Monday, January 13, 2014

AAP/BJP making Delhi regressive, illiberal….

Delhi till recently was one of the symbols of modern India….of liberal thinking and free business….largely a legacy of 15 years of Congress rule. With a change of regime, this proud legacy of Delhi is in danger. Both the ruling AAP and the hoping-to-rule-soon BJP have a vision for Delhi that is starkly different from Congress’s progressive one. If recent decisions of, and public statements by, BJP and AAP leaders is anything to go by, Delhi will soon change tracks – and head backwards towards the days when it was known largely as a “Punjabi lala” city.

What did Delhi transform into under Congress rule? It developed the best infrastructure the country had – the best airport, the best metro, the best roads, the best schools and colleges, the best sports infra and what not. After many years of humiliating power cuts (I remember waking up in the middle of a hot summer night, sweating profusely, complaining about the state of affairs in the capital…..till as late as in 2000, when I moved out of the city). At least from a “physical assets” perspective, Delhi was becoming a “world” city. The city also had a mixed culture, like all Indian cities; partly modern/liberal and partly traditional. But the modern/liberal culture always stood out. This modern/liberal culture was backed up by the institutions – most notably the Delhi HC, which repeatedly delivered judgments that took the reputation of the city up a few notches. The NGOs which called Delhi their home also added a liberal feel to the city (even though many went overboard with extreme socialistic views at times). Most importantly, the people of Delhi appeared supportive of free speech (the reason why AAP/IAC first came about)….a prime characteristic of any liberal society. This was propped up by the biggest contingent of news reporters and their types – after all, most news channels were based out of Delhi. Sure, Delhi had its problems – crime against women, an insensitive police force, loads of migrants from states with a “khap mentality” – but none that took the shine away completely.

All that is fast changing. AAP has taken such silly decisions, it has started hitting at the very foundation of Delhi. Free water was promised, but it was supposed to be on the back of removing “massive corruption”, not merely subsidizing costs. Various news reports have said that the 700 (or 660) litres per person per day is far too excessive, even more than what many/most European cities manage. What is fundamentally wrong is that water, a hugely scarce resource, is being given away free. Some have even said that the next world war could be fought over water (remember “Quantum of Solace” was based precisely on the theme of control over water). And here, we have a government giving water away free. Economists know that the only sustainable way to control demand is by pricing it high. This is plain stupidity.

Then take the half-price power decision. Again, the “price” hasn’t come down thanks to the alleged corruption being removed. It’s just that the government is picking up the tab now instead of the people. Its just another subsidy. My problem is not with the subsidy – a government has a right to choose what subsidy it wants. My problem is that the cut-off for half-price power has been set too high – 400 units/month. Now that’s huge. In Mumbai, 400 units would cost around Rs 3000-3500 per month. Anyone who can spend this much deserves to pay full price and more. Reportedly, 85% of Delhi will benefit from this subsidy. How can a subsidy be for the benefit of 85% of the people? The cut-off should have been 100 units or less…..

Then the decision to restrict admissions in Delhi colleges to Delhiites. Now this is similar to the much-panned ShivSena-imposed Marathi manoos culture which Mumbai suffers from. Delhi was always different; it was always the hub of the best education in the country. It benefited from students coming from all over. The students brought in a diversified culture. That sheen has been completely wiped off by the AAP. Soon Delhi will return to its “Punjabipan”.

Then the decision to reverse the previous Cong government’s decision to allow foreign retailers. Kejriwal says this will lead to unemployment; something that is a factual lie. But even if we assume it is true, won’t large Indian retail chains also do so? Will Kejriwal now go about shutting the Big Bazaars and Shoppers’ Stops? And then why stop there. Even large foreign restaurant chains – McDonalds, KFCs, Pizza Hut and what have you – affect the business of neighborhood samosa and chaat-walas. Why not ban them too? All in the name of employment generation????

What is tragic for Delhi is that the political alternative is no better. The BJP is regressive like how. It’s stand on the SC’s decision to retain Sec 377 is so pathetic, it disqualifies the party from ruling Delhi as well as the country. People often misunderstand this subject. By asking for scrapping 377, one is not promoting gay sex; one is only saying that the choice must be with the people. But then a party which considers Ramdev to be its spiritual guide, and anoints Modi as its PM candidate can only be expected to support such 17th century antics.

BJP also doesn’t want Delhi to get foreign retailers. It also wants to cut power costs by 30%. The party’s regressive economic thinking is further borne out from its decision in Goa to cut petrol prices to Rs 50 odd per litre, when the rest of the country pays Rs 80. India doesn’t produce enough crude oil; we import oil worth $100 billion a year. And yet there is a party that subsidizes petrol, the upper-class’s fuel of choice. Crazy. On education, the BJP’s past record is hardly encouraging. It completely saffronized education. Even today, in MP, school students are made to perform surya namaskars and recite Saraswati Vandana. In Mumbai, BMC (ShivSena) run schools are declaring holidays during Ganpanti and cutting back on Christmas holidays. What if Delhi’s schools were made to do the same?

And when it comes to language, the BJP’s has to be the most foul. It’s almost as if the criterion for becoming a member of the BJP is that one should be able to abuse. Someone. Anyone! And also indulge in acts of violence. If BJP politicians in Muzaffarnagar were hononred on Modi’s dias in a rally there, so will Vijay Jolly (the one who attacked Shoma Chaudhury’s home) and Vishnu Gupta be honored in Delhi. It’s only a matter of time. Equally, Delhi’s culture leaders – fashion designers, artists for example – should worry about how BJP/RSS/VHP/Bajrang Dal goons compelled MF Hussain to shift out of the country.

The real truth is that Delhi’s rapid growth of the last 15 years is bound to be arrested. Very soon, there will be power cuts in the city. There will be water shortages. Big businesses will probably feel suffocated and exit. Delhi had wrested momentum away from Mumbai….that’s going to be reversed. New Delhi will again become Dilli, and Delhiites Dilliwallas. Sad….

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