21 September 2020 06:45 PM




Modi and Kejriwal

NEW DELHI: There is that wonderful story of two disputing dhobis who came to the durbar of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah, for adjudication. The Emperor asked them where they lived and when told that they were residents of the east bank of the Yamuna just across the Red Fort replied: “I cannot resolve your dispute because my power does not extend there.” Another latter Mughal, Shah Alam II, was reviled as the padshah dilli aur palam da. The power of the Delhi government even today does not amount to much more than that. The Delhi government does not control the police. It does not manage the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) who is the largest owner of land and who has inflicted the most ugliness in a city once known for fine architecture. It has a multiplicity of municipalities leaving the Delhi government as little more than a provider of low-grade education, insufficient water and expensive electricity.

Till not long ago Delhi was not even a "state." Its government was an extended municipality managed by an elected Chief Metropolitan Councilor. And with good reason too. New Delhi is also the seat of the Government of India and no national government should be the subject of another government. But as local politicians clamored for a state and for a greater share of the power and pelf, the Union of India in its wisdom conferred statehood in 1992 under the National Capital Territory Act. This envisaged a limited statehood with law and order with the Union Government.

Thus, the real power in Delhi still vests with an appointed Lieutenant-Governor who reports to the Union Home Minister. Few in Delhi care for a CM who can do little of the things people expect from a person in power. This is the cause of much tension, as elected officials want the powers enjoyed by most other states also to devolve to them, the Union Government loathe to cede any of it.

Contrary to popular perception the Home Minister of India enjoys very little raw power, the kind of power politicians seek. The period from Sardar Patel who enjoyed near supreme power to Sardar Buta Singh has seen the erosion of most of the Home Minster’s powers. The IB reports to the NSA who in turn is an official of the PMO. The CBI reports to the Department of Personnel whose minister is since the last days of Jawaharlal Nehru is the Prime Minister. But the Home Minister is in full control of Delhi. Little in Delhi can happen without his say so. This is the major underlying theme of the AAP struggle now. It wants full control of Delhi, and the BJP, which also till not long ago wanted statehood, stands for the status quo.

That’s why the demand for statehood has acquired such great valance now. Arvind Kejriwal has shrewdly positioned this as the AAP’s main demand. He thus has become the champion of devolution of power and the rag tag collegial AAP leadership’s style is suited for this kind of governance. That’s why the BJP had pitched this as a fight for more of the Modi sarkar. Willy-nilly this has become a contest between two distinct personalities, two styles of governance and two sets of aspirations.

The BJP, which swept all of Delhi’s seven parliamentary seats, and which was expecting to sweep out the AAP insurgency riding on the tailwinds of Narendra Modi’s perceived popularity, became nervous when it saw the poor turnout at the first of the PM’s public meetings at the Ramlila grounds. Despite the tight shots of the TV cameras and the cropping of photographs on the news editors desks, the truth could not be hidden. Narendra Modi for PM was one thing, but it seems that for CM the people were looking for one of their own. Kejriwal being a shrewd tactician was quick to sense this and raised the pitch for full statehood, for the people of Delhi to take control of their everyday lives.

The keepers of the BJP’s holy grail then rolled out Kiran Bedi, who was expected to neutralize the Kejriwal mystique with her own. But like all through her long career Bedi began to wilt with every challenge. Her sudden propulsion as the CM candidate for a start had made many of Delhi’s BJP leaders unhappy. The Sangh Parivar had to issue many diktats to cajole its reluctant troops to sally forth into electoral battle. Bedi by her speech and actions did not command much confidence, and by the time the TV anchors and the press correspondents, the same lot who fawned on Narendra Modi, were done with her she became openly jittery and teary. It was apparent that this gambit was failing.

The BJP/RSS then began a mobilization only they are capable off. The call went out and every resource and strength has been put to work. BJP workers and RSS pracharaks poured in from all parts of the country. At one time no less than 120 MPs and ministers were addressing corner meetings with fewer and fewer people attending. This seemed like the point of inflection for the BJP juggernaut was at hand. It was then back again to Modi ka Sarkar again.

Narendra Modi, dressed ever more nattily with all the Prime Ministerial paraphernalia on show, literally descended from the skies once again, now not as the statesman but as the street fighter. He has been hurling political invective and name-calling seldom associated with that office. It has once again become a Modi vs. Kejriwal battle. It would seem Modi has somewhat stemmed the AAP tide. But Kejriwal has not been wanting in effort. He has shrewdly recast this a battle pitting the poor against the rich. What lent his message impetus was the untimely release of official data that more than 70% of Delhi family’s lived on a monthly budget of Rs.12, 000 or less and that almost all the migrant labor earned an average of Rs.6500 a month. Suddenly it seemed that Delhi’s middle-class that made it the darling of marketing men just evaporated. What Delhi seems to now have is an upper class and a large under class. Against this backdrop the AAP promise of once again slashing power and water rates finds valence. The PM on the other hand is fettered by responsibility.

The inevitable polarization seems to have cast the Congress aside. The Congress party whose vote share slumped to about 20% in the Lok Sabha elections is now expected to be hard pressed to get even half that.

So how do I read the tea leaves? I think it’s a close race. But most observers of the Delhi scene I spoke to say the AAP will win handily. Whatever happens Delhi is not going to be the same again.

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