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AAP made education a political issue. Competition will force others to take it seriously

Investing taxpayer money into government schools is the most effective transfer of wealth from rich to poor.

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Education has never been an election issue in India. Promise of government schools were an afterthought in manifestos, if at all they found a place. Yet, the promise of ‘free and high-quality education for all’ is one of Arvind Kejriwal’s top guarantees in Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh—four of the five poll-bound states. The Aam Aadmi Party’s persistence with this pitch reflects the emergence of a new education voter that has been meticulously cultivated by the party over the years. This is a remarkable political innovation with exciting implications for the state of government schools in India.

Politically speaking, AAP deciding to make education a hallmark of its ‘Delhi model’ was a major gamble. Education is not a political issue for a very good reason. It is what development economists would call a relatively “invisible” public good. Research has shown that a “visibility effect” causes political parties to focus public spending on sectors that have short-term but visible outcomes. The impact of investments in education can take more than a decade to become measurable. Governments with five-year terms tend not to think beyond that timeframe. The benefits of education are so diffused that it can be hard for politicians to own these achievements.

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Education reform: previous attempts

I am not arguing that education reforms have never happened in India in the past. India did make significant strides in school enrolment through the 1990s and early 2000s, taking a cue (and some coercing) from the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals initiative. The mid-day meal programme saw fruition after a slow and frustrating journey culminating in a legal battle. It was only after the Supreme Court’s intervention that all Indian states were forced to provide mid-day meals. Reforms did take place, but they were rarely driven by political parties.

An example of a feeble and superficial political push in the education sector is the UPA’s Right to Education (RTE) Act. Undoubtedly, the RTE presented a bold promise for change, but was not followed-up by an implementation plan. Congress had several state governments in the country at the time. If it so desired, it could have led the pack in rolling out the RTE’s various interventions thoughtfully and carefully.

Education projects do succeed in silos when individual State actors like education bureaucrats, district commissioners, principals or teachers inject their personal enthusiasm and drive, but are rarely able to scale or sustain themselves because of the lack of political will. This has also meant that by and large, parents who send their children to government schools in India have no hope for any reform. Government schools have become schools of last resort for those who cannot afford private education.

Also read: Congress banks on ministers, sitting MLAs in first list for Punjab polls

The ideological choice

For all these reasons and many others, there was immense skepticism about the potential of education as a political issue. When I was working on the school reform project, I was AAP’s spokesperson representing the party on evening news debates. In private conversations, both journalists and Opposition party spokespersons would be amused by AAP’s focus on schools. Some even joked the party was risking becoming a non-profit focused on education instead of a political organisation. AAP already has a winning formula of welfare programmes providing cheap power and water in place – so, why is AAP placing so many eggs in the education basket? The choice was not as political as it was ideological.

Political scientist Ben Ansell calls public spending on universal primary education the ‘sharpest edge of progressive redistribution.’ Investing taxpayer money into government schools is the most effective transfer of wealth from rich to poor. By allocating 25 per cent of the State’s budget for education, AAP signaled it was going all in on the progressive redistribution. Powered by this unprecedented resource infusion, the reforms took off.

But for AAP’s education gamble to pay off, the reforms succeeding to deliver better education was not enough. It was critical that the party create a strong association among voters’ minds between voting for AAP and better schools. To achieve this, an overtly political scaffolding was added to the Delhi government’s efforts – without politicising the content being delivered to children. The vision articulated by the leadership was clear from Day 1: making education a political issue. In February 2020, when the party won its third assembly election in Delhi, education minister Manish Sisodia said: “I had a dream five years ago … I wished that elections in our country would be held on the issue of education. Today I am happy that this dream is coming true.”

Also read: Sidhu says Congress ‘may spring surprise on CM face’, talks of ‘character crisis’ in Punjab

The execution

AAP deployed significant political capital to make this a reality. The party cadre was invited to participate in helping cement the government’s efforts. State capacity on the ground became invigorated by the young and old AAP volunteers, who had found a meaningful project to be engaged in. The government released newspaper, television and radio ads inviting parents for parent-teacher meetings; the party cadre mobilised parents and convinced them to attend. The government empowered school management committees (SMCs) to keep schools accountable to parents; the party cadre enforced it through the local AAP MLA’s clout and sometimes by directly alerting the Education Minister of violations.

Every stakeholder was publicly celebrated. Class X and XII results were announced to the public by the education minister in prominent press conferences. Successful students’ pictures were plastered on billboards, newspaper ads. Inaugurations of swimming pools, hockey fields, auditoriums, new classrooms were all marked by billboards in the school neighborhood announcing the arrival of a new and improved public school. State teachers’ awards functions were held at the grand scale of Bollywood awards nights. Noteworthy achievements by students, teachers, parents, and officials were regularly celebrated with dinners at the chief minister’s residence as a gesture of the government’s appreciation.

Also read: Why AAP stands to lose the most as farmers decide to go solo in Punjab polls

From Delhi to Punjab

Delhi government schools are dominated by the children of the most marginalised sections of society: urban poor, daily wage earners, first generation learners, Dalits, Muslims – and migrants from around the country. Many of Delhi’s teachers are also migrants from other states. All those who became the AAP government’s partners in the education reforms have now become the party’s ambassadors.

In states where AAP is fighting elections, the party has found that stories of Delhi’s education reforms have found an organic life of their own through word-of-mouth. In Goa, when Arvind Kejriwal went campaigning door-to-door this week, Goan voters were seen sharing with him that they had heard about Delhi’s schools. In an opinion article in ThePrint, senior journalist Chander Suta Dogra writes, “A substantial portion of Punjab’s Dalits, whose children fill up the state’s ramshackle government schools, are particularly hoping that an AAP government might just be good for their children.”

The party certainly appears to be in a position to benefit from its education politics. But what are the implications of this politicisation on the education sector itself? Sooner or later, political competition will force all parties to take education seriously. In Uganda, universal primary education became a reality when a politician promised it during an election and delivered on that promise. A paper that studied this phenomenon found that in a competitive democratic environment where education becomes an issue, public spending on education increases.

We can see signs of this phenomenon playing out in Delhi already. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) runs municipal schools of Delhi (different from state government schools). While their overall quality remains poor, they have grudgingly adopted some of Delhi government’s reforms like mega parent-teacher meetings and Mission Buniyaad, a major pedagogical intervention.

Education officials from across Indian states have begun to lean on Delhi’s education department for guidance. Delhi routinely hosts delegations of awestruck education officials. Education ministers from several states and across party lines have visited Delhi’s schools to understand the reforms.

The price that parents pay for educating their children has seen a dramatic increase in the past decade. India’s demographic distribution is such that the sheer size of the community of parents with children in school has expanded rapidly. AAP has a first mover advantage among this large voter base, especially because it has become the first party to appeal to them politically. In a politics dominated by cynical calculations of caste and religious coalitions, this is a welcome departure.

Akshay Marathe was a member of the AAP govt’s education task force and is currently studying public policy at Harvard University. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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