India Opts for New Leaders

The swearing in over the weekend of social activist and anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal as chief minister of New Delhi marks the latest stage of a dramatic country-wide rejection of the way that India is governed, which has been building up over the past four years.

This is not a single tidal wave threatening to overwhelm the country, but it does stem from a new, young and aspirational India that wants governments that genuinely offer the prospect of change and economic growth. It threatens crony corrupt politicians, who for decades have been more concerned with self-aggrandizement and milking administrations than with governing constructively in the interests of the people who elected them.

Uniting castes, classes, religions and regional interests, it led last year to the election of Narendra Modi as a presidential-style prime minister, and last week to Kejriwal’s surprise landslide victory, which has created excitement in the city. In both cases, voters’ hopes are based primarily on the leadership ability and drive of one man – even though fulfilling the electorates’ expectations is a near impossible task.

This leads inevitably to questions about where the revolt against the way India has been governed will be heading if the two men fail. Cynics suggest that voters will turn back to traditional politicians and parties – including even the discredited Gandhi dynasty’s devastated Congress Party. Sceptics see growing social unrest fuelled by increasing unemployment, especially among the young.

The four years of rebellion to the status quo began in April 2011, when Anna Hazare, a Mahatma-Gandhi look-alike social campaigner, led country-wide mass demonstrations against corruption. Accompanied by Kejriwal, the primary demand was for the creation of a national Lok Pal or anti-corruption ombudsman – which the highly corrupt and traumatized Congress government agreed to do, but never implemented.

Next came mass street protests against rape at the end of 2012, which frightened the government enough for demonstrators in central Delhi to be attacked with water cannon, and then to the law for rape being strengthened.

Both sets of protests stemmed not only from anger about widespread corruption and assaults on women. They showed that the tide was turning against tolerance of rampant graft, poor governance, indifferent national and local bureaucrats and politicians, widespread police brutality, and an ineffective legal system.

Kejriwal broke from what came to be known as the Hazare movement and set up the AAP in December 2012, offering a new style of party free from the corruption and crony capitalist vested interests that dominate virtually every other political party in India.

In December 2013, AAP won a surprisingly high 28 of the 70 seats in Delhi’s assembly elections. Kejriwal formed a minority government that resigned after 49 days, having focused more on staging street level protests than governing.

Modi’s damaged image

The next stage came in the general election last May with the landslide victory won by Modi’s presidential style campaign for his Bharatiya Janata Party. He was regarded as the only leader who could bring about dramatic changes in the way India is run, but after eight months he has become better known for high-profile sloganeering and for self-aggrandizement that ranges from a rock star style performance for 18,000 adulating Indian Americans in New York’s Madison Square Gardens to wearing a pin striped suite with the stripes containing his full name when he met President Obama recently in Delhi.

Modi is perceived to have failed so far, which is somewhat uncharitable because the government has made progress in many areas – for example this week with India’s first on-line auction of coal mine licenses.

Such progress however has to be offset against activities by other branches of the BJP’s fervently Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar family of organizations, which have pursued strong Hindu-centric policies including mass conversions. There have also been attacks on Christian premises in Delhi.

This is not the prime ministerial style nor the India that Modi was elected to create, and that is the key reason why Kejriwal has been given a second chance by the Delhi electorate to improve life in the city.

Kejriwal and his party have changed their approach and become more serious and constructive than they were a year ago, but their task is massive in this city of some 16m people. They have to sort out failings in water supplies (60 percent of the people have no piped water), electricity (there are massive power cuts), grossly inadequate waste management, and poor health and educational services.

They have also promised that water will be free and that subsidies will halve electricity prices – neither of which the government can afford to finance (as Modi indirectly pointed out in a speech yesterday), even if Kejriwal achieves his aim of cutting costs by curbing corruption. There is also to be free city-wide wi-fi availability and 1.5m cctv cameras in every lane and road, and an improved Lok Pal anti-corruption ombudsman.

All this would be difficult enough to achieve even if Kejriwal’s government controlled all the services, but it does not. Power is shared with the central government, which controls the police and law and order through a lieutenant governor reporting to the Home Ministry, and land acquisition and planning, which is run by the central government’s (deeply corrupt) Urban Development Ministry. Capital cities in some other countries have similar arrangements designed primarily to protect the operations of the central government from the vagaries of state-level politics.

There have been calls for many years for Delhi to become a full state. The BJP saw it as a vote winner among the Delhi electorate and included it in its general election manifesto last year, but did not have it in its “vision document” for last week’s elections, presumably because it did not want to risk an AAP administration having control over government offices and residential accommodation. Kejriwal however lodged the claim with Modi when he had tea with him on Feb. 14.

How Modi responds to this and to his government’s overall relations with the Kejriwal administration will in many ways define his prime ministerial legacy. Will he co-operate, as he needs to do with all state chief ministers irrespective of their political party, or will he try to undermine Kejriwal and others that are not in the BJP?

Modi’s personal mission is to build a strong India, and that includes tackling all the issues of governance, infrastructure and public services that need urgent attention in Delhi and the states. And that surely should lead him as the country’s leader to co-operate with Kejriwal.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, can be found at the bottom right corner of Asia Sentinel’s front page.