The idea that united Delhi

A friend of mine once said, “Talk about any major reform in Delhi and the first objections will come from two categories: The bureaucrats who will tell you how difficult and expensive it is and the social scientists who will tell you how naïve or irrational it is”. Delhi, both will argue, is a city incapable of change; it summons everyone from Edwin Lutyens and Sheila Dikshit to Alauddin Khilji as witnesses. My friend claimed that these people often miss the emerging picture for the old and solidified one.

One litmus test of change, though an erratic one, is Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Mr Kejriwal is a character who inspires deep enthusiasm and equally deep disdain. When he emerged on the scene, he virtually led a children’s crusade that toppled the Congress government. In fact, people realised that Rahul Gandhi was inane and irrelevant only when Mr Kejriwal appeared in politics.

Yet, the chief minister has been erratic in his performance. A darling of the media when he appeared with social activist Anna Hazare, he went through a slump only to emerge again to drub the daylights out of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

One sensed an efflorescence of idealism, of new expectations about politics. The sense of the possibility of reform made people ecstatic. The Aam Aadmi Party itself threw a wet blanket on the expectations, producing a devastating series of lemons as politicians. Its members of legislative Assembly and ministers were either corrupt or dysfunctional. When Shanti Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav withdrew, Mr Kejriwal almost looked silly; the alleged brains of the AAP had abandoned him. Media attacked him and Delhi’s elite enjoyed his discomfiture. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to be the order of the day and Mr Kejriwal, a virtual storm in the Delhi teacup.

But time alters perspectives. The battles of Mr Kejriwal, which looked deeply personalised, soon acquired a deeper embeddedness. His struggle against Delhi’s lieutenant-governor Najeeb Jung raised questions for federal governments. The quarrel over budgets — he wanted citizens’ views on how much to spend on what — made one wonder whether decentralisation was a part of anyone’s agenda.

The elite policy groups and think tanks were ignored as they waited for crumbs from the BJP table. What looked like a series of Punch and Judy battles now emerged as a process of trial and error, of learning, of picking issues that acquire a public resonance. The battle against pollution was a godsend. It cut across classes, from the visiting NRI and tourist to the poorest. The debates on the Paris Climate Change summit added a local intensity to issues, and the comparison with China for the pollution stakes raised major debates about development. What appeared as a hunch, a knee-jerk response to a crisis — the odd-even formula — turned out to have the makings of a great public debate. Politics was being invented again.

Mr Kejriwal appeared right for the role — tentative, committed and appealing. There was no sense of the unerring expert. He appeared scared, excited, desperate — like a gambler who knew the odds were against him. At first, critics had a field day. The police chief told him that it was organisationally impossible, that it was virtually against human nature, or at least Delhi’s nature. The BJP suggested that it was naïve and knee-jerk and without the support of experts. Cynics felt a corrupt Delhi, with its spoilt elite of VIPs, would subvert it. Special interest groups from lawyer and doctors to taxi drivers were asking for waivers. Yet, the crisis was such that there was a groundswell of support. Media had done a thorough job with series of investigations on the pollution story. International interest focused on whether Delhi had the political will.

The debate started shifting from if to when, from probability to logistics. People began discussing new time-tables, car sharing, even quoting statistics of emission impact. Numbers had a new solidity about them. When people sensed 40 per cent of pollution was vehicular, they sensed something could, should be done about it. People began warming up to the idea, realising that it was their future that was at stake. They realised one could find a million faults with the odd-even proposal but they sensed that in the long run it would work for them.

As the project unfolded, what impressed people was the determination of the government to fine people who violated the rules. Taxi drivers, car services recited the fine formula as if it was a new litany. Cynics even deferred the critique, saying wait a few weeks. Environmentalists claimed that the decline in pollution over the weekend was more because of weather conditions than the cut back in cars.

While the debate was initially in silos, where the technical, the sociological, the political, the ecological were recited in separate layers, what people began noticing was a sense of a community, a miracle, where people rose to the occasion and become more sensitive to the problem. Mr Kejriwal’s programme did sound quixotic, but Manish Sisodia as Sancho Panza had replaced his horse with a bicycle. Despite dismissive smiles, people had noticed and internalised the symbolism of the move.

Once again, something that sounded naïve was working in Mr Kejriwal’s favour. His gamble was what experts called a Pascalian wager. The original question was, does God exist. Pascal suggested that to assume he did improved ethics and other behaviours. If one discovered he did not, no great harm was done. The odd-even project has a similar possibility. People realise that tentative as it is, this is the way of the future. It is a pity other political parties remained aloof because this was an issue they also needed to respond to. This was not a right or left issue.

There is a final issue that is just being discerned. And that is Delhi’s love-hate affair with the AAP and Mr Kejriwal. It has reached depths and attained crescendos but what is interesting is that Mr Kejriwal — whatever the hiccups — is able to raise issues of ethics and justice unlike other politicians. He gets people to respond to the everyday tensions of it. In that sense, he is something new and interesting. A truly public politician who recognises a thing called the public and who takes it seriously. Even better it is now taking him seriously. Cynics might still laugh. When I told a friend about this piece, he quoted an expert as saying, “Hens do not lay boiled eggs”. I agreed and then added, “Sometimes in politics they do”. The battle for sustainability and the liveable city does need such a miracle or two. A hen that lays some boiled eggs.

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