Saturday, April 30, 2005

National Interest: Maximum city, minimum programme

Maximum city, minimum programme
From Mumbai to Gurgaon, Delhi to Bangalore, Cong has the keys to our key urban engines. Look how it’s switching them off, one by one
SHEKHAR GUPTA, The Indian Express

Shekhar Gupta In the middle of the commotion in Parliament over the past two weeks Sonia Gandhi may have noted, probably with a bit of concern, the diminishing of two of her more important chief ministers. Vilasrao Deshmukh, mostly has himself to blame for his humiliation. What else can you say for the chief minister of India’s second largest, and second richest, state if he has to present himself in Delhi to explain to his party president his policy over an issue of such urgent national importance as a ban on Mumbai’s dance bars. This, when his state is facing its starkest power crisis in a decade, with public protests, if not power riots yet, in a dozen cities.

To be fair to Deshmukh, however, both he and his party can claim that he is also a victim of the stupidity of their coalition partners. The Talibanesque morality campaign is the obsession of his NCP home minister, R.R. Patil. His fault, if anything, is pusillanimity of a kind that is alarmingly becoming the hallmark of Congress chief ministers.

The other Congress chief minister cannot be described as pusillanimous by any stretch of imagination. Sheila Dikshit is hard as nails. She is also the Congress party’s most popular chief minister (in her domain), and also the most successful, being the only chief minister to be re-elected in a very long time and then capping it with a near clean sweep in Lok Sabha in Delhi, which was always considered a BJP territory. But, just as Deshmukh has had to pay for his spinelessness, Sheila is being punished for daring to have an identity of her own. And punished by whom? By complete nonentities like Jagdish Tytler, who can barely hang on to that most pitiable wooden spoon, the ministry of NRI affairs, and by a gentleman called Ram Babu sharma. Now who’s that, you might ask me. Let me suggest you stand on any street-corner and ask a hundred people who pass by that question. If more than a couple can answer that correctly, I am happy to go back to journalism school. But it is these people, encouraged by a whole gang of state, and stateless, plotters in the party who have made a public spectacle of their most important chief minister, hauling her up in public like an errant schoolchild, planting stories against her in the media, extorting (in terms of enhanced constituency funds) and other favours from her, and generally diminishing her status.

The political message in this is that the party has learnt nothing from past experience. Whenever it has humiliated or removed an incumbent chief minister, it has paid heavily for it. This goes back to Indira Gandhi and T. Anjaiah, without which the NTR phenomenon would never have happened. But of more immediate concern is what it means to Delhi and Mumbai, the two engines that drive India and which the Congress party controls. Of great consequence, similarly, is what this means to Manmohan Singh’s and the CMP’s great promise of urban renewal, of building Mumbai into another Shanghai and of making Delhi India’s most sparkling city in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

For any of those promises to be kept, the Congress needs chief ministers in Maharashtra and Delhi who can cut red tape, canvass for resources and drive change. What they have got, instead, is one that is entirely short of ideas and focus, and politically knee-capped. And another who is punch-drunk and angry, not knowing what she has done wrong except perhaps a slightly petulant public display of anger at dissidence by people who mostly owe their elected offices to her.

If things look bad in Delhi and Mumbai, turn your attention to Bangalore. Dharam Singh, the chief minister of the Congress-led coalition there, has been a lame-duck from Day One, not taken seriously by his own partymen and pushed around by H.D. Deve Gowda. He now leads the most fragile state government in the country and it would be a real surprise if it doesn’t fall within this year, leading to fresh elections in Karnataka. Sheila Dikshit still has the spine and the savvy to recover. Maharashtra can see the return of some sanity if Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar both focus on it. But Karnataka looks like a lost cause altogether.

The overall effect, however, is that there is now a shadow on the future of India’s three most important urban centres, its political capital, financial heartland and new economy showpiece.

We have heard a lot of talk of villages in the past year. But the truth is, if our major urban centres rot and decay, so will the rest of the country. Like all rapidly developing countries, India is urbanising at a fast pace. Some of its more developed states — Kerala, Gujarat — are already ‘‘reurbanised’’. Big cities are both cradles and magnets for enterprise and creativity. India cannot grow if its major urban centres are allowed to decay and die.

Sonia Gandhi, therefore, has a special responsibility. Her party controls not just Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, but also other upcoming modern urban centres, from Hyderabad to Pune, from Chandigarh to Gurgaon. India cannot grow if these urban centres are trapped in assorted crises like power cuts (Pune), political indiscipline (Delhi), an infrastructure freeze (Bangalore), a water shortage (Gurgaon) and that most ridiculous man-made calamity of all, the wave of Talibanesque conservatism in Mumbai, the lure of which cuts across party lines, with one side working full time to fight that menace for national security and family values called bar girls, and the other telling women that if they wear low-waist jeans they should expect to be raped.

You do not compensate the villages for any neglect by letting the cities go to the dogs now. As the history of modern development has shown elsewhere, particularly in China, economic growth is invariably linked to rapid urbanisation. That is already happening in India, and the process will only hasten with the national highway development programme. It is now for our political leadership, particularly Sonia, Manmohan Singh and the Congress, to decide what kind of cities we will leave behind for our future generations, like a modernising Delhi with its improving traffic, air quality, power and water, or a decaying Mumbai that will soon be so choked, so eaten up by slums and with such a decline in the quality of life that, forget becoming the financial capital of Asia, it may indeed see a flight of capital to rival Kolkata’s in its darkest decades.


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