Too late for change?

The media feeding frenzy we saw last week over 'snoopgate' or 'stalkgate' or whatever else gate you want to call it was based on hypocrisy. Any hack who has covered politics in Delhi for more than five minutes knows how much snooping goes on as part of the routine business of the Government of India. What annoyed me about this very silly story is that it made the media overlook two significant political events. The first was Rahul Gandhi's speech to industrialists in Delhi, and the second was the sudden ouster of Jayanthi Natarajan as Minister for Environment and Forests.

Natarajan deserved to be removed as much as her predecessor Jairam Ramesh did because they turned the Environment Ministry into a licence raj without doing the smallest thing to improve the environment. With the grandiloquent arrogance that Indian officials are uniquely capable of, they behaved as if protecting the environment was somehow an Indian idea. It is not. It is an idea taken, like many other ideas, from developed Western countries which have succeeded in cleaning up their rivers and their atmosphere, and preserving their forests and mountains without stopping roads, airports, railways, power stations and factories from being built. Natarajan and Ramesh took the blinkered view that it was one or the other. And, ended up stopping more than Rs 10 lakh crore worth of projects without making any visible improvements to our rivers, cities or forests. They could not have because to do this you must have measurable, objective standards, and this they failed to come up with.

Judging from Rahul's speech to FICCI members in Delhi, he appears to have seen the light. Hours after Natarajan had resigned, he said, "Many of you have expressed your frustration with environmental clearances that are delaying projects unduly. There is excessive administrative and judicial discretion. The loopholes are so big you can drive a truck through some of them! Environmental and social damage must be avoided, but decisions must also be transparent, timely and fair."

He made other thoughtful and mature points in one of the best speeches he has given to date, but appears to have forgotten his own role in stopping major projects. He seemed to have totally forgotten that he went personally up to the Niyamgiri Hills to order that the Vedanta bauxite refinery be closed down because he thought it was built on land taken from Adivasis. He assured them that he would be their 'sipahi' in Delhi, apparently without noticing that Ramesh had ordered the refinery closed, after more than Rs 11,000 crore had been invested in it, for alleged violations of forest laws. Nothing to do with Adivasi land.

This was the beginning, in my humble opinion, of the economic downturn. Everyone feels it today. India's poorer citizens feel it because of the price of food, the middle class because of lost jobs. Industrialists feel it in the uncertain investment climate, and economists calculate it in terms of the economic growth rate having come down by half and the value of the rupee having halved as well.

Things are now so bad that even if Rahul continues to make excellent, grown-up speeches between now and the next general election, it could be too late. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has already shown how it can change politics and governance and win elections by doing this. And Narendra Modi offers an alternative economic model in every speech he makes. More than once in his own speeches to business groups he has said clearly that he does not believe government has any business to be in business and that its main role should be to create the right climate for investment. In Gujarat, according to the big businessmen I have talked to, he has shown how this can be done. They talk of how when they go to see him he gives them time that is uninterrupted by aides or phone calls. And, they sing paeans to the efficiency of the Gujarat government.

If in addition to all this he found time to develop a romantic interest in the woman he was spying on, then it will not go against him in the eyes of the voter. It might even help humanise a man who has lately begun to look and talk too much like a messiah. Unless Rahul can pull off a miracle and bring the Congress back into the game before the general election, there is every possibility that Modi may need to be more concerned about Arvind Kejriwal than him when it comes to wooing urban voters. So far Kejriwal has not had a chance to prove if he can bring about the changes in governance that he boasts of, but what he has succeeded in is projecting himself as the anti-Modi, the anti-messiah. That could work well.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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