When Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned from a tour of China, Mongolia and South Korea on 19 May, he wanted to chinwag with his senior ministerial colleagues about the unlikely welcome he got in Shanghai, where thousands had gathered to listen to him speak. It was a record of sorts, of course, especially in a country that is deeply suspicious of people assembling in public places. The last time they did so was in the spring of 1989 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and the Communist Party of China had ordered a crackdown.
A sudden onrush of reality at home swept aside the soothing Chinese memories. A storm was gathering in Delhi, and so when the Prime Minister met a few of his senior Cabinet colleagues, he had no time for a friendly chat. Writ large on the faces of the ministers present, among them Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, was a sense of urgency. Even though Modi tried to look composed, a mild air of unease had filled the room. One thing was clear: the Centre could not procrastinate any further on dealing with the tussle between Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung that began on 15 May when Jung named Shakuntala Gamlin as the acting chief secretary of Delhi when Chief Secretary KK Sharma went on a 10-day leave. The decision that emerged from their deliberations was that the Union Government will throw its weight behind Jung, whom, they were convinced, was the competent constitutional authority on all matters related to public order, law-and-order and land in Delhi—and that included the authority to recruit and promote bureaucrats in the National Capital Territory, which, despite Delhi’s elected government in power, is not even a “half state or a quasi state, but a centrally administered territory”, according to Subhash Kashyap, an expert on the Indian Constitution and a former secretary general of the Lok Sabha and its secretariat.
By then, Kejriwal had scored his initial brownie points. Thanks to his aggressive posturing over the appointment of Gamlin—who defied the Chief Minister’s Office and attended office before Kejriwal finally yielded by issuing an appointment letter to her under Jung’s instructions— he had earned sympathy from those who argued that the Lieutenant Governor should respect the mandate of the people who voted the Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to power with a stunning majority—AAP won 67 of the state assembly’s 70 seats. Renowned lawyer Rajeev Dhavan, who was consulted on the issue of whether the Lieutenant Governor can appoint a chief secretary if the Chief Minister does not do so within 40 hours, notes that it was “abundantly clear that the L-G has exceeded his authority and has turned the entire relationship between himself and the Council of Ministers on its head to jeopardise democracy and the Constitution.” Quoting legal and Constitutional provisions, the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991, Rules of Business framed by the Central Government under section 44, he tells Open that the CM has the right to have a chief secretary of his choice. He, however, does not delve into whether he has the right to name one.
The Chief Minister doesn’t. And Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor was attending to what was his business. It was made amply clear by the Centre in a notification issued on 21 May, barely two days after Modi went into a huddle with senior leaders on his return from a three-nation tour. The Lieutenant Governor enjoys powers as an intermediary of the President of India in all matters concerning Delhi. Shakti Sinha, former principal secretary of the Delhi government, doesn’t wish to dwell upon the absolute merits of electoral democracy, but he notes that the Lieutenant Governor has greater powers than do governors of full-fledged states. The point to note, Sinha says, is that the Central Government enjoys overriding powers when it comes to all matters concerning Delhi, which is still a Union Territory though it has its own legislative assembly. The Delhi Assembly has the power to make laws on all but three items on the state list of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution: public order, police and land. However, the Delhi government cannot go against any law passed by Parliament on the state list. Even if the Delhi Assembly passes a law, it can be nullified by Parliamentary legislation.
“In the case of services, the L-G alone has the powers. The Chief Minister and council of ministers have to aid the L-G, not the other way round, according to provisions of the Constitution,” points out Kashyap, “Otherwise you have to get them amended. As of now, the Central Government has overarching powers over the administration of Delhi.” He argues that while the Lieutenant Governor is required to keep the Chief Minister and council of ministers informed on the naming of bureaucrats, asking bureaucrats to submit the Lieutenant Governor’s orders to the council of ministers—as Kejriwal had demanded—is illegal.
Delhi government officials, some of them honest to boot, are a worried lot, giving enough indications that the administration has been badly hurt by the showdown. “No one knows what this man (Kejriwal) has in his mind. He is the most irrational leader I have seen in my entire career. How can someone expect a chief minister directing that the room of a principal secretary be locked up?” asks a senior official, referring to the case of Principal Secretary Anindo Majumdar. This bureaucrat was stripped of his position by Kejriwal but reinstated later by Jung. When he turned up for work at the secretariat, he found his room locked. The AAP government had given his responsibilities to another officer, Rajendra Kumar. A 1989 batch IAS officer, Kumar was secretary to Kejriwal during his previous 49-day stint as Chief Minister and is an IIT-Delhi alumnus. Even some AAP insiders agree that Kejriwal should get more bureaucrats ‘on his side instead of alienating them’.
“The atmosphere is highly demoralising. The Chief Minister had even used intemperate language with some very senior officials,” claims another Delhi official who adds that the tug-of-war between Delhi’s Chief Minister and its Lieutenant Governor has hampered day-to-day administration in the national capital, contrary to claims by the state government. According to him, dozens of senior officials have applied for leave. As of 20 May, by some estimates, at least 45 officers, including IAS and DANICS (Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Civil Services), have submitted leave applications. Of these, six officers had already proceeded on leave while the rest of the applications are pending, reports say. During the same period last year, less than 30 officers of the 460 IAS and DANICS officers posted in Delhi went on leave.
Kejriwal’s knee-jerk responses and combative attitude towards Jung and bureaucrats have not helped one bit in positioning him as an administrator, says another senior Delhi government official. “There is fear all around, even among honest officials. Kejriwal, who had expelled sensible leaders like Prashant Bhushan and others from his party, is now surrounded by a cabal that includes a few officers and politicians like Ashish Khetan, Manish Sisodia and Ashutosh,” he claims. He is not worried as much about the political games that these people play as he is about the full-blown war between the government and the Lieutenant Governor which has had a negative effect on the Delhi government’s bureaucracy. “The Chief Minister can get very intolerant and erratic. That was fine when he was a campaigner, not when he is a chief minister. You gain a lot through cooperation with the Centre than through confrontation,” he adds. The officers close to Kejriwal are only a handful, he says. “They are Rajendra Kumar, Sanjeev N Sahai and Sajjan Singh Yadav (currently chief of the Anti Corruption Branch). They are a team and they target other officials,” he alleges. AAP officials deny this.
According to Ashutosh of AAP, the Centre is trying to poke its nose into the affairs of the Delhi government through the Lieutenant Governor. “Delhi has some of the most corrupt officials in the world. Only such people are against us. The others are with us,” says Ashutosh. “We are doing very well as a government in fixing water problems, power woes, corruption and so on. Only those who visit places where the poor live, like Sangam Vihar, will see the real change. The water mafia is disappearing. The poor are able to live better. Of course, much more needs to be done and we will do it.” He emphasises that AAP legislators are themselves supervising construction of new roads, much to the anguish of the contractor lobby that had enjoyed political patronage for decades.
Whatever his claims are, the likes of Kashyap and many Delhi government officials argue that Kejriwal knows only too well that he is no good as an administrator and is therefore trying to pin the blame on the Centre for his lack of administrative skills. He says he is crestfallen that the new Chief Minister has turned Delhi’s administration largely dysfunctional, especially with his tantrums and anarchistic traits. “His demeanour as CM is irresponsible, undemocratic, unacceptable and anti-people,” Kashyap says, referring to the Chief Minister’s wont to pick fights with bureaucrats and the Centre rather than resolving people’s problems. “He is interested in escalating issues, not solving them,” he declares. “He drives a wedge between officers and vitiates the atmosphere at the state secretariat,” alleges a Delhi government official. Kejriwal, for his part, had claimed that corruption levels in Delhi have fallen by 70-80 per cent from what they used to be under Congress rule because, he claims, officers are now wary of accepting bribes.
“Even if one is to take the versions of government officials with a pinch of salt, no one doubts for a second that Kejriwal is highly dictatorial and thrives by creating factions,” says a senior Home Ministry official. “He worked closely with Aruna Roy and then snapped ties with her. His association with Anna Hazare brought him much more gains. And getting rid of rivals (like Bhushan and Yadav) within means that he is a dictator in his party and he revels in this culture of intrigue, deception and deceit,” says a former AAP leader.
Yogendra Yadav, who had favoured the full-statehood demand for Delhi and continues to back Kejriwal on this, feels that the current government lacks the political maturity needed to achieve its goals. “To get full statehood and resolve the current political crisis, the AAP government must handle the situation carefully. They need to understand the situation with patience,” says Yadav. “Instead of political wisdom, legal preparedness and patience,” he says in an interview, “what we see is tussle and confrontation with the Centre, mud-sledging and lock-downs of offices.”
Following the controversial AAP national council meet held in Delhi in March, Yadav and Bhushan were expelled for alleged anti-party activities. Yadav and Bhushan later announced the formation of Swaraj Abhiyan, a group comprising mostly former AAP functionaries who have criticised the Arvind Kejriwal government’s militant posturing in the ongoing row, calling it ‘immature’ and ‘counterproductive’.
Adding fuel to the fire, Delhi’s AAP government has decided to induct five police officers from Bihar into the Anti Corruption Branch, which has kicked off a fresh row with the Lieutenant Governor, who has stated that the government can’t do it without his nod. “He is the authority and the Delhi government is just resorting to provocative steps to play dirty politics,” Kashyap says. The AAP government intends to use the ACB to snoop around and gather information on corrupt elements. The Centre sees the demand by the Delhi government to acquire snooping devices as a bid to engage in ‘blackmail politics’.
Meanwhile, the Centre has also taken potshots at the Bihar government over its sending of personnel on deputation to the ACB in Delhi from the eastern state where Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has forged an electoral tie-up with leaders such as Lalu Prasad, who faces numerous corruption charges. Jung has clearly stated that the city’s ACB functions under his authority, control and supervision. ‘This refers to a news item published in a couple of dailies about reported posting of police officials from Bihar in Delhi’s ACB. The ACB, being a police station, functions under the authority, control and supervision of the Lt. Governor, a position that has also been clarified by the Ministry of Home Affairs, vide notification number 1368 (E), on May 21,’ said a statement issued by his office.
Says a senior Delhi government official: “Instead of trying to mend fences, the CM is trying to convert a small administrative matter into a huge issue. This is going to make the Government at the Centre hugely suspicious of his intentions, especially because he requested officers from Bihar which has a chief minister who has had a 17-year alliance with the BJP but is now an enemy of the Centre. While there are enough indications that the Centre is ready to accommodate some views of the Delhi CM, the Kejriwal government isn’t ready for anything. In fact, he is using the L-G to spite the Centre. What else can explain this trigger-happy behaviour?”
Kejriwal, who has transformed himself from an RTI activist to a die-hard anti-corruption politician, had boasted several times during last year’s General Election that he would beat Modi in Varanasi. After the AAP chief’s resounding defeat, he was deeply depressed and had sought to blame his loss on the likes of Yadav. He has recovered from the shock, though, thanks to AAP’s grand victory in the Delhi Assembly polls. Two months ago, he reportedly told a senior official that he would be Prime Minister by 2024. “He is cunning, clever and ruthlessly ambitious. Even Anna has said that. He used to wear proper clothes and floaters when he was an RTI activist. Later, he started wearing torn and oversized clothes and old chappals as part of a makeover. I have not seen someone as image-conscious as he is. This explains why he switched from English to speaking exclusively in Hindi,” says this official who has known Kejriwal for long. He adds that he is no great admirer of Jung either, who he says was a pro-Congress bureaucrat until recently. “But my sympathies are with him in this case because he is constitutionally right in his actions. When Delhi gets full statehood and an IAS cadre, a chief minister can do what he likes with his bureaucrats, but not now. It is illegal,” he says.
The severest indictment comes from Kashyap as a constitutional expert, who says that Kejriwal has single- handedly damaged the case for Delhi’s full statehood with his “immature” actions and “loud assertions” like no one else has done. “He has contributed against any such dream coming true in the near future,” he adds.
In retrospect, winning Delhi was easier for Kejriwal than managing Delhi. He triumphed in his struggle against power. He is failing miserably in wielding it. He is using all the power at his command to kill the case for the state of Delhi—and the prospect of a chief minister who is not shackled by the Constitution. Maybe the man who nurses prime ministerial ambitions has yet another reason to fight for his dream—or fantasy.