Arvind Kejriwal's green war

Oct 11, 2015, 07:55 IST | Shantanu Guha Ray

AAP sets its sights on the Delhi Golf Club, which it says should be accessible to every Delhi citizen

Delhi’s most prestigious golf club, nestled amidst 15th century monuments, full of strutting peacocks and parrots, had once prompted Marlon Brando to call it “heavenly”. Now, however, it is set to become the bone of contention between its members and the city’s new government, the Aam Aadmi Party.

That the CM’s arch rival Najeeb Jung is a member of the exclusive club, is a piece of information that Kejriwal has kept out of the discussion
That the CM’s arch rival Najeeb Jung is a member of the exclusive club, is a piece of information that Kejriwal has kept out of the discussion

AAP, which has an overwhelming majority in the assembly, wants to take over what it calls 220 acres of common land and hand it to the masses for nature walks. A golf club should not be confined only to its members, the masses must access it, AAP has argued in recent party meetings.

While Delhi CM, and AAP chief, Arvind Kejriwal has not uttered the last word yet, he has encouraged members to take on the club’s high-profile members, who range from powerful bureaucrats and Central ministers to corporate honchos and lobbyists.

Kejriwal’s argument is interesting. And, he has kept it simple, without mentioning a vital piece of information: Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung — his arch rival — is a member of the club.

This is what Kejriwal is propounding. New York has a 778-acre Central Park and London has the Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens complex that measure 625 acres — offering all residents and visitors space for recreation. Similarly, Delhi’s citizens should benefit from the golf club, which occupies prime spot in Lutyen’s Delhi.

Though, compared to Delhi’s other golf clubs, the Delhi Golf Club membership comes cheap at R800 per month  (non-members pay R2,400 for an 18-hole round) — ITC Classic Golf Club membership charges an annual Rs 1.25 lakh while that of DLF Golf Club is R8.5 lakh for five years — membership is hereditary and reserved for select offices in the government. The waiting list for outsiders is 15-20 years. Its current list of members is 3,000.

“We have a valid, moral argument in place,” says AAP spokesperson Raghav Chadha, who did not say what’s the party’s strategy would be. However, he added, “The land is under the Delhi Development Authority which falls under Ministry of Urban Development. So, on paper, we cannot get into it. But there is a growing concern in the government about this club, the Delhi Gymkhana and the Race Course, and how to utilise it. I am sure something is happening.”

It is reliably learnt that AAP — which had already raised the issue of India’s most exclusive club paying a pittance of Rs 5,50,000 annual rent — wants to raise its much-repeated bogey of promoting common good, the biggest deal to seal an
effective democracy.

Kejriwal, insiders claim, has not liked the fact that former urban development minister Kamal Nath had renewed the club’s lease by 30 years in 2013 — there was no rush to do so — but sought and gained 29 permanent memberships of his nominees to the club, which got its land from Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951.

“What is meant for commoners should not be enjoyed only by the elite,” Kejriwal has often told his party workers. The AAP CM, a clever politician, has played his game to perfection. He has told party workers that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi is against this “elite show” and has often reprimanded bureaucrats from playing golf during extended lunch breaks.

Kejriwal’s move, though not made public, has — expectedly — triggered resentment among members of the club, who claim they should not be placed under any scanner because the club has not violated rules. Its extension is in place, as are its taxes and membership. They argue that Delhi’s masses prefer the expansive India Gate lawns and have rarely argued for entry into the Golf Club.

“I don’t know why questions are being raised now,” says Brig Sanjeev Mehra, secretary, Delhi Golf Club. “The club is not about the riches, it’s about an environment. Thousands watch 300 bird species here.” But, it is on public land, as compared to other golf courses in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). The DLF Golf Course and ITC Classic Golf Club are on private lands, and golf clubs maintained by the Army and Air Force on defense land.

This, in some ways, directly falls in the line of Kejriwal’s Robin Hood gameplan of fleecing the rich to feed the poor. Why should members of the Delhi Golf Club pay less membership fees, less taxes, is his argument.

Plus, he has — in spirit at least — the backing of the country’s PM who prefers yoga over a game of golf and wants his bureaucrats to push papers and clear files in their offices, rather golfing in the open.

But, Modi needs his bureaucrats because investment projects worth $230 billion await land and environment permits from them. Last year, he even asked bureaucrats to remove golf bags from their offices after he was told there were 200 of them who were regular golfers at the Delhi Golf Club.

Unlike him, Kejriwal does not have a globalised mindset. He has his needs cut out. The Delhi CM wants to win one big battle over Jung, and the Delhi Golf Course seems an easy target. After all, its not private but public land on which Kejriwal has total control: he doesn’t need the bureaucrats to push files, he can do it himself.

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