On a cold January night four years ago, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his colleagues slept outside the Rail Bhawan, protesting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s shoddy treatment of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) dispensation. Specifically, the AAP was protesting the Central government’s refusal to act against the policemen who were unwilling to cooperate with then AAP law minister Somnath Bharti. The AAP accused the policemen of refusing to facilitate a raid Bharti was conducting on a suspected drug and prostitution racket in South Delhi.
Addressing reporters and party workers gathered outside Rail Bhawan, Kejriwal said, “It is important to understand why the chief minister of Delhi had to come down to protest. We are not doing it for our sake. In Delhi, police takes money from auto-wallahs. Today we are standing here for them. In Delhi, the police takes money from street vendors. Today we are standing here for them.”
Four years on, Kejriwal and his ministers have returned to what his detractors describe as “anarchic” forms of protest. In our contemporary political culture, when both the ruling party and opposition are comfortable sticking to familiar and dodgy competitive strategies, Kejriwal’s preference to take the battle to the streets, predictably enough, has led to the entire political class being on edge.
Confronted with repeated stonewalling by Delhi’s lieutenant governor in policymaking and implementation, Kejriwal has finally taken the fight to the very headquarters – the LG’s office itself. Some would say the activist-turned-chief minister has reverted to his roots.
In the last three days, the chief minister and his colleagues have been camping at LG Anil Baijal’s office. Two cabinet ministers – deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and health minister Satyendra Jain – have launched an indefinite hunger strike, while party workers are planning to take out rallies in the city, and even knock on the lofty doors of Rashtrapati Bhawan. In a video message from the LG’s office, Kejriwal said, “We are not sitting here for ourselves. We are sitting here for the people of Delhi, for schools, water, mohalla clinics, so that the people of Delhi get the facilities.”
As part of the ongoing tussle, the AAP chief minister has urged Delhi’s citizens to come out to the streets and stake their claim to governance. Is this an attempt on Kejriwal’s part to re-crystallise the 2011 moment, when the India Against Corruption (IAC) led by the Gandhian activist Anna Hazare launched a popular non-party movement demanding the enactment of the Jan Lokpal Bill – the very movement that catapulted Kejriwal into national prominence and paved the way for the birth of the AAP?
This may well turn out to be a significant moment for the AAP to ramp up the Centre-state battle, transforming it into a full-fledged political and constitutional confrontation. From the outset, the protracted Centre-state face-off (though Delhi can only qualify as a half state) has been tied to political vendetta. Ruling through Baijal, the Centre’s representative, the BJP has been determined to stymie AAP’s every productive governance policy.
If the AAP had hoped to expand its political footprint by building a model of governance that, with its emphasis on health and education, would stand apart from the BJP model, it is surely disappointed. The tenacity and meticulousness with which the BJP has thwarted the Delhi government’s functioning has made one thing clear. The era of wilful use of Article 356 and dismissal of politically adversarial state government may well be over; but the culture of political vendetta is in full bloom.
When Kejriwal decided to transform a people’s movement into an electoral party, he would surely have known the going was going be tough. Especially for a party that came to acquire the reputation of having anarchic overtones. Arguably though, what Kejriwal perhaps did not anticipate was the stubborn and audacious resistance he encountered from a government that once boasted about scripting a new chapter on federal relations, deepening the Centre’s engagement with state governments. Kejriwal may not have had anticipated the hurdles LGs – so far he has dealt with two – would mount to paralyse any kind of functioning of the Delhi government.
The AAP-BJP relations bring to mind the fraught relations between Bengal’s Left Front government and the Congress regime at the Centre in a different era. All through the late 1970s and 80s, the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) spearheaded a full-blooded campaign against the Centre, building up a repertoire of Centre’s discrimination against the state. True, unlike Bengal’s then chief minister Jyoti Basu, Kejriwal is hamstrung by a singular lack of the kind of autonomy chief ministers usually enjoy. Kejriwal, as things stand, presides over a half-state with an elected legislature stripped of powers to implement the laws and policies it enacts.
The Indira Gandhi government in that era tried to choke Bengal economically, refusing to sanction projects that would benefit the state. Four decades later, a similar situation has unfolded between two antagonistic parties, but in a different locations.The BJP is ready to aid and abet any lobby – the IAS or the law enforcing agencies for instance (consider the number of cases slapped on AAP legislators) – which have an axe to grind against the Delhi government.
A word has to be said about the Congress party as well. Paradoxically, despite leaning towards a broad united front against the BJP, the Congress continues to treat the AAP as a political pariah. Notwithstanding the AAP’s impressive credentials as an opposition party. Delhi’s former Congress chief minister Sheila Dikshit on Wednesday joined the BJP in lambasting Kejriwal for the sit-in protest at Raj Niwas, when the people of Delhi are facing water and electricity shortages. This, while BJP activists protested outside the chief minister’s office.
Regardless of the opinion one may have of AAP and its chief minister, the critical questions the party’s continued conflict with the Centre has thrown up are fundamental to the functioning of an electoral democracy. Does an elected government have the right to make policies and implement them? Do bureaucrats have the right to strike work just to embarrass a particular government? Most importantly, what good are elections when elected representatives are rendered powerless and held hostage by a non-elected government nominee?
The present times are awash with popular cynicism about elected representatives and even the system of electoral democracy itself. Kejriwal entered the system as an outsider – the status that enhanced his appeal among the disgruntled electorate. No doubt, he is now firmly entrenched in the very system that he once denounced. But his unconventional methods of protest for a ruling party and a chief minister, considered radical or anarchist by the elite and the well heeled, could earn him the favourable tag of an ‘outsider within’.
This article originally appeared in The Telegraph and has been republished here with permission. The article has been lightly edited to meet style guidelines.