New Delhi: Skits and door-to-door campaigns. That’s how the Aam Aadmi Party plans to turn the tables on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “revdi” culture remark in two poll-bound states — Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
The strategy, according to political leaders and experts, seems to be aimed at telling the public that the BJP was against promised free services at a time when rising prices, depleting savings, and unemployment have affected a large number of people. The aim is to ensure that Modi’s “revdi culture remark” — a term the prime minister used to describe freebies offered by political parties — backfires on the BJP, experts say.
A senior Delhi-based AAP functionary told ThePrint: “In our poll campaigns in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, our volunteers have now started doing skits on the subject”.
He added: “Some of them dress like train catering staff and act like hawkers yelling ‘revdi, revdi’ and then explain to people what the BJP calls revdi is actually what the AAP means by the quality education and healthcare services for free, 300-unit free electricity, etc and how such welfare measures contribute in increase net disposable savings of households. Our volunteers are also spreading the same message through door-to-door visits.”
Modi’s comments on freebies at this juncture seem to have several aspects, said experts, citing subsidies contributing to the poor condition of states’ finances year after year, fear of regional leaders developing themselves into brands with freebie-centric governance models, and a direct attack on the AAP whose expansion beyond Delhi and Punjab can be a problem for the BJP in the long run.
Kejriwal’s aggressive counter-attack strategy on the matter too seems to have many sides, experts say, explaining how Modi’s comments directly hit his fundamental governance model that relies heavily on subsidies. They also say Kejriwal taking on Modi directly at this point can give him political mileage not only in poll-bound Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh but also in terms of his larger national ambitions in the future.
“The PM’s comments seemed like a veiled attack on Kejriwal and his policies,” Praveen Rai, a political analyst with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, told ThePrint. “It seems like Kejriwal has taken it as a personal attack. His governance model in Delhi indeed depends heavily on free services. So, the PM’s comments affect the AAP more than anyone else, perhaps.”
Tension over Revdi politics
Revdi is a north Indian sweetmeat that’s made of sesame and jaggery. It’s especially popular in winter.
It all began on 16 July when Modi cautioned people against what he called a “revdi culture” of offering freebies for votes and called this “very dangerous” for the development of the country.
Kejriwal quickly countered saying that he felt he was being “abused” for his welfare schemes, which involve several free services to people.
The next few days saw several state units of the AAP hitting the streets in protest. Meanwhile, Kejriwal strategically continued with his attacks, weaving a larger narrative that conveys that the Modi government is against free services — not only with regard to services like free electricity and water but also essentials such as free school education and free healthcare.
At the same time, AAP also began pushing the narrative that the BJP has been helping some super-rich individuals allegedly close to the central government by writing off their debts and giving them tax exemptions.
On 8 August, Kejriwal said that those who were calling his government’s welfare schemes “freebies” were “traitors” to the country. A day later, he once again criticised the Modi government, accusing the BJP of “crony capitalism”.
In a video press statement on 10 August, Kejriwal said: “It is bizarre that an environment is being created to set a perception that giving quality services to people for free would cause loss to the nation.”
On Thursday, Kejriwal questioned the union government’s finances,” Kejriwal said in a video message. “Why are they suddenly so opposed to free services? Free services in the sectors of health and education have existed for 75 years now. Why does this Union government want to stop that?”
The AAP’s strategy seems to have hit the BJP — the party has evidently been trying hard since to draw a distinction between what Modi called “revdi” and what Kejriwal has been attacking him over.
For instance, Thursday saw Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman accuse Kejriwal of having given a “perverse twist” to the debate on freebies. At a press conference she addressed, Sitharaman said health and education were never considered giveaways and that no Indian government had ever denied them to the people.
Then Friday, BJP’s national spokesperson Sambit Patra also addressed AAP’s allegations. Patra said at a press conference: “Working towards the economically weaker section comes under the ambit of ‘benefit’. Freebies mean short-term benefits. It only benefits Arvind Kejriwal and his party”.
Decoding ‘revdi’ politics
Tanvir Aeijaz, an associate professor in the political science department of the University of Delhi, told ThePrint that subsidies should always be assessed through the parameters of transparency and accountability.
“As far as these two parameters are concerned, both the Modi government and Kejriwal government have a long way to go. In Kejriwal’s case, he may defend Delhi’s subsidies citing a surplus budget but what about Punjab, which has huge deficits and massive debts? Also, in public finance, surplus does not necessarily mean that it should be distributed as freebies,” he said.
The reason Kejriwal was being targeted by Modi, he says, was because “there seems to be some sort of a competition going on between the BJP and the AAP”.
“And, at this point, Kejriwal is leading the race,” Aeijaz said.
India is a welfare state, Rai said, free services are a tool for ensuring equality.
“Hence, the subject of so-called freebies remains a grey area in which the Supreme Court will not be deciding,” he said. “But, at this point, I feel, the BJP’s strategy can backfire because people across the country are troubled because of unemployment, price rise, and depleting savings. Free services come as a major relief for a significant chunk of the masses,” he added.
The larger idea of subsidies should be to generate employment and enable long-term goals, Aeijaz said.
“[It should not be] limited to providing short-term reliefs such as electricity bills waived off and free ration extended for six months,” said Aeijaz. “Kejriwal seems to have adopted an aggressive counter-attack strategy because Modi’s comments directly target his fundamental pro-subsidy governance model. He has always maintained that he is not into the politics of caste and religion.”
Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research — a Delhi-based public policy think tank — said that state finances are in poor shape across India and “subsidies being given by political parties are undoubtedly a matter of concern at this point” but Kejriwal isn’t the only political leader to be offering freebies.
“Leaders such as Arvind Kejriwal have worked at the grass-root level, in slums and jhuggi-jhopdi colonies. So, his ideas on the welfare governance model based on heavy subsidies not only gets mass support but also help him generate a brand. Many political leaders have developed themselves into some sort of brands through their subsidy-driven models over the past several years.”
Modi’s criticism, he believes, could be based on several reasons.
“First, he is generally concerned about the poor situation of state finances. Second, regional leaders developing strong brands based on freebie-centric models can pose a challenge for the BJP to expand in those states. Third, the freebie model is evidently helping the AAP expand its footprints beyond Delhi and that can be a problem for Modi in the long run,” said Verma.
Why is AAP bothered
Days after coming to power in Delhi in 2015 with a majority, the AAP government slashed power tariff by 50 per cent for consumption up to 400 units a month and made water consumption free for households for up to 20,000 litres every month.
In 2019, the Kejriwal government in Delhi introduced more schemes on subsidy – the biggest of them being 200 units of free electricity for every household every month, 50 per cent rebate on bills for up to 400 units, and making rides in public buses free for women.
A report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India tabled in the Delhi Assembly on 5 July highlights some concerning trends in Delhi’s state finances, including a 92 per cent spike in subsidy spendings in seven years.
“Expenditure on subsidies increased from Rs 1,867.61 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 3,592.94 crore in 2019-20 (92.38 per cent). In 2019-20 expenditure on subsidies increased by 41.85 per cent over the previous year,” it said.
Since 2020, the AAP has been flaunting its subsidy-driven governance model — free electricity units, free water, free bus rides for women, and free treatment at mohalla clinics — in states wherever it contested elections.
After coming to power in Punjab on 10 March, the AAP implemented a scheme of 300-unit free electricity a month for every household. The party is making similar promises in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
According to Verma, Kejriwal seems to be reacting strongly because of two reasons.
“First, Modi has attacked his core governance model. Second, directly taking on a leader such as Modi at this stage gives him political mileage while campaigning in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which go to polls in a few months, and also helps him establish himself as the face of the opposition taking on Modi, in national politics in the long run,” he said.
What opposition thinks
Several opposition leaders also criticised Modi’s “revdi” comments. Senior Congress leader Supriya Shrinate told ThePrint that The ‘revdi’ argument was “misplaced, morally bankrupt, and reeks of hypocrisy”.
“What does he mean by revdi in the first place? It is help that is aimed at the welfare of the poor,” she said. “Also, the BJP’s doublespeak is clearly visible. They boast about free vaccines and free ration. They have distributed ration in bags with pictures of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath ahead of polls. Don’t they see that as revdi?”
When asked about Kejriwal’s series of attacks on the BJP, she said: “We have all seen his bogus development model in Delhi. After all his theatrics, we have seen the quality of water supply in Delhi”.
Trinamool Congress’ Rajya Sabha member and spokesperson Sukhendu Sekhar Ray told ThePrint that free services by any government are a way towards achieving equality in society.
“The Prime Minister should criticise others on the subject of freebies only after he himself makes public a list of freebies doled out by his party. After 75 years of Independence, 73 per cent of national assets are under the control of 1 per cent of its population,” he said but refused to comment on how he assesses Kejriwal’s strategy.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)