AAP’s win in Punjab, where the Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal have been ruling almost alternatively since Independence, is a new turn in welfare democracy, writes political theorist Kancha Ilaiah.

Bhagwant Mann
news Opinion Monday, March 21, 2022 - 16:38

Two significant developments took place in the 2022 Assembly elections in five states. One, the sweep of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab, and two, the complete rout of the Congress party in all states. The new direction of the Indian welfare democracy is AAP’s victory with a set of completely new faces in a state like Punjab, where the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal have been ruling almost alternatively since Independence. We know that the Congress, even after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the subsequent anti-Sikh riots, held its electoral ground without much erosion. The Akali Dal is a Sikh religious and moderate party that has been coming to power using a religious base, but without whipping up communal passions. However, both these parties have not initiated post-globalised welfare measures. Both of them are controlled by traditional feudal rulers.

Ever since the AAP came to power in Delhi, it initiated pro-poor welfare measures. Four of its measures stand out – school education reform, hospital reform and expansion of health services, good electricity supply to slums, and good water supply to all Delhiites. Though there have been other measures, these are, in my opinion, very important.

Those of us who have lived through the political and ideological experiments of the Congress and the BJP for more than five decades, know that both parties have a slow-paced educational and health reform approach. Some reforms were brought in on people’s demand, and some due to electoral competition.

The welfare schemes, though mainly implemented through state governments, picked up only after regional parties came into play. In south India, the DMK, AIADMK, and Telugu Desam Party, improved the quantum of welfare in the 1980s. In the north, though regional parties came into existence starting with Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD) in the late 1960s, they became more prominent only after the Samajwadi Party (socialism as ideology) in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. However, their welfare promise was less significant. Lower caste self-respect was more relevant there, as it created an electoral ground for these parties. But they did not initiate new educational or health reforms in the northern states. The Bahujan Samaj Party has also not initiated any basic reforms. It survived more on the promotion of Dalit self-respect and historic symbolism.

What Indian rural masses need is a good education from early childhood. Every child getting quality education from Class 1 to 12 within their village setting is the most fundamental requirement for serious transformation in the country. Since India is a country of historical illiteracy and caste-based discrimination, especially in the field of education, reforms in rural education are key. As Indian democracy ages, equal access to language and quality content in both public and private education sectors – with constantly improving infrastructure – should have been the priority of ruling parties. But so far, both the long-tested Congress and the RSS’s Hindutva nationalist campaign by-product BJP, have reconciled to the system of private sector English medium and government sector regional language education.

Regional linguistic sentiments increased after the linguistic state formation of 1956, starting with the Telugu state of Andhra Pradesh. Several such movements gathered momentum in the 1960s and 70s, and thus all states became linguistic in nature. Many state governments, therefore, focused on school education in the state language, with hardly any attempt to balance it with English. They also gave little attention to school infrastructure.

The pro-Hindi and anti-English rhetoric of socialists and Hindu nationalists has also left the education system unbalanced. However, neither opposed the continuation of English medium in the private sector. In fact, most such leaders were educating their own children in private sector English medium schools.

While the private sector was tactfully allowed to educate the children of the elite in paid English medium institutions, rural children were confined to regional language education in a poorly maintained environment. Both communist and liberal class discourses talked about the need for quality education for the poor within their regional languages. However, their idea of ‘quality’ never combined the common medium with other facilities. No party or intellectual force overcame the fear to talk about quality English medium education for all children of the nation. But if we are to consolidate the nation’s modern competitive knowledge base in social, natural, medical and engineering sciences, English medium education across the nation is the only way. This is, of course, with a precaution to sustain local language learning.

Until YS Jagan Mohan Reddy came to power in Andhra Pradesh in 2019 and implemented English medium in all government schools with one Telugu subject compulsory, no solution was found to this conundrum. He also introduced a major programme to aid school infrastructure building. Every school-going child’s mother gets Rs 15,000 per year as backup for home-based expenditure for the child’s wellbeing and stable education. The same model more or less has been adopted by the Telangana government from the 2022-23 academic year. One hopes that the new Punjab government examines and adopts the AP model as well.

Before the AP government, the AAP had also experimented with a new, slightly different education policy in Delhi. It did not directly adopt English medium teaching in government schools, but like the Nadu-Nedu (Yesterday and Today) school infrastructure programme in AP, it improved the infrastructure and the English teaching component in government schools. Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia focused quite seriously on their education and health improvement programmes. Teaching rigour and teacher-student relationships have undergone a positive change. The slum children’s proficiency in English language, subject knowledge and technical skills have been enhanced.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the AAP government addressed the health question by focusing on hospital improvement and regulation. Water and electricity supply in Delhi also improved a lot. They did all these in the face of non-cooperation from the Union government. Since Delhi consists of a huge number of Punjabis, both poor and rich, they too must have noticed the positive impact of AAP’s reforms in their life.

If the AAP government in Punjab takes up an educational and health reform agenda in the state, it will have a huge impact on the country. Assume that a Delhi model school infrastructure improvement scheme and an AP model English medium implementation are adopted in a state like Punjab, where a vast number of people are in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and so on. It will change the very idea of Punjab. The Gurmukhi still has its importance in the religion and market if it is taught as a compulsory subject in all private and government schools.

It is now proved that quality and globally communicable education for all children is a surefire way for national development and consolidation of national bonding. The national sentiment in countries that speak the English language such as the USA, UK, Australia, Canada and South Africa is no less than in countries like China, Russia and Japan with a common non-English language. Too many regional languages and a dual language education policy do not contribute to strengthening India’s national bonding.

If English is taught and the infrastructure improved in all government schools across the country, the younger generations’ commitment to nationhood will increase as every citizen can talk to the other in one language – that too, a globally available one.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. He has been campaigning for English medium education in government schools across the country for the last 30 years.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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