Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Lost opportunities and opportunism in Delhi

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Column in Business Standard, January 17, 2015

At about this time last year Delhi was promising the country a “BPO” – “Big Political Opportunity”. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had stormed the citadel of conventional hidebound politics; it was ready to show how corruption-free government could be run by small folk and clean money. That ill-fated experiment in street corner agitprop and broom-wielding drama has come full circle as the city faces another election on February 7.

But this time Delhi’s BPO has come to stand for “Big Political Opportunism”. The fancy footwork with which the AAP’s Kiran Bedi and Shazia Ilmi, and the Samajwadi Party’s Jaya Prada, have pranced into the arms of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) amply demonstrate the teen deviyan’s turncoat proclivities. They also indicate the AAP’s waning star and the BJP’s growing countrywide clout. In a sense, the Delhi result is already writ on the wall: from being the single largest party with 32 seats (out of the legislature’s strength of 70) in December 2013 the BJP shouldn’t have much trouble in gaining a clear majority this time.
For the election-fatigued populace of Delhi, their antennae attuned to a greater degree to the twists and turns of national politics, the 13 months separating the two polls have been a living example of the saying, “Plus ça change … the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The voice of Arvind Kejriwal, yesterday’s prophet of change, can today be heard on his radio campaign apologising to a make-believe Mataji for running away from governance but promising to deliver if elected this time. His whining tones (against a background elevator-music score of violins) are in stark contrast to Narendra Modi’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric of jobs for youth, safety for women, electricity for all, etc. The trouble with both the campaigners is that they’ve failed the city. It’s the one reason why rallies by both have been thinly attended – the capital’s plummeting temperatures are another.

Mr Kejriwal lost his middle-class constituency with his tall talk of power and water subsidies for the poor, chaotic janata darbars and sledgehammer approach to the lok pal, and further damaged his national image by acting too big for his boots. The AAP fielded 434 candidates in the national election but failed to win a single seat in its strongholds of Delhi or Haryana. Obdurate, over-reaching and unable to keep his flock together, his party lacks cohesion, with little skill in political engagement. The AAP’s strength lies as a party of protest, not of power.

For Delhi voters Narendra Modi stands for exactly the opposite. As prime minister he is focused on power management, tight control of party and Parliament, and cultivating an image of chief party evangelist and glamorous globetrotter. But as a recent migrant to the capital the city holds no particular place in his affections. Ahmedabad is what makes his heart “vibrate” – evident during his recent visit to keep the Vibrant Gujarat banner flying and collect a large goody-bag of promised foreign investment for his home state.

In his eight months as prime minister Delhi is merely a staging post for hosting world leaders, from Chinese President Xi Jinping to America’s Barack Obama, which, as far its residents are concerned, only means more headaches of additional traffic jams and road closures due to security restrictions. When not flitting between Madison Square Garden and Naypyidaw, or summiteering in Brazil and Brisbane, Mr Modi is busy “winning” states, occasionally alighting en route for photo-ops with Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Jack Ma of Alibaba, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Vishal Sikka of Infosys.

This may be customary, even necessary, business for a prime minister but it brings nothing to the table for Delhi. The streets are still unsafe (witness the rape by an Uber taxi driver in December), the air remains more polluted than Beijing, Jal Board is yet to install water meters and, as Swachh Bharat goes, the mounds of uncollected garbage became festering mountains over the Christmas holiday weekend (since rechristened Good Governance Day).

Delhi has had no elected government for more than a year. The BJP has been singularly complicit, together with the all-but-invisible Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, for the delay. Finally, it was the Supreme Court that prodded Mr Jung to call an election. And it was only 48 hours ago that the party fished out Kiran Bedi as a likely candidate for chief minister. “My conscience has been evolving since May,” gushed the former police officer. “This is a moment chosen by God, by destiny … ”

Ms Bedi’s conscience may condone her dubious political morality. Delhi’s destiny, however, is up for grabs by opportunists.

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