Spying, splurge, nepotism and more from the secret core of the Kejriwal regime
PR Ramesh | 06 Oct, 2016
SCHOLARS SUGGEST THAT the late US President Richard Nixon, he of the Watergate scandal who had at the height of the 1971 Bangladesh War described Mrs Indira Gandhi as a ‘witch’ and worse, often found it difficult to tell the profane and the sacred apart, consumed as he was by avarice for power and a pathological need to keep tabs on rivals. Faced with opposition within the White House to the use of wiretaps and break-ins to guard his political interests—which he euphemistically referred to as ‘national security concerns’—he once roared, “I mean I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in there and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.” Snooping on political opponents for a professed lofty goal would later cost him the presidency. The Watergate scandal—he had got the Democratic National Committee office in a hotel by that name bugged—forced him to resign in 1974.
Though Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal may seem to share rather few traits with Nixon, who liked to rant, swear and slur in private and sometimes in public, many of those who work closely with him report a temperament just as high-strung and melodramatic. In his book, The Crown Prince, The Gladiator and The Hope, his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) colleague Ashutosh recounts that under fire in 2014 from former colleagues such as Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan for his alleged engendering of a personality cult, Kejriwal became uncontrollably sentimental. ‘He started to say something, but could not complete. He broke down and as tears fell unheeded, he crumbled to the floor,’ notes Ashutosh in the book. Biographies and declassified tapes and papers on Nixon underline the high drama and emotion—for effect or otherwise— that characterised almost every moment of his. And now, documents of the Delhi government to which Open has gained exclusive access show that Kejriwal may resemble the tainted Republican President even more closely than meets the common eye.
As soon as the IIT-educated former RTI activist returned to power in early 2015 with a brute majority in the Delhi Assembly, it emerges that he began to put together a team that comprised serving and retired officials of the Enforcement Directorate, Police, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and other agencies, and offered them secret funds, perhaps with the intent to run a body of sleuths that would work in parallel with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB). Shockingly, this effort was kept under wraps and made without securing the required approval of the Lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory of Delhi.
Nixon’s fate was sealed by a smoking gun in the form of transcripts of a recorded phone call to his Chief of Staff. Such glaring evidence of impropriety may still be elusive in the case closer home, but the documents smack of malfeasance and bring to light the unseemly extent to which the Delhi government went to install a Nixonian secret service division that would be under the control of just one man: Kejriwal.
It all started with a Delhi government cabinet decision on 1 April 2015 to strengthen the ACB by creating 259 new posts to add to the existing 116, and by bestowing greater powers on a few senior officers. The meeting also proposed raising the secret service fund from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 20 lakh and hiring technical experts from the accounts, income tax, engineering, legal and revenues departments. The grand plan also envisaged the procurement of 68 vehicles, 70 mobile phones with accessories, 75 computers and 22 printers, apart from other durables, besides high-end equipment for data and research analysis and surveillance and monitoring purposes.
At another cabinet meeting, held on 29 September 2015, a proposal for the creation of a new unit—a feedback division of sorts—under the Directorate of Vigilance (under which the ACB operates) was discussed and immediately approved. The new division, known only to the grandees of Delhi’s AAP government, was aimed at firming up its vigilance department. The cabinet note said: ‘A need has been felt to improve the monitoring mechanism of activities of various departments in vigilance related matters. Therefore, a unit may be created in the Directorate of Vigilance, Government of NCT of Delhi, manned by serving as well as retired personnel to gather relevant information and actionable feedback regarding the working of the departments/autonomous bodies/institutions/entities, etc, falling under the jurisdiction of Government of NCT of Delhi and also to do trap cases.’
According to officials in the know, this ‘feedback’ unit of some 20 odd people has been functional since February this year. More people, Open learns, were hired later. The chief secretary, who is also the chief vigilance officer of the government, has been kept in the dark about its functioning. The exact nature of this unit— consisting of hardnosed intelligence officers loyal to AAP—be it their performance parameters, reporting structure and so on, have not been officially defined. According to officials that Open spoke to, the office of Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung discovered the unit’s existence only as late as August. Evidently, the cabinet decision to create such a unit had not been approved— as required—by the L-G, and in the process, the ruling party has come under sharp attack by bureaucrats for reportedly eavesdropping on them and others with mala fide intentions. Arvind Kejriwal didn’t respond to queries emailed to him by Open.
Amid cries of intrigue and deviation from long-held governmental norms, the Kejriwal government also approved the setting up of a ‘creative’ unit to offer consultancy services on infrastructure and other projects for a period of two years. The members of this group were hired through a Delhi-based human resources firm, Soni Detective & Allied Services Pvt Ltd, which, ironically, has experience mostly in supplying semi-skilled and unskilled manpower to companies rather than highly skilled consultants to Delhi’s Public Works Department (PWD). Strangely, salaries for members of this team were to come from funds set aside for the ambitious third-phase of the Barapullah elevated corridor project—in flagrant violation of norms. “For a government that often hit out at the Central Government for harbouring a hidden agenda against it, the AAP dispensation has remained largely opaque in several of its activities, as these projects confirm. My complaint is that the L-G is not being aggressive enough in reining in these kind of activities. The Centre also should investigate this,” says a senior Delhi government official asking not to be named for fear of being victimised.
Transparency in governance, the fight against corruption and the interests of the common man have been the three vital parts of AAP’s poll manifestos. In Delhi, the party won two Assembly elections in less than two years, the second victory being one of India’s most resounding ever. The party was voted to power by people who were roused by Kejriwal’s pro-poor image and call to overthrow a political system dominated by the Congress and BJP. The AAP also made possible a near impossibility in traditional Indian politics: it drastically lowered old entry barriers to parliamentary politics that had been raised over the decades by parties that tended to handpick poll contestants either from prominent families or party cadres. There was a time that pundits would compare the BJP-Congress dominated political field to Bollywood, where actors from non-film families rarely make it big.
The new party, created by Kejriwal and others after they snapped ties with the anti-graft Anna Hazare movement in late 2012, shot to instant fame on the promise of ushering in an entirely new political climate. It offered to make a new beginning, with politicians back to behaving like commoners instead of the dynasts that the country had got used to. Its genesis as a party of values only compounds the embarrassment it seems to have in store. The generous would put it down to the old saying that power corrupts. Others would say they suspected something rotten all along.
ALREADY, AAP’S PUBLIC image has been sullied by a raft of criminal cases against its leaders, including elected representatives, some of whom have been sacked by the Delhi government. Closer scrutiny only worsens matters for it. Documents in possession of Open confirm that AAP leaders do not always practice the austerity they so loudly preach. Take the party thrown by the Delhi government to celebrate its first anniversary at the Chief Minister’s official residence. It presented guests with an embarrassment of riches on the menu. At the twin events organised on 11 and 12 February at the Chief Minister’s home, catering arrangements were made by the Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation (DTTDC), which got Taj Palace Hotel to lay out a lavish spread. For all the Gandhian ways the party brandishes like medallions, the cost of the buffets were billed at a monstrously steep Rs 12,000 per plate. This is far in excess of the ceiling for state-borne expenses for such functions. The maximum permissible amount the government can spend is Rs 2,500 per plate for dinners hosted in five-star and other luxury hotels, with an overall ceiling of Rs 4.5 lakh per event. DTTDC was later asked to offer discounts and raise a new bill. The first bill was Rs 11.04 lakh for twin lunches. The revised bill totalled Rs 9.9 lakh.
On 6 August 2015, Dr Nikunj Aggarwal sent a handwritten letter addressed to the director of the state-run Chacha Nehru Bal Chikitsalaya (CNBC). The subject of the letter was: ‘Request for application for post of S-R orthopedics’, S-R being short for ‘senior resident’. Written lazily and with scant respect for English grammar and punctuation, the letter said: ‘With due respect I. Dr Nikunj Aggarwal DNB orthopedics requesting you to consider my request for the post of SR orthopedics in your esteem instituition. So please kindly consider my request and …. Enclosing a copy of C.V here with. Yours faithfully Dr Nikunj Aggarwal.’
The CNBC issued an appointment order four days later, though there was no vacancy for the post in the hospital. Less than a month later, on 4 September 2015, he was named Officer on Special Duty to Delhi Health Minister Satyendra Jain, who, incidentally, is also Delhi’s PWD minister. Aggarwal was appointed to the post on the request of Jain. Why should a CNBC employee under contract be made OSD to the health minister so arbitrarily when there are several other officers of the Delhi government who could fulfil the demands of the role? The answer is simple. Aggarwal is unlike any other candidate: he is the son-in-law of Kejriwal’s sister-in-law.
If Aggarwal had a privileged stint at CNBC, he fared better in the ministry. He has been granted four extensions so far. While he was a contractual employee, the health minister nominated him for a management development programme for senior healthcare officials at IIM Ahmedabad at a fee of Rs 1.15 lakh (from 20 June to 25 June), though he was not entitled to participate in such courses under the hospital’s rules. Aggarwal also accompanied a group of state officers, architects and doctors on a visit to China, prompting charges of nepotism and financial impropriety.
Meanwhile, the Delhi government also hired scores of security guards—at high salaries—in state-run hospitals, arguing that doctors have lately been vulnerable to attacks by angry relatives of patients whose lives could not be saved, among other such odd reasons. The administration didn’t follow the standard tender- floating process for such appointments. Given the opacity, critics have reason to suspect a hidden plan to accommodate party workers in such jobs.
In a striking oversight of all norms on conflict-of-interest, the three security agencies that bagged the contract—Knightwatch, Innovision and SIS India—were also the ones that were asked to carry out surveys of the requirement of security staff in select hospitals in the national capital and submit a report on the extra workforce needed. In another departure from norm, only these three agencies were called for a meeting convened by Delhi’s Health and Family Welfare Department to solicit security proposals.
The pay scales for the new guards were decided unanimously by these agencies, and this, without citing the wage proposals made by rival agencies. The trio also included a bonus of 8.33 per cent and a gratuity of 4.81 per cent of the basic minimum wage in the rates quoted, though such benefits are usually given to staff members only after at least six months of service at a state-run institution.
Delhi’s AAP government has left no stone unturned in trying to reach out to people at large through various means, especially in states where it senses prospects of power. As part of a campaign launched in July titled ‘Talk to AK’, which features interactive sessions with the Chief Minister, citizens across the country are being invited to ask Kejriwal questions over the phone, via text messages or social media platforms. It is no coincidence that this campaign comes at a time when AAP is gearing up for Assembly polls in such states as Goa, Punjab and Gujarat.
However, the public relations agency that is advising the party’s top leaders—including Kejriwal and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia—has run into trouble over violation of contractual obligations. Much to the embarrassment of the government, Perfect Relations, which was awarded a consultancy contract by Delhi’s Directorate of Information and Publicity (DIP) on the social media campaign conceived by the Chief Minister and his team, is in a tight spot for ‘using confidential information for private gains’, according to a document procured by Open. At first, the PR agency had submitted a proposal for a digital advertising campaign on Facebook, YouTube and Google Hangout. After submitting an initial proposal to DIP on 6 July 2016, Perfect Relations later revised its offer, agreeing to forgo its agency fee of 12 per cent of the Rs 1.58 crore project but instead proposing to execute the plan on its own. Officials have noted that Perfect Relations did this despite being aware of the obvious conflict-of-interest involved in appointing itself the beneficiary of its own recommendation. A document states that ‘Secretary, DIP, and Special Secretary (Finance) were sternly counselled on their overlooking this evident first principle conflict of interest in this proposal. This is deeply regretted as non-assessment of the proposal on this count may have blindsided the Honourable Deputy chief minister in agreeing to this proposal.’ The DIP has now been asked by the private secretary, finance, to put out a new call for proposal submissions to enlist a new communications consultant. Payment to Perfect Relations is now kept on hold.
Simplicity in personal life and probity in public life are the core values that AAP leaders have sworn to uphold. Most of them are of humble origin and this lent them an aura of credibility when they spoke of being aam people along the campaign trail. The trappings of power, however, seem to have put paid to all that.
Consider the criticism levelled by the opposition against Sisodia for spending time abroad while Delhi was grappling with public health scares following a fresh outbreak of vector-borne diseases such as Chikungunya. L-G Najeeb Jung reportedly summoned Sisodia last month back from Finland to manage a public health crisis with hospitals struggling to accommodate patients. Kejriwal had been away for treatment in Benguluru at the time.
The frequent foreign trips of Sisodia and Satyendra Jain have not escaped the notice of people and doubts have arisen over their need. Documents reveal that Sisodia, who was on a trip to Brazil with a four-member entourage to attend a conference from 11 to 16 August last year, included in his itinerary Iguazu Falls in neighbouring Argentina without obtaining the approvals required by protocol. This led to the state incurring an additional cost of more than Rs 29 lakh, including transfer charges. The paper trail of Sisodia’s Brazil trip shows that the minister flouted Delhi’s prevailing austerity measures even before he departed by including non-specialists (and only one academic) in his contingent. He also opted to travel business class on KLM instead of Air India.
IN SEPTEMBER 2015, Sisodia visited Australia and New Zealand, again travelling business class on Singapore Airlines instead of Air India. Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister also went on tour to London from 17 March to 20 March this year. This was to participate in a one-day conference to which he was invited by the student union of London School of Economics. He travelled with his secretary on government expense. “The fact is none of these trips are essentially official and are of no particular use to the people of Delhi. They are as good as personal trips,” says a senior Delhi government official who asks not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
From 30 May to 3 June this year, Sisodia visited Berlin to attend the German Habitat Forum. Documents say that no mandatory cadre clearances were obtained for the two officers who accompanied him on the trip. Besides, these visits were made without the required permission of the Lieutenant Governor.
Satyendra Jain has proven an avid globe-trotter as well. From 12-15 March 2016, he was on a trip to Malaysia to ‘study’ a rapid transport corridor (BRT Sunway Line) in that country along with a five-member team. He flew business class. Asked to reduce the size of his delegation by the Centre, he chose to drop a subject expert.
Jain also went on a ‘study visit’ to Stockholm from 25-29 October on a casual invitation made by the Swedish envoy to New Delhi. The 11-member delegation included an attendant of Delhi’s Transport Minister Gopal Rai. Both the ministers travelled first class. Jain and some others also undertook a ‘study’ visit to the UK without technical experts. Open contacted the office of the L-G for comments, unsuccessfully.
Admittedly, the amounts appropriated by AAP ministers and their hangers-on are minuscule compared with what has come to light in corruption scandals involving other political parties. But as the second official says, “It is usual for political leaders to travel abroad whenever there is an opportunity. However, these are leaders who have come to power hardselling Gandhian values over the excesses of others. That these people are also easily being co-opted by the system is unfortunate.”
Kejriwal would do well to remember the late US President John Adams’ dictum on the corrosive effects of being in authority: since power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases. Richard Nixon discovered this too late.