A CM, her 11 ministers, their 19 secretaries, on the move for 11 days, through one of the state’s most backward districts, ahead of Lok Sabha elections. SWETA DUTTA tracks as Rajasthan gets a glimpse of Vasundhara Raje’s instant governance.
Dhori Singh, 80, has never seen such hustle-bustle in her nondescript, neglected village Mughalpura lost in the infamy of the Chambal ravines. Just like the mobile phone network that is undecided over whether this village is a part of Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh and almost always puts the residents on roaming even in their own homes, the state government too is accused of relegating the village to obscurity. Dhori has long been certain that no official or minister would ever visit them. On the morning of February 14 though, a motorcade zoomed into Mughalpura. It bore the “Maharani”, the one who moved into the Dholpur Palace located just 30 km away four decades back. Dhori had heard about her, but never seen her. Newly returned as Rajasthan Chief Minister though, Vasundhara Raje is out to change that.
As car loads of bureaucrats and uniformed policemen alight ahead of her, Raje becomes the first ever minister to have visited Mughalpura, talking to locals and asking about their problems. This is one of her stops in an 11-day tour of Bharatpur division. In a move being dubbed an attempt to reach out to the masses and dispense immediate relief through jan sunwais (public hearings), her entire government machinery, including her team of 11 ministers with 19 secretaries (this includes the chief secretary, additional chief secretary rank officials, principal secretary and secretary to the CM), as well as district and local officials, is touring the division extensively from February 9 to 19.
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Out of the total 944 gram panchayats under the division, till late February 14 evening, 343 had been covered by the 11 ministers, with each of them hearing approximately 2,000 cases at the public hearings. Hard-pressed for time, the ministers have been swerving in and out of hearings, tending to the first few cases with diligence and walking out on the others, promising that their applications too will be processed, leaving behind a trail of despair. The Opposition has been crying foul too, at being left out of the exercise.
However, the message isn’t lost in Bharatpur, one of the most backward divisions of Rajasthan and among the few that didn’t vote overwhelmingly for the BJP. A CM accused of haughty ways in her first term, a former royal believed to bear the vestiges of that dynastic past, is taking her government to the people in an aam aadmi touch redolent of not-too-distant Delhi. The people are pleasantly surprised, and Raje claims she is too, at what she has inherited from her predecessor.
Villages like Mughalpura dotting the dacoit-infested ravines of Chambal do not have even the police setting foot in them, forget a candidate who has gone on to win, or safe drinking water. Over the last few months, before the recently held Assembly elections, government officials scurried in and out, dumping a few computers in the primary school and laying out a concrete slide for the children, promising more if they voted in favour of the ruling Congress.
As Raje walks in, two months after winning with 81.50 per cent seats in the Assembly, these “dabbas” are the first things she is shown by the beaming children. They urge the teacher to open the dusty rooms so that they can display the three computers kept locked inside, for Mughalpura has no power connection. Raje expresses dismay, enquiring under what scheme the computers were given and wondering how the villagers would run them without a power connection.
The concrete slide, she observes, is situated so close to the boundary wall that one would ram against it coming down.
An amused CM next asks the schoolteacher to step back so that she can take a class. She asks a sixth grader to recite the table of four, leaving him tongue-tied while the rest of the class stares blankly. Another student fails to spell his name in English while yet another has no clue what follows ‘k’ in the English alphabet.
As locals cover for the teacher, blaming the parents’ neglect for the poor show, Raje walks off in a huff, heading to the kitchen to find what appears to be an appetising meal of puri-subzi being served as part of the mid-day meal. Raje announces she will share the meal with the children and settles down on the floor next to a young boy, who squeamishly tells her that puris have replaced the usual rotis because of her visit.
Rupwati and Kasturi, their heads covered with veils, say this is the first time the village has had a VIP visitor. “No one comes here to check on us. In fact, nothing comes here, neither power nor water, not lavatories, not hospitals. This school is the only saving grace,” Kasturi says. “We thought the state government has forgotten that we even exist. Maharani’s visit is a welcome change.”
A short drive out of Mughalpura village, Raje makes a halt at the abandoned buildings of the munsif court in Badi, which were constructed adjacent to the ramparts of the historic Talab Shahi monument by the Congress government. “This is a Shah Jahan-era monument that was ruined because one fine day the Congress decided to shift the munsif court here. They later abandoned the plan but the buildings stayed on, obstructing the view of the monument. Be it heritage or basic amenities, the Congress government has tall contributions everywhere,” Raje says, shaking her head.
While the Raje government began its public tours on February 9, preparations in the region began earlier. Be it schools, hospitals, government offices, temples or heritage sites, every official, clerk and attendant was found feverishly at work or walking home with a suspension letter. State highways and roads have got or are in the process of getting a fresh carpet, workers have lined up flower pots at city squares and vantage points, gram panchayats, schools and public offices have got a quick coat of whitewash.
Critics may carp, say locals across the four districts of the division — Bharatpur, Karauli, Dholpur and Sawai Madhopur — but this is the kind of attention they have always craved.
Raje admits the lack of governance — sort of. “I came here (Dholpur) as a bride in 1972 and then I used to go to the ravines, take a ride there and spend time in these villages. I never thought I would get into politics then. From that day to now, there is no difference. Still, 65 years later, we are crying about roads, lamenting over water, electricity, basic amenities, doctors and teachers. This place is in a time warp… It is high time we attended to them and pulled up our socks.”
One of the ways she has done that is the series of suspensions since February 9. Surprise visits by ministers to hospitals, schools, colleges, government offices have cost several officials their jobs. Though the CM’s office would not put a number to the suspensions, a rough estimate points to over 10 officials over the past week in each of the districts.
During Raje’s previous tenure as CM in 2003-2008, a similar exercise of taking the government to divisional headquarters was carried out every Republic Day and Independence Day. However, she could cover only six out of the seven divisions before her term ended. Though the move is also comparable to former chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s Prashasan Gaon ke Sang programme, Raje says her initiative takes the ministers and top bureaucrats to ground zero, giving them a first-hand feel of where the government stands.
In Sevar (Bharatpur district), petitioners line up at senior minister Gulab Chand Kataria’s public hearing on February 13, who is running behind schedule. He reaches Sevar, but after seeing just over 50 cases, decides to rush to the next venue. Anju Singh, a young widow, has been knocking on the government’s doors to clear her domicile status and to approve her ad hoc appointment in a government job that she got following her husband’s death, but to no avail. Bhagwan Das Koli has been waiting to get his pension cleared while Chhidda Singh has a complaint against the power department for not repairing his faulty transformer. They say they hoped Kataria would solve their long-standing issues, but the chance had been lost. Their applications were taken but, as they know by experience, without an official word, that means little.
A few kilometres away in Deeg (Bharatpur district), Education Minister Kalicharan Saraf arrives with former legislator Digamber Singh and sitting MLA Anita Singh for another public hearing. Here some petitioners are told by the ministers what government officials have already said — that their names will appear in the BPL list next time a survey is conducted. “I had come simply to try my luck. The minister could have made a special case for me and expedited the process. I am disappointed it did not work out like that, but one has to credit the government with at least sending these ministers to meet us,” says Ramesh Chand.
Petitioners have been lining up with cases of pending power connections, pension, lack of basic amenities in schools, hospitals or even crematoriums, regularisation of plots etc.
Even as Raje’s critics call the move a political gimmick to better the BJP’s chances in Bharatpur division, where the party lost seven of the 19 Assembly seats, the move to “shake up” the system has even the hard-to-please bureaucracy nodding in approval. Several senior bureaucrats, speaking to The Sunday Express, said that decentralisation of power in the state had brought about significant development during Raje’s previous tenure. Though Ashok Gehlot too held a grievance redressal mechanism, it was sporadic and failed to have an impact as grievances were heard and dealt by district-level officials, who were themselves responsible for the poor delivery mechanism, said a senior government official. Also ministers and top bureaucrats were not sent out together to monitor the hearings unlike Raje’s initiative, where all the energies of the state are focused on one division.
One senior bureaucrat, however, points out that such public hearings have been held in Rajasthan over the past four decades. “Revenue courts have been a common feature in this state for years and public hearings too have been held from time to time. Though this is a positive initiative, there is nothing novel about it. The Raje government, as we have seen, holds these big mass-impact programmes, but fails to bring in policies for long-term change,” he says.
Congress MLA from Deeg-Kumher (Bharatpur) Visvendra Singh also sees the exercise as a short-term please-all drive, and anticipates a collapse of the system, as well as the move backfiring in the general elections. “Ministers are suspending officials left, right and centre and are blatantly bypassing the law. There is a rule that burnt transformers cannot be replaced unless the consumer has cleared all dues and, if a junior engineer replaces it, he has to pay out of his own pocket.
Ministers are pompously ordering that the transformers be replaced immediately or are threatening to suspend officials. As a result the junior engineer, out of fear, is replacing them on the spot. People might be pleased, but the official is suffering. This is no solution.”
Singh also objects to Raje’s exclusion of sitting Congress legislators in the exercise. “When the state government decided to hold this exercise, the opposition MLAs were not even consulted. The BJP candidate, Digamber Singh, who I defeated in my constituency, is out with the state government holding public hearings, but the sitting legislator is left out. Is this an exercise of the state government or the Bharatiya Janata Party?”