ARTICLES FROM THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN
Copyright. All rights reserved. Ram Jethmalani. 2019.
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Well, the prodigal has returned, with unbelievable numbers that even he did not expect. And surely, it couldn't be on account of "tampered" EVMs, about which he complained to the Election Commission. He is back to government, despite his inherent discomfort with it, and will have to overcome his addiction to the heady, irresponsible world of activism and protest. But who must he thank for this bonanza? Himself alone, or must he also thank the BJP, who from start to finish did everything possible for him to achieve not only his goal of capturing the Government of Delhi despite his previous shenanigans and betrayal of the people, but to also virtually sweep away both the dying Congress and the hubris-ridden BJP with his broom.
For the BJP, it was a star-crossed campaign, starting with the timing of the election. Can BJP political strategists explain why Delhi elections were not held just after the Parliament elections, when Narendra Modi was at the crest of a wave, and Kejriwal was a demolished leader, a deserter? Then followed what appeared to be a calculated marginalisation of the established Delhi BJP leadership.. Harsh Vardhan, an extremely popular Delhi BJP leader and a continuous winner of five elections since 1993, was humiliated and removed as Health Minister. A charitable interpretation of this insult was that this would give him more time to concentrate on the impending Delhi elections, where he would be projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate. Instead, Harsh Vardhan was humiliated further by having his constituency snatched from him, a constituency he had won by more than 40,000 votes in 2013.
Why a career police officer, who joined the BJP barely 22 days before the election, was suddenly catapulted into a highly contested election, and why the local BJP cadre was marginalised, if not humiliated, is also inexplicable. Such actions only confirm public comments that the BJP has fallen into the Congress high command mould, something that will cause costly political mistakes, Delhi being just the first. These perceptions do no credit to BJP's political decision makers, whoever they might be, and surely these same decision makers should be aware of the feedback — that they are seen as averse to having powerful and popular Chief Ministers, just like the Congress before them. Maharashtra, Haryana, and Goa are cited as examples. The Prime Minister must realise that such perceptions have already started denting his image. He must reflect on how to prevent further damage.
I must also inform the BJP leadership that they are being perceived as having only aversion and scorn for known and unknown persons and organisations which supported them in their dark days, when the entire heft of the previous regime was out to destroy them and send them to political oblivion. Take the case of the powerful section of lawyers who sincerely worked for BJP's success, just as I did, during the entire election campaign last year. But the new dispensation showed their gratitude by ignoring them completely. When they turned against the BJP after Kiran Bedi was announced the Chief Ministerial candidate, even I could not succeed in changing their mind.
Though still not the subject of public debate, yet I'm sure the BJP is quite aware that a large chunk of the AAP vote was the erstwhile BJP vote. Clearly, this was the answer that the Delhi BJP cadres gave to their dictatorial high command. One might just look at the simple arithmetic of Krishna Nagar constituency where Kiran Bedi lost by about 2,200 votes, which Harsh Vardhan had won by about 43,000 votes in 2013. Where did all of Harsh Vardhan's votes go? Call it sabotage or revolt, but most importantly, it is a lesson that BJP's highest decision makers must learn.
Now, let's see how the BJP wooed the Delhi voter. I'm informed that the newly elected MPs remained uninvolved in connecting the party with the voter. Prices of fruit, vegetables, pulses and other day to day requirements kept soaring, hitting their highest during election month, and bringing great distress to the poor and middle classes. This failing of the government became even more pronounced because in spite of petrol and diesel prices falling, corresponding decrease in food prices did not happen; instead there was a colossal upward jump. Every administration has enough powers and mechanisms to stabilise prices, if it so chooses. But the Delhi administration under President's Rule remained inert and unresponsive. As if that were not enough, the Finance Minister came up with a special incentive to woo his voters, promising them that LPG subsidy would soon be scrapped for "well off" people. Many motives are being ascribed for this strategy for inviting defeat, that I'm sure will come to light sooner or later. But the middle classes were completely disillusioned.
This ill-conceived strategy, something unexpected from master strategist Amit Shah, whose greatest forte is supposed to be winning elections, was further debased by the substandard and counterproductive content of the campaign, so uncharacteristic of Modi. Why the Prime Minister had to repeatedly stake his personal credibility to compete with a neophyte, famous for making false promises to a constituency of the gullible, is not easy to understand.
As a well-wisher of the PM, I can only express that he is lucky that this jolt has come early in his tenure. He must use it as a window of opportunity to seriously reflect upon several leadership and governance issues and take corrective action if he wants to retain the trust of the people.
The PM must start by asking himself how many promises he has kept to the people of India, and must remain in communication with the common man regarding their progress. He must empower his ministers to update the people regarding them regularly, particularly promises that touch their lives, such as, food prices, skill development, employment, agriculture reform.
I wonder if the PM is aware that in public perception, the government is being branded as being pro rich/industry, and disconnected with the poor. Do not make the same mistake of NDA 1, which did not give India's poor a single transformational programme.
The PM should start giving equal time and importance to good governance, as he does to foreign affairs. Of course, he must send the right messages in international affairs to correct the diplomatic somnolence of the previous regime. But he should also become aware that his preoccupation with foreign affairs has become a talking point, something seen as heady escapism and narcissism.
He must also know that the general atmosphere of governance has become completely PM centric — where the entire bureaucracy only works if there is a PM's announcement. Other important, regular work of several ministries is suffering, because ministers don't seem to matter, only the PM does. These are bad signs.
There is also adverse comment that the government has become completely inaccessible and impervious to public voice, that it considers criticism a hostile act, and has forgotten how to listen. "Arrogant" and "dictatorial" are two most commonly used words for describing the government. Let the PM know these perceptions and change his lifestyle and work style to overcome them, while he still has the opportunity.
Lastly, let me mention another misfeasance that contributed to the humiliation of the BJP, and of course its chief executive — the virtual frustration of the Prime Minister's solemn promise to the people of bringing back our stolen wealth stashed in foreign banks. The previous government was only shielding the criminals. But important and favoured BJP leaders occupying crucial positions of power continue to imitate Chidambaram's tactics, whose correspondence with the German government only reveals that he did not want any disclosures from the Germans. Under pressure of the Supreme Court judgment and Transparency International, India, he reluctantly made some pretence of effort. But his correspondence reveals that he only wanted the names not of the real criminals, but of small offenders who were liable by the laws of more than one country to pay income tax on the same income.
The present Finance Minister has gone one step further. He has admitted before Parliament that he has been using the Amended Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement, and no wonder he gets nothing. This Amendment was brought about by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in mid 2011. It prevents India from invoking the UN Convention Against Corruption and has only prospective effect.
Amit Shah made a shocking statement during the Delhi election, that treaties with foreign governments are great hurdles for retrieving black money abroad, and scoffed that the PM's promise was just an election "jumla" (gimmick). Questions are being raised as to how the PM is tolerating this impertinence that is harming him the most. I have written to Amit Shah my protest and expression of contempt, and the fight in the Supreme Court will intensify.
Mr Prime Minister, as an elder and well wisher, who has striven in several ways during the last few years to see you reach your present position, I urge you to reflect seriously upon where you stand with the nation and its people today. The people of India have imposed great trust in you to give them a better life and the nation greater progress. Let it not be frittered away through ill-meaning advisers and sycophants, whose only intention is to weaken and mislead the ruler and separate him from reality. The sooner you identify and discard them the better, otherwise, their stranglehold only grows.
Meanwhile, a crown of thorns awaits Kejriwal. Delhi waits to see whether he will legislate and not agitate, whether he will compose and not oppose. Let his self-confessed anarchism transform into constitutionalism, and let not his 67 swallow him. I personally would appreciate, even now, if he disowns what I have asked him to.