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Monday, July 23, 2018

Fifth column: Cause for worry

As someone who lives in Maharashtra, I can report that in this state nothing has changed since a BJP chief minister took power two years ago.

Written by Tavleen Singh | Updated: May 15, 2016 12:05:25 am
PM Narendra Modi with M Venkaiah Naidu. PTI photo PM Narendra Modi with M Venkaiah Naidu. PTI photo

When BJP strategists finish wiping Uttarakhand egg off their faces, they should organise one of their ‘chintan baithaks’. Literally translated, the words mean ‘worry sitting’. And there is much to worry about after the failed, foolish attempt at regime change. The question they should worry most about is why they are taking up bad Congress habits when they should be focused totally on improving the way their state governments function. If they can ensure that the political culture changes in BJP states and that the economy creates growth and jobs, the BJP will win in Uttar Pradesh. If they fail, the BJP will lose and the Modi government will become a lame duck.

As someone who lives in Maharashtra, I can report that in this state nothing has changed since a BJP chief minister took power two years ago. Like his Congress predecessors, he spends his time cutting ribbons in Mumbai and mingling with Bollywood stars, cricketers and fashion designers, with the happy expression of a star-struck fan. Meanwhile water-starved refugees pour in daily from regions devastated by drought. They camp on pavements and the edge of parks and try to find work of any kind. When reporters ask why they have come, they say that at least there is water in Mumbai. If the Chief Minister had paid more attention to the drought a year ago, there would have been relief measures in place by now. If he has not covered himself with glory, one of his ministers, who comes from the worst-affected constituency, covered herself in shame by taking a ‘selfie’ against the backdrop of a dry riverbed.

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This is not all that is wrong in this vast state that is being ruled by the BJP for the first time. Vital infrastructure projects remain in the hands of dodgy contractors. An example is the ‘new’ Mandwa jetty that the Chief Minister inaugurated with much fanfare just after taking over two years ago, that remains unfinished to this day. At the glittering Make in India show three months ago, there were grandiose speeches about new infrastructure projects and promises of making Maharashtra ‘business friendly’, but there is no sign yet of the buzz in the air that comes when Mumbai’s hotels fill up with investors.

The most unfortunate failure in my view is the absence of ‘parivartan’ in political culture. New ministers have ensconced themselves in fine bungalows whose high, heavily secured walls make the everyday problems of Mumbai’s citizens disappear. So they do not know that public services remain as bad as ever, that policemen spend more time harassing ordinary citizens than catching criminals, and that every interface with officialdom is a nightmare. And speaking of officials, I can report that during my morning walk on Marine Drive, I witness a spectacle that I have never seen in Delhi. A high official of the Maharashtra government takes his morning constitutional at the same time as me, and taxpayers pay not just for the services of the policemen who walk by his side but for two SUVs (filled with more policemen) to idle their way behind him. Would it not be cheaper for the Maharashtra government to buy him a treadmill or a gym membership?

If it was only in Maharashtra that the political culture had not changed, it may not have mattered. It has not changed in any BJP state. If there was visible improvement in public services, people might have ignored the feudal political culture inherited from Congress governments of yore. Sadly education and health services remain abysmal, forcing the poorest Indians to use private doctors and schools. Welfare programmes remain unwieldy and corrupt and utilities like electricity and water supply unreliable.

So the Prime Minister urgently needs to call a ‘chintan baithak’ and demand from his chief ministers details of the ‘parivartan’ they have so far managed to achieve. When people see that states run by BJP governments function more efficiently than others, they will not think twice about voting in Uttar Pradesh for the BJP again. The Prime Minister needs to remember that it was his record in Gujarat what won him a full majority. Wherever I travelled in 2014, I met people who said they would be voting for Modi (not the BJP) because they had seen the changes he brought in Gujarat.

BJP strategists appear to have forgotten this, so instead of concentrating on the ‘parivartan’ they must bring in their own states, they have spent most of this year toppling weak Congress governments. What is the point of grabbing power in Arunachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand if you cannot improve governance in your own states? When they make their new strategy, BJP strategists should remember that the Congress was booted out because people were sick and tired of paying the price for bad governance.

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