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Little to build on

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:59 IST
Praful Bidwai
Praful Bidwai
Hindustan Times
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After Ashok Chavan's role in the Adarsh Society scam was exposed, his continuation as Maharashtra's chief minister became simply untenable. His replacement by Prithviraj Chavan is premised on the hope that a person known for integrity and probity, and what some call a "process-driven management style", would help clean up the horrible mess that is Maharashtra politics. The new Berkeley-educated CM indeed has a reputation of a sober politician and administrator. Moreover, he enjoys the confidence of the Congress president and the prime minister — an advantage few Maharashtra CMs have had in decades. But whether he can clean the state's Augean stables is an open question that can't be answered by managerial styles. On it depend the fate of India's most industrialised state and, not least, the credibility of the Congress's apex leadership.

The rot in Maharashtra is deep and pervasive. Take the Adarsh scandal. Embroiled in it were not just politicians, but also some of Maharashtra's topmost bureaucrats, including a former Mumbai Municipal Commissioner, usually chosen for her/his exceptional integrity, ability and experience. They remain unapologetic about abusing their position to get flats allotted to their relatives, although they knew the project was illegitimate, mired in deception, and lacked environmental clearances. This would've been inconceivable till a couple of decades ago.

Adarsh is only one of Maharashtra's countless property scandals driven by a well-ramified politician-bureaucrat-builder-businessman-muscleman network, with epicentres in Mumbai and other big cities like Pune, Nagpur and Aurangabad. Even small towns like Latur and Jalgaon haven't escaped huge land grabs. Nor have the pristine rainforests and tribal lands of the Western Ghats and Satpuras: the Sahyadris are being violently re-contoured to divert rivers and streams, build dams, and create opulent gated townships. It's hard to find an industrial, mining, irrigation or housing project in Maharashtra, which hasn't violated building and environmental laws, illegally appropriated public land (much like the "Enclosures" of Medieval England) and massively dispossessed poor people.

Maharashtra's gigantic land grab was driven by Backbay Reclamation-Nariman Point in the 1970s. But it acquired its current momentum with the closure of Mumbai's textile mills and the "redevelopment" of their lands since the 1990s under the grotesquely false pretence that this would create some housing for the poor, besides multi-crore flats for the elite. Lately, the juggernaut has become unstoppable, with even semi-rural sugar cooperatives joining it. Every major party, including the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance (it ruled Maharashtra during 1995-99) and Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS), is implicated in land grabs.

Related to these ‘New Enclosures' are three other phenomena: wild growth of criminalised crony capitalism as the motor force of the economy; degeneration of political parties, which became dysfunctional as mediators between the government and people (leave alone representing their rights, needs and aspirations); and the collapse or privatisation of public services. No wonder Maharashtra's social indicators have been slipping and it records the highest number of farmers' suicides in India as well as alarming starvation deaths among tribal children.

Once a pioneer of social reform, Maharashtra is now marked by persistent illiteracy, rampant superstition, casteism, and growing violence against women and Dalits (the 2006 Khairlanji massacre being a prime example). Its sugar cooperatives, once agencies of education and other public services in the west, have turned into gigantic rackets and predatory political machines. The greatest contributions to this come from the NCP and its rivalry with the Congress, and secondarily, the Sena and the MNS, over the votes of the landed Marathas who account for a third of the population.

Politically, the only counterweight to this has been a degree of self-assertion and grassroots movements of the dispossessed, often expressed as Dalit resistance and OBC mobilisations. One such mobilisation is led by the NCP's Chhagan Bhujbal, a Mali. But Sharad Pawar has replaced him as deputy CM with his nephew Ajit, primarily to counter Prithviraj Chavan, a Maratha from Karad, in western Maharashtra heartland (like Pawar), and Raj Thackeray, who is trying to cultivate the Marathas. This is likely to boost status quo-ist politics in keeping with the Maratha leadership's social conservatism, manipulative vote-gathering methods and high stakes in crony capitalism-based power.

Though he doesn't parade himself as a Maratha leader, it's not clear how Chavan will deal with this. His choices are limited: either make a compromise and merge into status quo-ist politics or forge a new social coalition for the Congress of the underprivileged and poor with the most disenfranchised layers of Dalits and ‘Most Backward Classes' at its core. The second option is a hard one. But it's the only way the Congress can rebuild itself, especially if it pursues imaginative programmes of public service provision and popular empowerment. Administratively, Chavan faces an equally tough challenge: reforming a thoroughly compromised, corrupt bureaucracy, making it publicly accountable, breaking its nexus with sleazy businessmen and builders and yoking it to the task of rejuvenating Maharashtra's creaking social infrastructure.

This demands Chavan to immediately launch a systematic drive to bring those involved in Maharashtra's countless scams to book. The greatest obstacle here will be his colleagues, who can stoop low to sabotage and subvert his reform plans. The Congress chief's backing will be helpful to him, but not remotely enough. The initiative for a thorough cleansing of Maharashtra's society, politics and administration must come from Chavan himself. He faces an ordeal by fire.

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.