A Municipaltry win. And the Congress crumbles.

The BJP wins the municipal polls in Delhi amid a general voter antipathy towards the Congress. But is it becoming a small fish specialist that misses landing the big catch? The reasons are there, if we’d care to turn the light inward.

Now that the dust has settled over the municipal tally in Delhi, it falls to us to dissect and choose what we want to take of the results. At first glance, and as bottom lines go, it shows a red gash over the Congress’s claims at making a comeback in a domain it lost in 2007 under the shadow of the large scale sealing and demolitions of illegal construction after a court order at the time. The vaunted strategy of the Chief Minister, who was all over this election unlike the last time when she maintained a strategic distance from it, expecting, correctly the eventual rout of her party just to snub her bête noire DPCC Chief Ram Babu Sharma, was also laid bare – and wasted. Overall, while the hasty trifurcation plan for the municipality boomeranged, the fifty percent reservation for women will be remembered as a cynical ploy to try and upset the BJP applecart in terms of electoral geometry rather than any real attempt at empowerment of the other half of humanity.

In campaigning terms, the Congress party in Delhi was reduced to beseeching the BJP to contain the spread of their campaigning to ‘local issues’, as if inflation and corruption were foreign issues that did not touch people at all. It became ludicrous at times to see the Delhi CM and MPs of the Congress accuse the BJP of expanding the debate and complain that national leaders were coming in to campaign for a municipal election. In fact, by protesting so much it was they who were reduced to running a negative campaign rather than the BJP. The personality of the CM shone through the campaign of the Congress as she continued to play her trademark internecine power games with the current DPCC chief in candidate selection and who in turn lost no chance to spite her almost publicly. The constant harping on the ‘rebels’ within the BJP by both these leaders also served to take their own eyes off their backyard where an equally virulent rebellion was being played out.

Trifurcation: a ‘delhi’berate strategy

It remains equally incongruous why the BJP accepted the trifurcation model that was forced down people’s throat by the CM even if the party had indeed considered the model once earlier – after all, there is no law against changing your mind! Besides, there was no legitimate reason for carving out the municipality into three. If the logic is that smaller municipalities by some queer mathematics enhanced efficiency, then seven divisions would have been even better considering they could at least correspond to the geographies of each of the seven Lok Sabha constituencies and usher in some relative accountability.

The entire political class, across the board, knew the trifurcation to be merely a red herring for what was intended to firewall the CM’s son’s political future inEast Delhi, even as it added to the multiplicity of agencies already plaguing the city-state. Naturally, nobody bought it as a panacea for the problems ofDelhi. Add to that the abysmal record of the Congress led state government in providing homes to the weaker sections or enabling any laws that made living any easier for those in slums, the entire exercise came down to amateurish brinksmanship between the CM, her party organization and the opposition. Credit must also be given to the supine reportage by media which bought the CM’s unverified line on better management of smaller municipalities hook, line and sinker. Nobody asked whyNew York,Londonor the best governed cities don’t need to split municipalities. Or why the BMC in Mumbai, with almost twice the budget ofDelhiand greater in size does not need to be splintered. DittoMexico CityandTokyo. Or ask how the MCD employee would undergo a makeover and become a honest Joe; or why the DCs will be super-charged to solve problems in a jiffy once they are part of separate municipalities. Needless to point out, it is now key members of the Congress Party who are blatantly blaming the CM and her trifurcation idea for their notable debacle at the hustings.

Ladies first: Serious reservations

The fifty percent reservation for women was not free of pain either. The sudden death decision threw unprepared women candidates into the arena with disastrous results. According to one estimate, this new elected corporation will aggregate the dubious distinction of having one of the lowest literacy rates for a House, reflecting the social bias inbuilt into the gender equation. That, in turn yields the other, more dangerous proposition – proven correlation between lower levels of literacy and inefficiency will result in lower indices of performance instead of the better efficiencies the CM promised. Another sinister caveat – that the less the councilor is aware of rules, systems and procedures, the more amenable he or she is to the ingrained MCD tradition of corruption, is also invoked. And there lies in tatters the argument of improvements the CM sold a gullible press. Fortunately, the voters have shown themselves to be more discerning.

Fact remains that the Congress Chief Minister in Delhi seriously blundered in strategy and sought to gloss over more serious intelligence her own party members were trying hard to sell their leadership. It was once again the carte blanche from 10 Janpath that allowed her to carry out her quixotic design and rush the two proposals through – with disastrous results, as we can now see. The problem with the Congress is not so much that they do not have the capacity to read the signs [as I myself have claimed] but that they are all forced to live in a bubble just so that bad news does not travel up and upset their masters. That is why they often disregard what to the common eye looks like plain dislike for them. There is sustainable truth in the statement that there is a discernible angst within the people after the slew of scams and the gnawing inflation they have to deal with every month. The CM throwing up her hands and disclaiming responsibility is the last thing any voter wants to see on these issues. And that is precisely where the slip is now showing.

Et tu, Brute!

The BJP, on the other hand, would do well to realize that shorn of the trifurcation tangle the results indicate a serious bloodletting of its support base. And the seats tell the tale quite succinctly. In aggregate terms, the BJP barely scraped past the half way mark and reduced its tally from a commanding 172 seats [including the ally Akali Dal] in a house of 272 to 138, which is just two over the half way mark – a scandalous feat, considering the strong sentiment against the Congress in the city. The CM in her weak defence touted these numbers to deflect criticism but she was not off the mark and it is a fact that if it were a single corporation that went to polls, chances are the entire perspective would have been different. The  knowledge that it was unkind cuts from its own rebels that led to this state must remain a constant sobering thought if anything is to be learnt from this episode.

The dynamics of municipal elections are considered to be different from those of a state or Lok Sabha election simply due to the smaller size of the electorate. Conversely, the number of candidates vying for tickets is the greatest in municipal polls. It stands to reason therefore that a mature leadership would take this into account as it prepares to get into battle mode. Managing expectations then becomes the most crucial function and requires deft handling and sagacious leadership. Standardizing evaluation processes, laying down transparent systems for qualification and establishing clear benchmarks for achievement is the best was to prepare for such campaigns. Candidature should be escalatory; peer assessment the best bulwark against unbridled ambition and competition within norms, the best antidote to runaway aspirations. It remains an open question whether either party followed these norms or collapsed into traditional anarchy and chaos in the mêlee that usually follows declaration of elections.

Nothing to learn. Nothing to lose.

The BJP at the state level must ask if it erred in establishing benchmarks and ended up playing havoc with the natural feelings of contenders and whether it compromised clinical analysis for crony candidature and large scale favouritism which perhaps explains the vicious backlash from party cadres and which in turn converted into a close shave what could have been an unqualified sweep.

Sensible optimists like to have a bit of bad news from time to time. The results of this election are a referendum all right, but not so much on the performance of the Congress’s rule inDelhias about the way the BJP managed this election inDelhi. Truth be told, the Delhi CM’s popularity is at its nadir. Her dictatorial style, her limited outlook and filial focus onEast Delhiis undermining her stature. All she needs to resuscitate her flagging popularity and reclaim the assembly polls is for the BJP to make the same errors it has made earlier – back room shenanigans; multiple power centres; distended leadership and an absence of a credible winning strategy.

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Image credit: oneclick.indiatimes.com

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