Both, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, will be under pressure to deliver better governance and be accountable
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) tsunami that swept the Delhi assembly elections has refocused everybody’s attention on governance and accountability. This focus will only increase because Arvind Kejriwal has national ambitions. He is also a skilled communicator who enjoys enormous media support and has positioned himself as the earnest David to prime minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s Goliath image. AAP will ensure that India’s Delhi-centric media plays out comparisons between Mr Kejriwal and the PM everyday. So, unless Mr Kejriwal trips on his own promises, the AAP in Delhi will keep BJP on its toes nationally.
The beaten and fragmented opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also trying to latch on to the AAP victory as a rallying point against the Modi juggernaut. However, this could soon fizzle out, since none of them shows signs of understanding the changed public expectations and aspirations. AAP is unlikely to make the blunder of denting its image by aligning with them, right now.
So what should we expect from AAP and the BJP in the coming months? BJP’s big test will be the Union Budget. India needs drastic changes before the much-touted Make in India slogan turns into a reality. Business and industry is impatient and another lacklustre, UPA-like, Budget will be disastrous. Modi sarkar, which resorted to a spate of ordinances to push policy decisions earlier, also faces the tougher challenge of a re-invigorated Opposition in getting the legislation passed. The only silver lining for BJP is that the Congress shows no signs, yet, of fixing its leadership crisis and emerging as a threat. If anything, the revolt by Jayanthi Natarajan and a wipe-out in the Delhi assembly has seen it sink to such a low that even its apologists on television debates seem embarrassed to defend it.
The AAP, too, has to deliver on its promise of free water, sharp cuts in electricity charges, housing for slum-dwellers, free wifi and installation of a massive 1.5 million CCTV cameras (strangely, nobody seems worried about the Orwellian implications of being watched all the time by cameras monitored by the government). Hopefully, AAP’s think tank has a plan; because nobody else can figure out how the freebies will be funded from the tiny state budget. Mr Kejriwal himself has set the stage for confrontation with the Central government by raising the issue of full statehood for Delhi in his first meeting with the home minister and demanding government land for public spaces.
AAP’s website lists four policy priorities: one, the ‘Right to Reject’ (it is the next logical step to the ‘None of the Above’ button on voting machines); two, ‘Right to Recall’ candidates (a mid-term referendum to recall candidates who do not perform); three, a Jan Lokpal; and, four, the idea of swaraj
The first two require a national presence; but AAP is in a position to demonstrate that its version of the “powerful anti corruption law, Jan Lokpal, to remove corruption from our system” is workable. We will have the opportunity to watch how “people will be able to complain directly and imprison corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.” Arvind Kejriwal’s dream of decentralised governance, or swaraj, will also be on display. Fortunately, the nation will be able to watch these experiments unfold in Delhi and decide whether it is something for the rest of India to aspire to, and in what form.
For the BJP, the challenges are significantly higher. This column will not delve into political challenges but stick to issues of perception, governance and business. Here are a few observations.
• The PM was hailed as a great orator, communicator and nifty dresser, but it is all wearing thin. The spate of new yojanas (schemes) and slogans is tiring; people want visible action. There has been no dialogue or explanation about key decisions (Aadhaar and lack of clarity about subsidies through JanDhan, LPG, etc) and no reduction in corruption and red-tape that angers and hurts the ordinary person on a daily basis. The Maharashtra government’s Right to Services Act holds a lot of promise. If it is not derailed and diluted by bureaucrats, this could be Mr Modi’s answer to the Jan Lokpal. It should be made into a Central legislation with proper teeth and clear timelines for delivery of services and penalties for failure to do so.
• The PM understands the significance of image and message—his sartorial flamboyance and the monogrammed pinstripe that drew gasps of disbelief, brackets him with the super-rich and sends the wrong signal. This will now be sharply juxtaposed against Mr Kejriwal’s muffler-bound simplicity, even as both face the challenge of delivering on their promises. People don’t want their PM to be a fashion icon, especially when he won hearts by taking pride in his humble origins. It is also important to remember 2004, when BJP lost an election by forgetting that a large swathe of people had remained in abject poverty while it went to town with the India Shining campaign.
• So far, the only real positives for the economy have been manna from heaven—the collapse of crude oil and commodity prices and its consequent impact on inflation. Even the PM, at a rally, attributed it to his good luck. We see no signs of a cut in government expenditure for delivery on his promise to be a chowkidar who declared, “I don’t take bribes nor will I allow others to accept bribes either.”
The arrogance and disconnect of government officials and regulators with the ordinary person continues. This is manifest in the mindless paperwork that government agencies demand from people as well as tiny non-governmental organisations. The coordinator of a standing committee of parliament for the Railways asked a tiny NGO to come with 25 copies of their submission to be handed over to each member and support staff. Is this how government seeks public feedback, especially when the deliberations are held in a five-star hotel at taxpayers’ money? Fortunately, the chairman of the standing committee set things right when he heard about it. India’s capital market regulator refuses accreditation to NGOs that are legally constituted as public trusts without logic or explanation. Does one fight this ridiculous battle or focus on the objectives of the NGO? The Reserve Bank of India asks NGOs to submit enough paper work to merit a full-fledged banking licence for mere accreditation. The BJP and the Congress government have both revelled in bashing the NGO sector. But do the government and its regulators, all living off taxpayers’ money, understand the constraints of resource-starved NGOs involved in public service that would be unnecessary if they delivered proper governance and grievance redress? Such travails are no different from the indignities and battles that ordinary people fight everyday.
• Finally, there is social media. From being a wonderful tool of direct communication, this government, starting with the President of India, has converted it into a mindless publicity tool to click and post photographs of their endless meetings and visitors. Maybe, it is time for the PM to conduct a social media workshop and advise against bludgeoning people with one-way communication handled by clueless social-media experts.
The government’s biggest challenge in the coming days will be perception and delivery—and both need urgent fixing. Mr Modi is still India’s tallest leader and one who is most likely to deliver better governance; but the Delhi election has signalled that people want to see real change and they want it now. Will the PM deliver?
(Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of
Moneylife. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2006 for her outstanding contribution to journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)