Kejriwal may have lost some goodwill, but remains clear about AAP’s electoral strategy
Even the rain god Varuna seemed set against the latest protest mounted up by Delhi’s Chief Minister and self-declared ‘anarchist’ Arvind Kejriwal. It was an agitation that brought central parts of the capital to a grinding halt for two days. The CM’s demand was that control of the Delhi Police—under the Union Home Ministry—be turned over to his government. According to the AAP leader, this is the only way to ensure its accountability to the electorate of Delhi.
Anger against the police in Delhi has been mounting for years, not just for its corruption at various levels, but also for the force’s dismal track record at ensuring women’s safety. The recent gangrape of a Danish citizen near New Delhi Railway Station in the fading light of a cold evening has served as a reminder of how bad things have become. And of Delhi’s former CM Sheila Dikshit’s comment that “it’s unfair to dub the city the rape capital [of India]” a month before she lost her job to Kejriwal.
Yet, few had expected a Chief Minister to lead a street protest against his own state’s police force. What set the stage for a standoff between the police and the AAP was Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti’s run-in with them over a raid the minister demanded for an alleged ‘sex and drugs racket’ being run by a group of Africans in a South Delhi locality. With the police refusing to budge without proper authorisation, Bharti led a crowd of vigilantes to conduct this late-night raid, and it was in defence of this action that AAP asked the Centre to suspend the officers who dared stonewall the minister.
The boorish—even racist—behaviour of the vigilantes has been condemned by observers, as also Bharti’s outsized ego in trying to push police officers to abandon the rulebook, and appropriately so. The Rule of Law cannot be given the go by, least of all on the orders of a law minister. If he now has the image of a petty street prowler on the lookout for criminals as he sees them, he only has himself to blame.
“Bharti and also Kejriwal have to understand one thing,” says a 27-year-old African woman who studies at JNU and lives in Munirka, “the law applies equally to the law minister. His rights and privileges as a minister don’t give him the liberty to trample on other people’s right to live with dignity and freedom. This was not expected of AAP.” Others are also vocal about their disappointment. “I like Kejriwal. He has set high moral standards in politics. But now I am disillusioned,” says Amar Gaur, a student from Patna who has joined AAP, “I cannot defend this action of Kejriwal and Bharti.”
The last time Bharti earned such criticism was when he publicly cited the name of a rape victim, something he as a lawyer by training ought to have known is against the rules. That he got away by calling it a slip-of-the-tongue left many of his own party members suspicious of his earnestness. By backing his law minister, Kejriwal has risked losing much of the goodwill the party has garnered in such a short span of time.
Kejriwal finally called off his agitation on an assurance by Delhi’s Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung—appointed by the Centre—that two of the five police officers in AAP’s line of fire would be packed off on fully-paid leave until an enquiry report on the incident is filed. This is just a face-saver for AAP, but the CM has portrayed it as a victory for the people of Delhi. “This should be seen as the first step towards seeking control of the Delhi Police and making the capital a safe place for women,” he said, calling off his protest.
However, While AAP’S mode of functioning has raised eyebrows, it is also true that vast numbers of people have rallied to the party’s side against a police force of corrupt bullies, as they see it. And by making such a show of himself, Kejriwal did manage to signal a strong intention to gain full statehood—and thus command over the cops—for Delhi. This is a major issue, and his cabinet colleagues complain of a bureaucracy that is reluctant to take orders from the state government. Officials take days before they provide the files needed to initiate action on the promises the party made in its electoral campaign. Critical files related to the Delhi Jal Board and Commonweath Games, for example, took weeks to reach the concerned ministers. All sorts of pretexts are being offered, say cabinet members, to delay sending the relevant files. Some of these have even gone missing, possibly because they contain information that could land powerful people in trouble.
The Kejriwal government is faced with a multiplicity of uncooperative agencies that run Delhi’s other public systems. It does not help that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) is under the BJP’s control. Or, that the Delhi Development Authority reports to the Union Ministry of Urban Development. As Delhi’s transport minister has found, his office has no say in the running of the Delhi Metro, though the Delhi government shared half the project’s cost.
There have been other frustrations as well. The Kejriwal government wants to empower Delhi’s defunct Anti-Corruption Bureau by appointing five police officers to it. Some of these officers, recommended by the CM, have met Lieutenant-Governor Jung but they declined the offer; according to a source, they didn’t want the thankless task of policing other police officers (and the bureaucracy).
One way out for Kejriwal would be to heed his predecessor’s advice. “I run Delhi on goodwill,” she once told Open. She used her political stature to get things done—she sought the help of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar in trying to keep onion prices down in Delhi last year. She also maintained a good rapport with the Union Home Ministry, Cabinet Secretariat and Prime Minister’s Office during her tenure. But then, she’s a Congress leader. Kejriwal is a Congress basher and cannot count on that party’s help.
AAP insiders are certain that India’s ruling party is waiting to watch the CM tie himself up in knots. They are convinced that the Congress cajoled Kejriwal to form a government only to help him make a spectacle of his own failure. This, they say, is clear now that Congress support has not translated into co-operation. In fact, they add, if it were not for Lieutenant-Governor Jung, Kejriwal would be entirely isolated in his efforts to run Delhi the way his party wants.
Moreover, Kejriwal does not want to plead helplessness. He wants to see things done. Notably, the Kejriwal government has been quick to take substantive steps in areas where he exercises executive control. Water supply, for example. The AAP decision to supply water free up to a limit—based on a model of cross subsidisation—has been welcomed by households across the city. AAP’s reduction of power tariffs by half has also been hailed as a success. So, too, is its order of an audit by CAG of the books of private power distributors—Delhi’s so-called discoms—that Kejriwal has accused of financial misdeeds. Last but not least, the new government has committed resources to state-run schools and primary health centres that suffered decades of neglect.
To get his way in other areas, the CM may have to adopt innovative methods. Taking the moral high ground has been his trademark so far, and it may yet be possible for him to convert his government’s weakness into a strength simply by highlighting how his popular moves are being thwarted by an establishment resistant to the changes that people at large are keen on. Even a CM, he has made clear, can play the revolutionary. His ‘anarchist’ self-claim was perhaps aimed at reinforcing this stance.
The Centre, he has said, should not try to play puppeteer with Delhi’s governance. This statement by Kejriwal is significant. He said in Hindi: “If the Delhi Police Commissioner is to determine what is good for the city, then why have a chief minister? Why hold Assembly polls? Have the people of Delhi given [Union Home Minister Sushilkumar] Shinde the right to make decisions for them? I am the elected Chief Minister of Delhi. How can Shinde ask me where to sit in protest in Delhi? I will tell him where to sit.”
On Sunday morning, as he began his sit-in, the CM tweeted: ‘I alongwid all ministers and MLAs, will sit on dharna outside home min office for the sake of women security.’ He summoned his party workers and people at large only after he was stopped near Rail Bhavan.
If the Congress had any illusion that Kejriwal would be a pushover once he discovers who really controls the city’s strings of power, the CM has taken it apart. He has made it clear that he did not seek the ruling party’s support, and was intent on doing only what his party had assured its supporters.
With that in mind, Kejriwal is now preparing for another confrontation with the Centre: this time, over the Jan Lokpal bill in the first week of February. He cannot be sure of Congress support. But, while he may have alienated some people by backing an impetuous law minister, he senses that winnable numbers are still ready to support a movement and party that seeks to overthrow politics-as-usual. With a general election on its way, it’s a momentum he will not want to lose.