A few years ago, I was sitting next to Manohar Parrikar on a flight. The defence minister was then Goa chief minister and was travelling economy, dressed in trademark half-sleeve shirt, trousers and chappals. When we landed, he waited for his suitcase to come on the conveyor belt, and then pushed the trolley on his own. No retinue of personal attendants accompanying him, nothing that would remotely suggest a VIP culture. His parting shot as he exited the airport, “all of you think only Arvind Kejriwal is an aam aadmi chief minister. Some of us also lead simple lives, but Goa is too far away from Delhi for you to look at us!”
There is little doubt that the Parrikars and the Manik Sarkars suffer from the “tyranny of distance”, Panaji and Agartala are not quite on the news radar. By contrast, Kejriwal has been a beneficiary of what is best described as “doorstep journalism” since he lives within a few kilometres from most television OB vans. He is also a casualty of it since every move of his is examined with a microscope. Now, as he completes a year in office next week, the rigorous post-mortems will begin once again. Certainly, no other chief minister has been subject to this kind of scrutiny even though Delhi is, at one level, a glorified municipality.
But it isn’t just geographical proximity that determines the extra attention paid by the ‘national’ media to the Delhi chief minister. The fact also is, much like prime minister Narendra Modi, Kejriwal also sharply polarises public opinion. Social media — a soapbox of opinion, real and manufactured — is split wide open on Kejriwal: Either you admire him or despise him, the space for a rational dialogue is missing. Perhaps, like Modi again, Kejriwal relishes the divide: By claiming to be a “victim’’, he can consolidate his appeal within his followers.
Like Modi, Kejriwal too was elected as a “change agent”, someone who was challenging the status quo in Indian politics. The question is: Has Kejriwal managed to “change” the political discourse in a meaningful manner or is he just another power-hungry neta looking to build his own empire? His recent splash with an odd-even car scheme has mirrored the best and worst of Kejriwal. On the positive side, he has forced a wider, much needed citizen engagement on pollution and the public health emergency that confronts our cities by making it a core agenda. And yet, by going ahead with the idea without seeking to overhaul the public transport infrastructure, he can be accused of taking a short-cut: Not surprisingly, an easing in traffic congestion has not been matched by a significant decline in pollution levels.
Maybe he is, as he has openly confessed in the past, a “man in a hurry”. Barely has he settled into his seat in Delhi that he is eyeing power in Punjab. While scaling up a start up like AAP is his prerogative, there is the real danger that his larger ambitions will lead to a neglect of his primary task of governing Delhi. Maybe, one year in power in Delhi has convinced Kejriwal that his political space to attempt any genuine change in the national capital is extremely limited. There is little doubt that the Centre has treated the AAP government with a mix of contempt and hostility, an unhappy scenario that can only result in constant confrontation. And Kejriwal by targeting the prime minister personally has made his position even more vulnerable. You cannot call the prime minister a “psychopath” and expect a conducive atmosphere to be created.
Which is why the one year anniversary of the Kejriwal government might be a good time to press the reset button. Delhi is India’s fastest growing city, it is also a metropolis that is at the heart of the new India challenge: where migrant populations in jhuggis co-exist with traditional elites, where middle class aspirations collide with freebies and entitlements, where the poor live on the desperate margins amidst rising affluence, you need effective urban management or else risk mounting chaos.
As the recent garbage crisis has shown, you cannot have a multiplicity of authorities who are working at odds with each other: Delhi, like any modern city-state, needs a strong governance model based on a clear chain of command. You cannot have an unelected Lieutenant Governor playing referee between civic authorities controlled by different political parties. This calls for a structural change that must provide the elected government with greater powers: Why should the city police, for example, not report to the chief minister rather than a Union home minister? Or why should senior bureaucratic appointments and transfers be under the LG’s purview?
But with more power comes greater responsibility too. Mr Kejriwal must realise that he is no longer the streetfighter, anti-establishment crusader at Ram Lila Maidan, but a chief minister who must govern by managing conflicts within and outside. The manner in which Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, for example, were removed only suggests that AAP too is trapped in a high command culture that is unable to manage contrarian opinion. And the faux pas over the removal of its law minister Jitender Tomar makes the moral high ground taken by the AAP government on corruption appear a trifle hollow.
On the flip side, the Modi regime must give up its visceral hatred for Kejriwal. He maybe a political opponent, but he cannot be a pariah with whom the Centre refuses to engage. The prime minister, who talks of a federal spirit, has kept a distance from a chief minister who is located closest to 7 RCR. And the BJP which once dubbed AAP as a ‘dharna’ party has, ironically, staged a dharna almost every week against the Kejriwal government!
Post-script: With an advertising budget of Rs 526 crores, the Delhi government is reportedly planning an ad blitz for its first anniversary. Does an Aam Aadmi government really need to embrace a “khaas aadmi” political culture?