There have been strange murmurs, promoted by a section of the media, that Prithviraj Chavan has offered to resign as chief minister because of the Congress party’s dismal showing in the recent municipal elections.
This is really quite absurd: should the chief minister of a state resign every time his party loses some municipal election? The people who need to take responsibility are local leaders, the politicians who head the party apparatus in Mumbai. Clearly they didn’t do the job expected of them.
As it happens, Kripashankar Singh has resigned as chief of the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee, but not because he was owning up responsibility for the poll debacle: he resigned because the Bombay High Court asked the police commissioner to register an FIR against him for corruption.
Kripashankar Singh has led the city Congress party since 2008. That’s more than enough time to have built up a strong base for the party in this most important of Indian cities. It was obvious during the recent elections that Singh hadn’t been able to build the required dynamic organisation: Sena cadres were much more visible and much more active in helping voters get their ID cards, booth numbers and other essential information.
But then Kripashankar Singh was probably pre-occupied with family matters. (He began life as a vegetable seller. Now he, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, daughter and son-in-law own property, apartments, land, etc, said to be worth over Rs 320 crore. Instead of accepting his resignation, as Sonia Gandhi promptly did, she should make him India’s finance minister!).
The CM did try and help the Congress cause by stitching together an alliance with the NCP so that the secular and anti-incumbency votes did not get divided. He also campaigned for the party just days before the elections. But that was too little, too late, and in any case Prithviraj Chavan’s strength does not lie in campaigning. His strengths lie in working away from the limelight, making systemic changes towards the long-term objective of making government transparent and its processes as corruption-free as possible.
There are certain words and phrases there (‘systemic changes’, ‘long-term’, ‘transparent’ and ‘corruption free’) which are not generally to be found in the vocabulary of the normal politician. This strength of the CM, given today’s political culture, is also Prithviraj Chanvan’s greatest weakness.
His first, and most decisive step, has been to stop the selling of the city to the builder-politician nexus. If you hear stories of the CM’s inaction — and it’s a frequently repeated jibe — that’s because individual files have been held up which would benefit a few very large builders.
The Dharavi project is a case in point. City activists have been pointing out for a while that the massive project, as envisaged (and passed earlier), was a bonanza for the developer lobby. Now Chavan has involved MHADA; an international tender is being issued for the overall plan and the local builders’ role will be restricted to construction. Corruption isn’t going to disappear, but it will be considerably less.
In an interview with me, Prithviraj Chavan kept coming back to the vexed question of infrastructure. He is pushing Delhi to clear the coastal road which is a much less expensive option than sea-links or tunnels. Chavan is also reviving the long held up scheme for water transportation.
With one difference: while the earlier scheme was proposed by a single individual, the new project will be thrown open to bidders via a tendering process. Similarly, the SRA project — slum rehabilitation, while sound in principle – was mired in so much corruption that it is being scrapped and replaced by the new Dharavi model.
When it comes to the troubling question of the state of the roads, it was found that well-known companies like Larsen and Toubro were unwilling to come in because a cartel of contractors was quoting figures in Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) tenders which were 40 percent below cost! Obviously, this was possible only if sub-standard materials were used (Hence the pot-holes, days after roads were ‘repaired’).
There was an obvious nexus not only with BMC officials but also the inspectors who passed the work as satisfactory. Now a Swiss company which specialises internationally in inspection, has been appointed for this very purpose. Results are awaited, but things can only improve.
There is also a long-term plan to improve water supply to the city by cutting down the reliance on our lakes and moving to new sources of supply such as rivers, a move which would give Mumbai enough water at least till 2050.
There are not overnight schemes, and hence the impression of a slow-moving government. Perhaps Prithviraj Chavan, as a first step, needs to communicate his vision and his actions with greater clarity to the media and the people. Surely we will all sleep a little more soundly knowing that someone is finally in charge.