Authority with accountability; office without leadership; politics without commitment
Mumbai’s makeover plans were not unlike the advertisement hoardings that dot its landscape — selling dreams that are often larger than life. Yet the conviction and enthusiasm displayed by Vilasrao Deshmukh, Congress party chief minister of Maharashtra state, gave reason for hope that this time, Mumbai was on its way to achieve what it richly deserves — a fast-track to the twenty-first century.
That debate has now taken on a new turn — Sonia Gandhi, chief of India’s Congress party, has effectively pulled the plug on the Mumbai Project by means of a rash, populist promise. It is a promise for her to make, but for the state government of Maharashtra to keep, and for the residents of Mumbai to live with. In the process Mumbai city may end up looking a lot less like Shanghai, which it seeks to emulate, and more like Patna, a fate which every resident of Mumbai, even the poor ones, would like to avoid.
Sonia Gandhi has overstepped her bound: her power as party president has no accountability to the voters of Maharashtra, who have reposed their trust in Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. Indeed, if the Central government had made this promise, it may have been asked to put its money where its mouth is; by getting an extra-governmental player to make this rash move, the Congress party has tried to have it both ways — it can score political points with the vote-banks of Mumbai’s illegal slums and at the same time allow Manmohan Singh’s central government to disown official responsibility. Clever it is as politics goes, but it comes at the cost of Mumbai’s development.
Maharashtra’s voters are paying the price for putting a duplicitous party in power — if the Central government had pulled this trick on a non-Congress state government, it would have had hell to answer for.
It is the Congress that needs a makeover. Before the 2004 parliamentary elections it was an ideologically bankrupt party that came to power because Vajpayee’s BJP did not win. After it came to power, Sonia Gandhi committed the ‘cardinal sin’ of abdicating her responsibility and refusing to become prime minister. Having done that, she has no moral right to interfere in government matters or influence policy. That she is doing this, and in so profoundly important matters, is a shame. ‘Remote-control’ politics has plagued politics at the state level, it is now threatening governance at the national level. This can create havoc in India’s intentionally imperfect federal system.
Even as a shocked Mumbai grapples with its uncertain future, it is the Congress party that needs a makeover first.