in any major way.)
On the back of a thumping victory, the run-up to which was marked by a campaign that focused on efficient governance energized with fresh ideas, the AAP Government also holds the novelty quotient and the political capital to experiment with such a controversial policy decision. It is a result of this (and the alarming situation, of course) that despite apprehensions, one of the popular moods across Delhi is that of giving the AAP a chance at trying something new.
Tactical Defeat=Strategic Failure?
However, the policy’s failure might jeopardize not only Delhi’s air quality, but also the AAP Government’s inclination towards trying innovative alternatives as policy solutions. Such is the state of politics in the NCT that any such failure will become political fodder for opposition parties. In addition, the AAP has not done itself any favours by antagonizing the opposition-especially the BJP-in the recent past, thus turning the political discourse acerbic and frankly, unbecoming. In fact, the political narrative has become so vitiated that the Chief Minister could not even fully insulate the “odd-even” policy from political bickering (read: Delhi Police). An outright failure of the policy will attract flak and questions towards the administrative abilities of the CM and his cabinet. In the face of such criticism, the response of an inexperienced lot of policymakers and legislators might err towards caution. Innovative governance-still in its nascence- might give way to conventional wisdom laden with platitudes and trite policy responses.
A city-state like the NCT of Delhi requires innovative governance for its sustenance. With ever- increasing demand for basic public goods (including clean air), the Delhi Government will constantly be cornered. The “odd-even” formula might be the beginning of a series of such tests. The results of this first test will have a bearing on what is to follow. I pray the Government succeeds- not only for Delhi and its air, but for the culture of lazy policy-making that reigns across India.
 Source links: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/article3041909.ece; http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/article3169222.ece; http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=78704; http://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/court-questions-sealing-relief-law-37868
Kartikeya Batra is a Research Associate at Evidence for Policy Design, Harvard University. He is an alumnus of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.