As a product of the Gandhian Jan Lokpal movement against corruption in high places, I have witnessed the power of Gandhian methods of resistance and protest. Mass movements throughout independent India’s history as well as around the world have taken inspiration from the original mobiliser of the masses, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. In this context, as long as there is injustice in the world, Gandhi will remain relevant.
What makes Gandhi especially relevant in the times we live in is his unflinching commitment to democracy and the wisdom of the people. The idea of decentralising power from the hands of a few to the hands of many was a romanticised utopia for many of us as activists. “True democracy cannot be worked by twenty men sitting at the centre. It has to be worked from below by the people of every village,” Gandhi wrote in Harijan.
Long before India introduced the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, the Right to Information (RTI), and other decentralising measures, Gandhi had championed this powerful idea. He believed that the strength of democracy is when power is given not to the executive, but to the people themselves. This was the essence of the Anna movement as well. The movement was not merely a mobilisation against a corrupt regime. It was an attempt to compel the government to involve the people in the process of lawmaking. Unfortunately, the UPA did not see merit in hearing the voice of civil society and forced the ordinary people of our country to enter politics.
In the time I have been chief minister — nearly five years, I have witnessed Gandhian decentralisation of power being brought to life. Before 2015, the education minister was the most powerful authority when it came to all issues related to schools. For the smallest of expenses, administrative authority lay with the minister. Such a top-heavy power structure can never effectively run any public system, even in a city-state like Delhi.
In 2015, I along with Manish Sisodia met 1,000 principals of Delhi government schools and asked them to give us a list of the things they have wanted to do in their schools, but have not been able to for lack of funds. We made proposals based on the principals’ inputs and that is one of the reasons why Delhi’s education budget suddenly doubled that year to consume 25 per cent of the entire state’s budget. The year after that, instead of going back to the principals once again, we gave them complete discretion over funds, and the freedom to use them. For the first time in the history of India’s education system, government school principals were given the means and resources to run their schools the way they wanted to. This transformed the school administration, suddenly making it more efficient and energetic.
Similarly, we formed groups of parents — School Management Committees — to help with the school management: Maintaining cleanliness, keeping up mid-day meal standards, among others. Involving the people in governance by providing them the power to take decisions for themselves, and giving them the means to exercise that power, is the key to progress.
Today, a government school principal, along with the parent-led SMC, is empowered to hire a resource person, maintain their school infrastructure, purchase books of their choice for libraries, bring in experts for teaching music, arts, sports. All of this, without sending a single file to the department for permission. This is Gandhian governance being realised.
In the last five years, the government of the common man has been led by the most Gandhian of philosophies — looking out for the last man in the queue. In one of his last notes before his tragic death, he had said, “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.” It was Gandhi’s dream that we build a country where every child has access to good education, every person gets quality healthcare, and all people live together in peace and brotherhood. I am happy this has started to become a reality in today’s Delhi.
Many of us believed that most Indian cities including Delhi have had 24 hours electricity supply for years now, but the reality is otherwise. Many parts of the city did not have access to such a basic necessity when we assumed office in February 2015. Our government had to push for more transformers, infrastructure upgrade to ensure all households have 24-hour electricity. Only about 58 per cent of the colonies were connected by water pipelines in 2015. Today, we have taken that number to 93 per cent, ensuring that lakhs of families do not have to rely on water tankers any more. Most importantly, the government of the common man has attempted to build a system where ordinary citizens no longer have to plead before bureaucrats for basic services.
Gandhi envisioned a country where every person can dream of a better life. In Delhi, today, there is a semblance of opportunity for people to lift themselves out of poverty. We are working towards building a Delhi where a dignified life is the right of all citizens. It is humbling when one realises just how little of India’s progress would have been possible without Gandhi and the idea of Gandhi. My heartfelt tribute to the man whose memory continues to inspire a billion Indians.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 3, 2019, under the title ‘From protest to governance’. The writer is the Chief Minister of Delhi.