Mihir Srivastava chronicles the last gasps of a government that promised to be different but ended up in a mess
Mihir Srivastava | 21 Feb, 2014
Mihir Srivastava chronicles the last gasps of a government that promised to be different but ended up in a mess
It was Valentine’s Day and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was determined to prove he was not in love with power.
He began his day at 9 am, not realising it would be his last in office. He was sure that the three finance bills listed in the Vidhan Sabha would be passed and that the fourth and fifth bills on the list, the Swaraj and Jan Lokpal bills, would at least be discussed. He was upbeat.
He reached the secretariat in the blue Wagon R that was donated to the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2013 by volunteer Kundan Sharma, a London-based executive with Royal Bank of Scotland. Seated next to Kejriwal, at the wheel, was Rohit Pande, an engineering student and full-time volunteer with the party. On the back seat was his Man Friday, Bibhav Kumar, who guides him through his daily engagements.
As usual, Kejriwal carried home- cooked food with him—he follows a strict, non-greasy, non-spicy vegetarian diet and, because of his sore throat, prefers to drink lukewarm water. He also likes to snack on roasted chickpeas. There was a box of it on the back seat.
He spent an hour in the secretariat on routine matters. He also discussed corruption issues, including the FIRs against Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Veerappa Moily and industrialist Mukesh Ambani. He ordered another FIR into an alleged Rs 31-crore scam in street lights for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, implicating his predecessor Sheila Dikshit, for which he was later accused of a witch hunt. He was briefed about the progress of these cases.
Two days earlier, an FIR had been filed against Ambani based on a complaint from former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian, lawyer Kamini Jaiswal and two others that a doubling of gas prices would cost the country a minimum of Rs 54,500 crore every year and allow Ambani’s Reliance India Limited to make future windfall profits of Rs 120,000 crore.
Kejriwal had forwarded the complaint to N Dilip Kumar, a retired police officer and Kejriwal’s advisor on anti-corruption matters. Four years ago, when Kumar was the head of Delhi’s Anti- Corruption Branch, he used, for the first time, a sting operation to investigate and secure a conviction against corrupt government functionaries.
Kumar read the complaint sitting in Kejriwal’s chamber and prepared a detailed note recommending an FIR by the Anti-Corruption Branch, which, like the Central Bureau of Investigation, has concurrent jurisdiction in these matters. In this two-page advisory note, Kumar refers to Ambani as ‘greedy’. Stumped by the FIR—which is legally valid even with Kejriwal demitting office—the UPA Government decided to approach the Supreme Court for a stay on the probe.
In his office, Kejriwal contemplated how to deal with a hostile house. Some journalists had informed him over the phone of a likely walkout by both the Congress and BJP if the Jan Lokpal bill was tabled in the Assembly. He was not sure if that would happen. Only the previous day, the two parties had stalled Assembly proceedings, demanding the resignation of Kejriwal’s controversial law minister Somnath Bharti. Bharti had become difficult baggage for the AAP to carry.
Delhi Urban Development Minister Manish Sisodia, Kejriwal’s number two in the AAP government, was also present at the secretariat. They decided to stay firm on the issue. Despite a testing first day in the Assembly, where speaker MS Dhir’s powers were curtailed by a majority vote, Kejriwal was confident that AAP’s Jan Lokpal bill would be tabled.
While these weighty issues were being dealt with, Kejriwal’s parents, Gobind Ram and Gita Devi Kejriwal, visited him at his office. They had not been to the secretariat since Kejriwal took office “This visit,” says AAP spokesperson Aswathi Muralidharan, “had nothing to do with the fact that this would turn out to be [his] last day in office.”
Around 12:30 pm, Kejriwal left the secretariat with Sisodia. Soon after their arrival at the Vidhan Sabha, a meeting of AAP’s legislative party took place in which floor strategy was discussed. At this point, Somnath Bharti, the controversial law minister accused of vigilantism and racism, offered to resign. He had his resignation letter with him.
Bharti reasoned that he didn’t want to become a hindrance to the passage of the Jan Lokpal bill. The previous day, the House could not function because the Congress and BJP joined hands demanding his resignation. Bharti’s proposal was accepted. The plan was that he would tender his resignation if the opposition stalled the house on the issue.
Around this time, to add insult to injury, a popular news channel reported that the Jan Lokpal bill would tabled by none other than Somnath Bharti. This came as a surprise to AAP legislators.
The opposition didn’t press for Bharti’s resignation that day; they had a much stronger issue to disrupt the House with. Kejriwal received a copy of a letter written by Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung to Assembly Speaker MS Dhir, advising him against allowing AAP’s Jan Lokpal bill to be tabled as it was a finance bill and the AAP government hadn’t followed proper procedure and got approval for its tabling. Thus, Jung indicated, tabling the bill without his concurrence would be unconstitutional.
There was no going back on it, however, as far as Kejriwal was concerned. The Political Affairs Committee of AAP had already decided that there would be no compromise on itsJan Lokpal bill. AAP MLAs blamed the Lieutenant Governor for playing politics and questioned his objectivity on the bill, especially after the FIR against Ambani.
Jung had quit the Indian Administrative Service after his stint as Joint Secretary (Exploration) in the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MOPNG), where he played a crucial role in the privatisation of ONGC’s Panna- Mukta oilfield, which went to a consortium of Reliance-ONGC and British Gas. He later had a stint as director, energy research, in the Reliance-funded Observer Research Foundation. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Energy Economics from Oxford University.
The AAP MLAs felt cheated. They decided to try and have the bill tabled despite Jung’s letter. Kejriwal was in touch with other AAP leaders such as Yogendra Yadav. There was a growing understanding that this bill will not be allowed to be tabled. Yadav attacked Jung publicly.
There was no question of the party backing down on the Lokpal bill, he told the media, questioning whether the Lieutenant Governor could block the legislation from being moved. “I don’t know if he has the authority to advise the speaker or not,” he stressed, demanding a probe against Oil & Gas Minister Veerappa Moily. “[Moily] is right [that there’s a political conspiracy behind the FIR]. There is a political conspiracy behind this and it should be probed,” Yadav said. He dismissed the Congress threat to withdraw support.
Delhi Congress Chief Arvinder Singh Lovely, who had earlier called Kejriwal a liar, had written to him assuring Congress support on the condition that the bill be tabled in a constitutional manner. “I am very hurt by newspaper reports suggesting Kejriwalji believes the Congress is opposed to the Jan Lokpal Bill,” he told the media soon after, and advised Kejriwal to desist from making misleading statements.
By 2 pm, MLAs started moving into the Assembly hall the way soccer teams arrive for a tournament final. Dhir took his place at the podium. The Jan Lokpal bill was listed as the fourth item on the House agenda, followed by the three money bills. The BJP MLA Ram Singh Bidhuri requested that the proceedings be suspended because it was Sant Ravidas’ birthday, and blamed Kejriwal for freezing the session. He was supported by Leader of the Opposition Harsh Vardhan. A furore ensued—sloganeering followed by calls for Kejriwal’s resignation. Manish Sisodia was seen laughing.
Vardhan attacked Kejrwal for bracketing the BJP and Congress together because of Ambani. “You cannot keep lying to the people, telling them that the BJP is blocking the Lokpal Bill,” he said.
In fact, the Congress and BJP were singing the same tune: that they didn’t oppose the bill so long as due procedure was followed. They sought an adjournment so that the matter would be taken up only after the weekend.
A minister in the Union Cabinet, a keen observer of Delhi politics, later said: “It was difficult to maintain the right balance. We didn’t want to be seen opposing the bill, but at the same time didn’t want to allow Kejriwal to bulldoze the bill in.”
Amid the pandemonium, Kejriwal’s family—his parents, wife Sunita and son Pulkit—were waiting patiently in the visitor’s gallery in anticipation. They wanted to witness a ‘historic’ occasion.
Initially, Speaker Dhir refused to read the Lieutenant Governor’s letter to the House, resulting in an uproar. When the house reconvened after a 20 minute break, it was already 3.00 pm. Dhir read the letter tamely and Kejriwal stood up to speak. He was not allowed to.
Sisodia was seen offering a rebuttal to the Lieutenant Governor’s letter. The opposition gave the government two options: either accept the Lieutenant Governor’s letter as an order, or hold a vote to decide whether it was an order or a recommendation. Kejriwal didn’t like the idea. It was unprecedented that a lieutenant governor’s letter was being turned into an issue to be voted upon. “The letter only says it should be read out, not that there needs to be a vote on it,” Kejriwal told fellow MLAs. He was shouted down again. Kejriwal knew that the tabling of the bill was going to be tough. His strategy was not to give in till it was done.
MLAs continued to yell at each other. Around 3.45 pm, Kejriwal introduced the Jan Lokpal bill. Sisodia was seen shouting repeatedly that the government was introducing the Jan Lokpal Bill for discussion. But Congress and BJP MLAs were unrelenting in their demand for a vote on the Lieutenant Governor’s letter, and would not let the government introduce the bill. The thumping of desks by AAP MLAs in approval of the bill’s tabling was effectively drowned by the furore.
The next 15 minutes were a holy mess. Sisodia walked out of the Assembly hall to inform reporters that the bill had been tabled and that the next step would be a discussion on it. He was hopeful that there would be a vote on the bill within the following few days.
Kejriwal had been adamant that the Delhi Assembly session should discuss the Jan Lokpal bill in an open stadium. Two days earlier, Kejriwal’s cabinet had discussed Jung’s letter asking him to reconsider his decision to hold an assembly session at the Indira Gandhi indoor stadium (for security reasons). Now he and his government were facing a bigger reality check: even tabling the bill had become an insurmountable challenge.
Within 15 minutes of Sisodia announcing that the bill had been tabled, the speaker announced it hadn’t been. That is when Bharti, surprised that the opposition hadn’t asked for his resignation, invited a discussion on AAP’s Jan Lokpal bill. The bill was tabled again.
The BJP rejected any discussion of the bill as introduced by Kejriwal. The CM was outshouted again. The BJP was emphatic that the bill could not be introduced without a vote; BJP MLAs were on their feet again, insisting on it. Congress MLAs joined the protest. Arvinder Singh Lovely reminded the Speaker of his duties: “The bill can be introduced only with the permission of the House.”
A message was sent to the AAP headquarters to summon volunteers for a meeting in the evening, which was later fixed for 8 pm. The house was allowed to function for a vote to take place. In all, 42 of 70 MLAs voted against the introduction of the bill. Kejriwal stood bewildered. “Bill giraa diyaa (the bill has been toppled),” he said.
Right away, both the BJP and Congress went back to their initial demand that Bharti resign rightaway. Lovely clarified that this shouldn’t be seen as withdrawal of support and added that the Congress would support the Jan Lokpal bill if it’s tabled in accordance with the rules.
Kejriwal told the House that he had no personal animosity for anyone. He retired to his chamber, shocked. He had a chat with other leaders and soon made up his mind: he would quit.
Sisodia was with him when he drove back to the secretariat to attend his last cabinet meeting. At 7.15 pm the meeting began. The party’s strategy was discussed, and a course of action in case AAP was askedto run a caretaker government. The last 15 minutes of the meeting were devoted to the drafting of Kejriwal’s resignation letter.
Around 8 pm, Kejriwal drove down to the party headquarters on Hanuman Road and announced his decision to quit. He declared that the next election was going to be between AAP and Ambani. “What BJP and Congress members did in the Assembly was a shame on democracy,” he said. Challenging the Congress- BJP stand that introducing the bill without the Centre’s approval was unconstitutional, Kejriwal said breaking mics was not constitutional either. “We are fighting for the nation, Constitution and people of [this] country. We will teach them a lesson. I am ready to sacrifice my life for the constitution,” he said.
Kejriwal then drove to Jung’s residence to hand in his resignation. Sisodia was with him; he told the media that Jung had asked Kejriwal to continue as Delhi’s caretaker Chief Minister. President’s Rule was imposed a day later.