Kejriwal's dharna

Crisis in the Capital. Who exactly is governing Delhi? This is a question that is bound to arise once again since the chief minister and four of his cabinet colleagues have been camping for three days in the lieutenant governor’s office to press him to end a protest by bureaucrats. Of course, this is only the latest bone of contention between the L-G and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, which says the Centre is trying to diminish its functioning and stop development work undertaken by it. The provocation for the latest round of differences between the bureaucracy and the state government is the alleged assault on chief secretary Anshu Prakash on 19th February at the chief minister’s residence. The sit-in at the LG’s office is not likely to pay dividends, either for Delhi or for the AAP. Who can forget the sight of the chief minister sleeping on a pavement in protest against the then L-G during his first stint in power? Though the AAP returned to power with a huge majority the following year, the politics of sleepovers can wear itself thin, particularly when it leads to a loss of governance time. Here is why we think Kejriwal’s dharna is not more than an AC room drama.

The people of Delhi have many problems including water shortages, power outages, and pollution. When a chief minister becomes a street-corner protestor, the line between administration and activism gets blurred. Effective policy changes are only possible in times of peace, and one of the Kejriwal’s government critical flaws is that it’s constantly engaged in conflict, which often ends up in theatrical dramas replacing governance. The Centre is not entirely without fault in the series of standoffs either. There have been accusations of files pending for longer than required, several decisions being overturned on technical grounds, and AAP MLAs being embroiled in police cases that have led nowhere. At the same time, Delhi has functioned fairly well under other chief ministers who also had to work in accordance with an L-G who was appointed by an opposing party at the Centre. There are compromises that need to be made in administration, but instead of reaching out, the Delhi government has too often aggravated the situation.

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The chief minister and his colleagues, who have been elected to govern Delhi with a handsome majority, and have shown their worth with an improved education programme and good health care schemes, should get back to work. Prolonging the latest standoff will only devalue the AAP and give legitimacy to the sentiment that it is more interested in involving itself in political crisis rather than working for the people.

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West Bengal’s Mamta Banerjee, Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan, Andhra Pradesh’s N Chandrababu Naidu and Karnataka’s H D Kumaraswamy had a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh on the sidelines of the NITI Aayog Governing Council meeting and urged the Centre to resolve the issue.

Banerjee said on Sunday that the Prime Minister did not give any assurance when she, along with three other chief ministers, raised the political crisis in Delhi with him.

“We have raised the issue with the prime minister as well as the home minister. We told them that the deadlock should be resolved for the sake of the people. The prime minister did not say anything, but Rajnath Singh said that he would look into the matter. We said what we had to, now they have to sort it out. It is their matter now,” Banerjee said after the meeting. Terming the deadlock as “political crisis”, the opposition leaders had said that people should not suffer due to any political crisis brought about by any political party.

The Aam Aadmi Party has said that an “Emergency-like” situation prevailed in the national capital and sought President Ram Nath Kovind’s intervention. Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh said that he has asked for an appointment with Kovind along with party lawmakers and legislators from Delhi and Punjab.

“It’s an Emergency-like situation in Delhi. The entire work of the Delhi government is crippled due to strike by IAS officers for past four months,” Singh said, adding that the Lt Governor was working at the “behest” of the Modi government. Singh made the remarks after Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his cabinet colleagues sat on a hunger strike at the office of the Lt Governor to press for their various demands.

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Delhi’s pollution is not an environmental issue anymore. If that is how we keep trying to grasp and resolve it then we will get nowhere. People get impatient when they face a crisis. Depending on their roles and levels of despair, they join the various available games in order to feel alive though breathless. In Delhi, the powerful have joined the blame game, and the powerless are seeking individual solutions, such as room purifiers and masks, to put an end to the ongoing crisis. Many are in despair, and I suspect they are in a majority. They have given up hope that a solution can be found. A number of solutions have been recommended, and nearly all of them are fantastic, in the sense, they place extraordinary conditions before trial.

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Indeed, some of these solutions have been tried. In quite a few cases, they were abandoned prematurely simply due to lack of will to persist for a length of time. Sustaining public interest over time has not been easy in any sphere. One might have thought that air pollution will prove an exception to this general rule because Delhi’s air had begun to make people sick a while ago. Doctors’ warnings make no public difference now, nor do harsh commentaries in the media. People say that only the judiciary can get something done, and it is true that the judiciary has taken several commendable initiatives. However, there are limits to what judges can do in the absence of collective will and persistence.

Someone asked me recently “Do you feel sorry for the people in Delhi?”I believe rather than feeling sorry for them, I feel empathetic.  Even residents in Delhi feel angry rather than sad. One can’t blame them for feeling permanently upset and helpless. Among them, there used to be elderly citizens who had some moral authority amongst citizens and, at the same time, they mattered to governments as well. They helped Delhi survive through some of its bad moments in its recent history. That option is no longer available. The reason is not that no senior people carry moral authority in the public mind, but rather because listening is not the work of the Government anymore. In any case, those in important offices are no longer accessible, nor do they acknowledge, let alone answer letters or e-mails. A new culture of deafness has set in among office-bearers even as accountability and transparency acquire status as official values.

That is why the crisis expressed by choking air quality cannot be considered an environmental one. It is a political crisis in a fundamental sense. If democratic politics is about empowering the citizen, it has definitely failed in Delhi. Citizens of the city have reached a state of disempowered existence and numbness through a series of silently suffered traumas. These traumas cannot be treated now, but acknowledging them might have some healing effect. Let me recall three of them.

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One, the massive tree-loss and speedy construction work done for the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) had acquired a sinister feel before the event. Elected student representatives of Miranda House College gave a scroll, carrying their protest, against the reckless destruction of their neighbourhood, to Delhi’s chief minister who had come for a ceremony. Newspaper reports said the CM put aside the scroll and showed no eagerness to find out why the student leaders were unhappy. This episode signifies a dangerous surge in civic cynicism that occurred when Delhi’s soul was sold to swindlers for the sake of national honour lodged in the CWG. A chasm developed between common citizens and popular leaders. It caused the birth of a new political party and Delhi’s voters gave it a rare, glorious majority.

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That is when Delhi’s second trauma moment came. The new government started by failing to contain internal rivalry. The poor remained committed, but the middle class had to swallow a shock. It seemed as if Delhi had little reason to hope for sensible decisions taken by consensus. In any case, the new, highly popular government hated ideology. Any ideology, so it could only favour and pursue technical solutions for all kinds of problems. Whatever chance Delhi had of coming together as a city stumbled upon a rock and scribbled away.

Then came yet another trauma moment. A widely respected spiritual leader and his followers organised a mega event that caused serious damage to the city’s great river. The country’s highest environmental authority failed to tame the event, or manage its aftermath to any degree of civic satisfaction. One felt that there is no city called Delhi anymore, nor a river that citizens hold dear.

We are now at a point where the city has to be reinvented. There is no point protesting, and there is no place, literally, to stage a protest since, in Jantar Mantar, the space to protest which was allotted some years ago has been restored to its original sanctity. Making a city out of Delhi once again would mean identifying people who care for its future and who don’t mind carrying on with certain duties of despair. One of them is to initiate the infusion of sustainable public anxiety.

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This will require the mobilisation of institutions of various kinds, including those involved in education, law, and health. We can rest assured that e-mobilisation will not work. Second, the people who agree to work for Delhi’s rebirth and recovery as a city will need to avoid arousing the hope of any impending solution to the problem of air pollution. Rather, they will have to encourage people to show adequate stamina for bearing the consequences of past neglect and misfortunes. Rebirth of a city is no simple matter. It will take time, and the harvest of its rebirth cannot be collected with a rented combiner.

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