Column published in Business Standard, June 20, 2014
Delhi is a city obsessed, even consumed, by notions of power. Like many world capitals, it is also very conscious of temperature; not just the degree of heat and chill generated by its rulers but also the vagaries of climate. Forest fires in California somehow never grab headlines like snowstorms in Washington that bring the functioning of the government to a halt. Delhi’s blistering heatwave and its power and water crises are always bigger news than mass protests over outages in Uttar Pradesh.
There is nothing very temperate about Delhi’s seasons. Other than about three salubrious months, the rest of the year is a battle – a fierce summer followed by a sharp monsoon and freezing winter. The weathervane of its public mood fluctuates as wildly.
It was lucky for Narendra Modi that he fought his strenuous election battle in the last days of spring, and though his inaugural took place on a muggy May afternoon, the splendour of the event – with all the trappings of a coronation – was grand enough to dazzle the world.
But now the weather is taking its toll. Power cuts in many parts of the city are gruelling and the Delhi Jal Board’s leaky water tankers can’t cope with widespread scarcity. A few weeks into Mr Modi’s rule, the question being asked is: before the prime minister starts fixing the country’s problems, can he fix Delhi’s?
The plain answer is No – not in a hurry. Delhi has had no elected government since Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) threw in the towel in February; its administration is headed by a beleaguered ex-bureaucrat, Najeeb Jung, whose powers are much diminished since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took power at the Centre. He nervously ruled the roost till the general elections, knowing his days were numbered, but is now hapless. He goes about trying to crank the Jal Board into action, inspecting clogged storm drains in anticipation of the monsoon and answering questions on power shortages and the discoms’ massive debt that even Piyush Goyal, Union power minister, can’t answer.
The famous “Gujarat model”, a profit-making power surplus state – Mr Modi’s pride and joy – won’t work in Delhi. This is a spoilt city-state with a population that’s never paid up front for anything, including, as in Robert Vadra’s notorious case, for real estate. Taking the power subsidy away will cost the government dearly. Water rates are absurdly low and no one has thought up a model to reform the unionised sarkari mafia that runs the Jal Board.
State elections are inevitable after last December’s hung verdict, but no party is willing to face them. There is bitter infighting in the BJP on who will be chief minister. The party’s numbers in the suspended 70-member Assembly are down from 31 to 28, three of its members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) being elected to the Lok Sabha. Harsh Vardhan, its candidate for chief minister, is now comfortably cushioned as Union health minister. Having lost face in Delhi, and suffered worse in the Lok Sabha, the AAP accuses the BJP of trying to steal its MLAs. The Congress, with a meagre eight seats, wants no truck with it either. The deadlock continues as summer painfully drags on.
The prime minister is said to be a workaholic who clocks in 12 hours a day, is fanatical about punctuality, calls his ministers and officials at the drop of a hat, and doesn’t give a hoot about the media. The aircraft crew travelling with him to Bhutan were surprised to serve a virtually empty plane. Only the national agencies and broadcaster were invited, instead of the rat pack of 30 to 40 journalists that are the norm on such flights. All these are noteworthy new precedents.
He could, though, start with a few reforms to clean up the mess in the nation’s capital, a place that is his new home. Perhaps he believes that the best way to deal with a parched, powerless city, and its wavering weathervanes, is to burnish his image overseas. In coming months, he has trips lined up to Japan, Brazil and the United States.
He is not alone in wanting to get away. Many previous rulers of India hankered to escape. The Emperor Babur’s memoirs are a litany of complaint about Delhi’s climate and longing for the cool streams and orchards of Ferghana. And Indira Gandhi’s letters to a friend are rigorously descriptive: “It is 6 a m now but too hot to sleep… Delhi is hell these days – hot as an oven.” All she can think of is to depart for cooler climes.