India’s political arena has never seen something like the battle the Aam Aadmi Party and the central government are currently embroiled in. Ever since AAP rode to a spectacular landslide victory in Delhi winning 67 out of 70 seats in early 2015, the Narendra Modi government has been predictably working to ensure that AAP does not shine with its programmes or governance. The BJP in the last Delhi elections had won just three seats. The Congress was decimated. Never has any party won the way AAP won in Delhi.
Though Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his ministers have given up the dharna at the LG’s residence after IAS officers signalled that they were ready to attend official meetings and resume work, the friction between elected representatives of AAP and the central government is far from over. It will continue till the term is over as the BJP wants to wrest power. BJP leaders have in party meetings acknowledged that if AAP is allowed to grow, it would be a greater threat than the Congress. Delhi is obviously a prestigious battle that has to be won.
Delhi was granted statehood, but the arrangement was different from other states. Delhi’s administrative power was not vested in the elected chief minister, but in the hands of the Lieutenant Governor who is appointed by the central government. That is precisely why Kejriwal is now stressing that Delhi must be given complete statehood so that an elected government can carry out its programmes without hindrance or delays caused by the LG or the government in power at the centre.
In an unconventional form of protest, Kejriwal parked himself in one of the rooms of LG Anil Baijal’s office along with three senior ministers which included deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. Kejriwal wanted Baijal to ask the bureaucrats to report to work and accept AAP programmes that aimed for door-to-door delivery of rations to disadvantaged families and starting of clinics for the poor.
The bureaucrats had stopped work after chief secretary Anshu Prakash said that he was manhandled by AAP MLAs after he was called for a late night meeting at Kejriwal’s house. The reported scuffle between AAP MLAs Prakash Jarwal and Amanatullah Khan and Prakash sparked off the ugly impasse bringing governance to a halt. IAS officers struck work and refused to attend meetings. The conflict would have continued had not almost all the opposition parties asked Modi to ensure that it come to an end. Among them were four chief ministers of non-BJP ruled states. Ashutosh, a senior AAP leader, told Indian Currents: “It’s a lie that AAP has indulged in to violence vis-à-vis the chief secretary. It seems to be a conspiracy to destabilize the AAP government as their other tricks failed to derail the party.”
The eight day protest worked. After Kejriwal assured the bureaucrats of security, they started attending meetings. The LG showed some readiness to listen as opposition leaders other than the Congress got around to supporting Kejriwal and asking Modi to act to end the impasse and ensure that federalism is respected. Obviously, the Congress did not want to support Kejriwal’s action as it has no future in Delhi if AAP succeeded. Delhi is the only state where the Congress does not have a single member!
After the swearing in ceremony of Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, this was the second time that the opposition got together for a common cause. What was remarkable was that two arch rivals like CPM’s Pinarayi Vijayan and Trinamool Congress’s Mamta Banerjee, joined hands to support Kejriwal. Their point was federalism should be respected and the party in power should not try to paralyse the working of governments in states just because they are not in power there.
Instead of going to court to plead that officers be ordered back to work, Kejriwal attracted nationwide attention by going on a dharna with three of his senior ministers by parking himself for eight days in the office of the LG. It was the kind of dharna that independent India had not seen.
Ever since AAP came to power, Kejriwal and his ministers have been underlining the fact time and again that they are not getting the centre’s or the LG’s cooperation. Ashutosh said: “Not cooperating is too simple a term. As the BJP was massively defeated by the AAP in Delhi assembly elections where it displayed how to defy the Modi phenomenon, the centre has leashed vengeance to kill the experiments in governance that the AAP initiated.”
It is a fact that AAP had managed to do some wonderful work in crucial areas of education and health. AAP activists and functionaries like 37 year-old Atishi Marlena who were drawing a salary of just a rupee while working to improve the condition of government schools in Delhi, were summarily sacked by the central government on flimsy grounds. She and many other volunteers had dramatically changed the condition of numerous government schools both in terms of functioning and deliverance of education. She had shown spectacular results. The passing percentage increased, school infrastructure improved, students developed better skills, and schools that were overcharging were forced to refund fees.
Marlena was an advisor to education minister Manish Sisodia. She was one of the nine functionaries of AAP who were sacked were by the Ministry of Home Affairs that seemed to have suddenly discovered that these posts were not approved by the central government. It was immaterial that they were posts where the functionaries were getting a salary. It also did not matter to the central government that they were doing wonderful work that was benefitting so many students.
The centre was not even embarrassed doing this. Ultimately, it was petty narrow politics that won.
The Delhi Government set an example allocating 24 percent of its budget on education setting aside Rs 11,300 crore in 2017-18. As many as 8,000 new classrooms were constructed. Around 200 mentor teachers were appointed to aid teachers and schools to function more efficiently. The stress was on helping them read and write better. This is something that the Congress government led by Sheila Dikshit could not do for the 15 years it was in power. Or even when the BJP government was in power in Delhi before that.
Such initiatives that opened windows to improve education got a lot of appreciation from parents and students. For the first time, parent teacher meetings were held in government schools. The fact that they sacked the advisors who were drawing the strategy and motivating schools shows poverty of imagination more than anything else.
AAP also ran into problems with its mohalla clinics which were designed to reach healthcare to the disadvantaged. As bureaucrats were toeing the LG’s line, frustration among the elected representatives was building up.
Kejriwal minced no words when he said, “The PMO and the centre are unleashing the lieutenant governor, IAS officials and agencies like the CBI, ED, IT and the Delhi Police on us to stall the government's work.” Ashutosh is very clear when he says, “The solution lies with the Modiji. If he decides to help and cooperate, the problem will be sorted out.”
CENTRE PULLS STRINGS
The plight of Delhi revolves around the fact that like other state governments it cannot control the bureaucracy or the police to ensure that they carry out tasks assigned to them. Delhi’s chief minister must answer to the LG who calls the shots. It is okay when the same party is in power in the centre, but when it is opposing parties scrambling to get at each other, then it can make life impossible for the government that rules Delhi.
Najeeb Jung who was a distinguished academic and the former LG also did everything he could to ensure that AAP fails as a government. Since its formation, as many as 14 cases have been registered against AAP ministers and their relatives. Clearly, it is to harass them as the cases will not hold. In almost all the cases, no arrests have been made. Clearly, even the voter sees that all this has been done for optics by the anti-corruption bureau and the CBI.
Born in late 2012, AAP proudly claimed the coming of alternative politics, being anti-establishment, wanted to share power with the common man and root out corruption. Its leaders and active members at that time were from diverse backgrounds. Many of them were highly-educated professionals wanting to ride a change in India. Its cadre was largely young who nursed a different dream of India. Many supporters were just sick of seeing Indian politics sink to such depths. The ideas the party talked about were hug worthy.
Having said what the centre has done to paralyse Kejriwal and his government, it is also a fact that Kejriwal has a lot to learn in terms of political niceties and how to carry his team and party along. AAP has had its problems due to his leadership. He is seen as a head-strong leader unable to mend differences with his party members who have a different point of view. He has lost some valued members like Yogendra Yadav who would have lent a lot of credibility to the party. Many others who quit did not like his authoritarian stand and his confrontational style of politics. He also needs to build a broader identity base for the party if it has to grow and spread.
But with its inexperience with the Indian polity, it was making politically immature statements and attacking opposition leaders recklessly. In numerous legal cases, Kejriwal and his leaders have had to apologise in court for the statements they made without proof. Some of its leaders were hauled up for possessing fake degrees, inciting assault on foreigners, sexual harassment and domestic violence. The image of a party that was built on the promise of principled and clean politics was shattered. Even the Delhi High Court chided the Delhi government for not improving public transport, tackling rising pollution and spurt of vector-borne diseases. AAP’s foray into other states has not worked as it lost elections where it contested. Even in Delhi, it has lost the vote share it had in the last assembly elections.
When AAP emerged as an alternative party, thousands of supporters both in India and abroad offered generous donations as they wanted a non-corrupt government that was different in its approach. As AAP wanted its functioning to be transparent, it put the names of its donors on its website. No political party had ever done this or will ever do this. The Modi government went after the donors by issuing them income-tax notices. According to an AAP spokesperson, donors started calling the party pleading that their names be taken off the list as it had attracted for uncalled harassment. No wonder, donations to the party have shrunk.
What the ugly fracas playing out in the capital tell us is this that opposition parties will have to fight to keep the tenets of federalism alive and not let one aggressive national party strangulate it. The fight in Delhi is far from over. The AAP government will face numerous hurdles in administration as the LG will call the shots. We will be hearing of more battles between the centre and the AAP government. The BJP desperately wants to wrest power in the capital and helping Kejriwal to improve health, education and governance is not going to help the BJP get votes! Watch this space.(Published on 25th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 26)