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Please, everybody, think beyond Delhi

By Shreekant Sambrani
February 10, 2015 12:13 IST
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'The BJP currently occupies the centre stage of Indian politics, much the way the Congress did in the 1970s. That may be comforting to the party, but it could also be the road to perdition of easy self-congratulation and sycophancy,' says Shreekant Sambrani.

Imagine this: On February 28, India win its World Cup match (otherwise of no consequence) against the United Arab Emirates by one wicket on the last ball.

That Pyrrhic victory will bring the champions little glory. It would dampen the prospects of India retaining the cup and dent severely the reputations of captain M S Dhoni and his vaunted batting line-up. Ignominy would not even begin to describe the other outcome, defeat at the hands of the minnows.

So spare a thought for the poor Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP. It is in exactly the same straits in the Delhi assembly elections, the results of which will roll in as this is read. Anything less than a thumping victory -- very unlikely, as the numerous opinion and exit surveys predict -- will embarrass the party and the central government.

Ordinarily, this poll -- effectively to a municipal body, with limited powers -- should matter little in the national polity even if the city is the national capital.

Do we know the mayors of Washington, DC, or London, or their parties? It should have been the same for Delhi, despite the media arguing strenuously about the special relevance of Delhi.

The National Capital Territory has an annual budget of Rs 37,000 crore (Rs 370 billion) (with large dollops of central funds) and elects seven members of the Lok Sabha, comparable to the budget of Rs 31,000 crore (Rs 310 billion) (mostly from its own taxes) and the six members of Parliament of the Greater Mumbai Corporation.

Yet elections to that civic body (or its equally formidable problems) merit not even a fraction of the attention Delhi gets.

The BJP made it hard for itself. Miffed by the 2013 rebuff in its traditional bailiwick, it deployed its heaviest artillery led by the Maximum Leader as strategised by the party president. A score of ministers and several score MPs were despatched according to the demographics of specific constituencies for intensive campaigning.

Its main opponent was the same ragtag band that denied it victory 14 months ago, the Aam Aadmi Party, AAP, led by the phlegmatic Arvind Kejriwal, but depleted by desertions and defections and vilified by last-minute exposes.

The BJP would have won handily had the elections been held along with other assembly polls last September or December; but that is hindsight, always 20/20.

Delhi is not the centre of the universe. That is heresy in view of the nightly torrent of words. And the Delhi election has repercussions larger than which of the two titans (one with one victory in an electorate of 100,000, the other with zero victories in any electorate) ultimately wins.

First, the BJP seems to have damaged its projection as the party of good governance. It promises highly subsidised supply of water and power to Delhi, luxuries denied to other cities and plainly inconsistent with its oft-repeated commitment to sound economic principles.

Its pledge to build housing for slum dwellers at the same location will make Delhi neither a world-class metropolis nor a smart city, two of its pet themes.

The noted scholar of urbanisation Gautam Bhatia says that 'without serious inputs ... (and) a will to change ... (as also) genuine invention and design ... urban electoral promises will have no meaning,' underlining the naivete (if not the folly) of these competitive electoral giveaways (The Hindu, February 7, 2015).

And since these are assured by the prime minister, it would be well nigh impossible either to renege on them in the event of a victory or oppose them in case of a loss. It would not be long before the contagion spreads to other cities, which would be a Herculean challenge to meet.

Second, the Opposition has already smelt blood. No matter what the outcome, the legislative agenda of the Budget session of Parliament looks no easier to achieve than was the case in the winter session. The BJP juggernaut coming nearly to a stop, or actually halting, will doubtless be read as a signal of its vulnerability.

Parties across the political spectrum have already supported the AAP in Delhi and would again combine to block passages of vital Bills. The government would likely blame its opponents for this, but the simple fact remains that their enactment is the government's business, not that of the Opposition.

The BJP and its government, basking in their majority, must remember yet again that politics is the art of the possible, and the first step always has to come from those with the greatest stake in the outcome. 'Sab ka saath' has to be assiduously sought for 'Sab ka vikas.'

The BJP currently occupies the centre stage of Indian politics, much the way the Congress did in the 1970s. That may be comforting to the party, but it could also be the road to perdition of easy self-congratulation and sycophancy.

In the last eight months, the prime minister has alternated between seeking a place among the global leadership and electioneering. His ministerial colleagues, especially those dealing with developmental subjects, have yet to emerge from the shadows.

The biggest business of any ruling formation, governing, should not be a casualty.

Finally, India lives outside Delhi as well, some 98.5 per cent of it. It also elected 275 BJP members of the Lok Sabha. That should matter, too. So, please, everybody, think beyond Delhi.

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Shreekant Sambrani
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