Behind AAP’s big-ticket announcements in Punjab, there’s a ‘conditions apply’ clause

As AAP goes to town advertising its ‘achievements’, Punjab voters are realising that Mann government’s announcements are not exactly what party promised before polls

Pre-poll promises made by Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann in Punjab have begun to unravel quicker than what the AAP would have anticipated

Ever since it romped to power in Punjab last month, the Aam Aadmi Party and its Bhagwant Mann-led government have followed a simple but effective publicity template. Every key announcement by Mann on fulfilling AAP’s pre-poll populist promises is preceded and followed by a massive advertising blitzkrieg, particularly in states where his party eyes an expansion.

Mann’s announcement of “fulfilling” his party’s promise of providing 300 units of free electricity to the people of Punjab was given wide publicity through countless full-page advertisements in national and local dailies, televisions and radio spots. The launch of an anti-corruption helpline by Mann and the Punjab cabinet’s decision to fill up 25,000 vacancies in the state’s police force and other government departments, both made within the first fortnight of the AAP assuming power in the state, were accompanied by a similar publicity bombardment.

The marketing strategy affords Mann and his party boss, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, an opportunity to showcase the quick ‘achievements’ of their nascent Punjab government. By all accounts, the PR puffery is helping the AAP create a buzz in its expectant catchment areas such as Gujarat or Himachal where Mann and Kejriwal have been hard-selling their party ahead of this year’s assembly polls.

The story within Punjab seems to be vastly different. A litany of populist promises laced with the assurance of ‘badlaav’ (change) in conventional politics and governance had brought the AAP to power in Punjab. An obvious conjecture weaved into this narrative was that previous governments – led by the Congress or the Akali Dal – had routinely conned the electorate with extravagant announcements that were drafted only to deceive.

The AAP’s policies, Mann and Kejriwal had repeatedly assured the people of Punjab, would be shorn of any ‘conditions apply’ fine print. The tall promises, however, have begun to unravel quicker than the AAP would have anticipated.

Also read: Punjab to replicate Delhi’s education model

Starved of funds

Take, for instance, the most big-ticket announcement that has come from Mann’s stable so far. On April 16, as Mann completed a month in office, he announced that his government will provide every Punjabi household 300 units of free electricity beginning July 1. The pre-poll promise of free electricity – replicated from Kejriwal’s Delhi Model – had played a major role in AAP’s victory.

There had been palpable anger against the previous Congress-led government over inflated power bills and the power purchase agreements signed between the state government and private power companies, aside from the recurring problem of power outages. The AAP had claimed before the polls that it had an actionable blueprint prepared already to address all these challenges.

Yet, as Mann announced his free electricity sop, the underlying chicanery in it was evident. Though the announcement came on April 16, the CM made it known that the scheme will be rolled out from July 1, and not with immediate effect.

There were no lucid explanations offered by the AAP on why the announcement was being made now when the scheme would be rolled out over two months later. AAP insiders as well as the state’s bureaucracy conceded, off-the-record, that the delay was likely because the state, already burdened with a pernicious debt of over Rs. 2.82 lakh crore, lacked funds for an immediate roll-out.

Within days of assuming charge as Punjab CM, Mann had publicly declared that he had requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to grant Punjab special financial assistance of Rs 50,000 crore per year for the next two years. The statement should have been an indication of AAP’s expected inability in rolling out schemes that would further drain an already over-leveraged exchequer.

Punjab’s budgetary allocations for 2020-2021 show a power subsidy bill of Rs 10,668 crore; of this nearly Rs 7,000 crore goes in providing free electricity to farmers. By conservative estimates, the AAP’s promise of providing 300 units of free electricity to domestic households (this is beside the free electricity that farmers get for irrigation and other purposes) would have added another Rs 2,000 crore to Punjab’s power subsidy bill.

Also read: Punjab saddled with debt due to previous govts: CM Mann

Over the past fortnight, amid a crippling heat wave and deepening coal shortages – Punjab’s power supply is largely dependent on thermal power plants – that have brought back long power outages, other conditions written into the free electricity scheme have tumbled out.

General vs reserved categories

The biggest setback has been for a majority of Punjab’s nearly 50 lakh ‘general’ category power consumers. While announcing the scheme, Mann craftily glossed over a crucial detail, made public only later by officials in the power department.

Under the scheme envisaged by the Mann government, if a general category consumer ends up using more than 300 units of electricity in a month, she will automatically forfeit her subsidy for that billing cycle. Simply put, say a general category domestic household consumes 301 units of electricity, it would be billed for the entire 301 units and not just the units consumed over and above the supposedly free 300 units.

The scheme, however, is expected to further endear the nearly 22 lakh reserved category consumers to AAP as Mann has increased the cap on free electricity for these households to 300 units from the 200 units that earlier governments gave free. Unlike the general category households, reserved category consumers – scheduled castes, freedom fighters, below poverty line card-holders – will be billed only for additional units consumed above the 300-unit-mark.

Also read: AAP hopes to do a Punjab in Kejriwal’s home state Haryana, but it’s not easy

Expectedly, those belonging to the general category have been feeling duped by Mann’s policy. Domestic consumers in Punjab pay nearly Rs 9 per unit of electricity due to high taxes and other levies on power. Thus, a general category household consuming say 301 units of electricity in a month will be billed around Rs 2,700. Since Punjab has a two-month billing cycle, this high cost for electricity pinches even more.

Vijay Kumar Nalwa, a retired government employee from Punjab’s Mohali district whose income is his Rs 40,000 monthly pension, told The Federal, “I voted for AAP because of their free electricity promise as for me the steep power bills are a huge drain on my limited income. I did not expect the scheme to have such riders; this is fraud.”

Like Nalwa, IT professional Ajay Chawla, a resident of Zirakpur town near Chandigarh, is also unimpressed at Mann’s announcement. “Is this how the AAP government is rewarding the middle class that voted for it in large numbers? Why did the AAP not clarify before the polls that it will apply different yardsticks for consumers of reserved and general categories,” he said.

Police recruitment runs into controversy

The free electricity announcement isn’t the only populist move by Mann that has failed to impress Punjabis. Among the first cabinet decisions taken by the Mann government was the filling up of 25,000 vacancies in Punjab Police and other government departments. The move was publicised by AAP as a definite step forward in addressing unemployment among Punjab’s youth.

Of the 25,000 vacancies that the Mann cabinet opened up for recruitment, nearly 10,000 were for various posts in the Punjab Police while the remaining were across various government departments, boards and corporations. This decision too ran into criticism soon amid allegations that people from outside the state – mostly youth from neighbouring Haryana, where AAP is eying substantial electoral in-roads – were being favoured for these jobs over aspirants from Punjab.

On April 24, Congress MLA from Bholath, Sukhpal Singh Khaira tweeted the provisional combined merit list for candidates who were purportedly “given appointment letters” by Mann for 716 vacancies in the Punjab State Transmission Corporation Limited. Khaira, who briefly served as Leader of Opposition in the last Punjab assembly, alleged that a majority of these jobs were given to people who “don’t belong to Punjab”. He also alleged that while the recruitment process for over 4,300 vacancies in the Punjab Police constabulary had already been completed, the Mann government had not cleared the appointments despite claiming that over 10,000 vacancies in Punjab Police were open for recruitments.

Unhappy farmers

Apart from these issues, major grievances have also been brewing against the AAP within the state’s politically significant farming community. The Punjab polls were fought under the shadow of raging unrest among the peasantry that had just stepped out of a sustained campaign against the BJP-led Centre over (now repealed) contentious farm laws.

The AAP had wooed Punjab’s farmers aggressively through the campaign. Among AAP’s promises was an assured compensation of Rs 50,000 per hectare in case of crop loss. Besides promising seamless procurement of crop and fair prices, Kejriwal had also promised the community that there will be “no farmer suicides” in Punjab once the AAP comes to power. Since AAP’s ascension to power last month, Punjab has witnessed over a dozen farmer suicides. Mann and his ministers have maintained a deafening silence while Opposition leaders from the Congress and the Akali Dal have been demanding that the AAP government announce urgent remedial measures.

The early onset of intense heat wave across north India has also adversely affected the standing wheat crop in Punjab that was ready to be harvested. With complaints of shrivelled wheat coming from across Punjab due to the sudden rise in temperatures, there are already reports of wheat procurement from the state taking a major hit this rabi season. But the Mann government is yet to announce any measures that would offset the peasantry’s losses.

Moreover, earlier this week, Mann signed a Knowledge Sharing Agreement with Kejriwal’s Delhi government. The move triggered accusations from the Congress and the Akali Dal of the Punjab CM leasing out his government to Kejriwal. Mann, however, defended the agreement by expanding his already lengthy list of promises, claiming the pact will help Punjab set up mohalla clinics and improve the state’s education and health infrastructure based on Kejriwal’s Delhi Model.

What Mann did not explain though was from where Punjab will get the funds for these initiatives when it is evidently starved for cash to fulfill the announcements already made by him over the past month. Punjab’s wait for real badlaav may not end anytime soon, but it’s unlikely to deter the AAP from its multi-crore-rupee publicity overdrive.

Also read: CM Mann meets farmer leaders, stresses on crop diversification, need to save water