The Inconvenient Chief Minister

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Both the BJP and Congress want to see Kejriwal fail, but he has a trump card they dare not ignore
Arvind Kejriwal’s is an inconvenient presence in Indian politics. A corporate leader calls him ‘the ghost of Che Guevara’. Some call his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) a ‘giant killer’. To the man himself, there is no contradiction between running a government and being a revolutionary.

Kejriwal’s electoral debut is the stuff of political legend. He demolished the incumbent Congress in Delhi, blocked a resurgent BJP, and gave both parties a severe case of jitters. But he is not a happy man. His party needed a majority in the Delhi Assembly to implement its 50-page manifesto. This is because the AAP insists on change, on an overhaul of a system that ‘both the Congress and BJP have been beneficiaries of’.

It was the Congress that enticed a reluctant AAP to form Delhi’s government, after the BJP—with the largest number of MLAs but still short of the half-way mark—turned down the chance. The grand old party promised its legislators’ unconditional support, but Kejriwal insisted on conditional support: he dispatched an open letter to Sonia Gandhi and Rajnath Singh, presidents of the Congress and BJP, respectively, listing 18 points on which the AAP wanted support, including a Jan Lokpal for Delhi. In this way, Kejriwal made his party’s agenda loud and clear. Next, he threw the question open to his party’s supporters whether it ought to form a minority government. The answer was a go-ahead, and so he must now run Delhi’s government as the state’s first non-BJP/Congress Chief Minister.

His predecessor, Sheila Dikshit of the Congress, is a worried woman. In her first public appearance after she conceded defeat, she qualified her party’s external support for the AAP as “not unconditional”. The Congress would support it, she said, “as long as they perform”. In other words, she wants to keep her options open. However, after her electoral debacle, does she wield enough influence to make that call? Party Vice-president Rahul Gandhi, after all, is the AAP’s latest admirer.

All the buzz now is what the AAP may achieve at an all-India level. Both the BJP and Congress fear it could play spoilsport in the 2014 General Election. And both parties want to give Kejriwal an opportunity to fail. They seem to think that letting the AAP take power and stumble in Delhi is perhaps the only way to contain its seemingly irresistible rise. The presumption here is that running a government is far more difficult than winning an election. It is a calculated risk the two parties are taking.

No matter what Anna Hazare may say, Kejriwal was the brain behind his India Against Corruption (IAC) movement that generated huge public support. The UPA Government at the Centre failed to enact its Lokpal promise despite a unanimous resolution in Parliament okaying, in principle, the idea of a Jan Lokpal (even if this was intended to persuade Hazare to break his fast in August 2011).

Since then, Hazare and Kejriwal have parted ways. While the former saw merit in Modi’s Gujarat, the latter focused on cleaning up the system. With corruption as his focus, Kejriwal decided to take the plunge into electoral politics.

Hazare was opposed to this, and many thought it would be the end of Kejriwal. However, at the end of it, the AAP has inherited the mantle of that movement. The party’s success surprised Hazare too.

Hazare’s twists and turns over the Lokpal issue have not gone unnoticed. He had famously rejected the Government’s version of the Lokpal Bill in 2011 as a member of the joint drafting committee along with Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan; the UPA was represented by five Cabinet ministers led by Pranab Mukherjee (now President). Now, however, Hazare has declared himself pleased with the Government’s latest version, which is not very different from the draft rejected by him earlier.

That was the version of the Lokpal Bill—an idea pending for 45 years—which was passed by the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha in two consecutive days of the winter session of Parliament. Hazare called off his fast in celebration. It also saw archrivals BJP and Congress join hands in a rare show of unity.

Kejriwal supporters, however, have a question of Hazare: why did he doggedly oppose that draft for so long? Some allege that this was a drama staged to rob the AAP of a potent election issue. Pronouncements by Kiran Bedi, the celebrity cop of yesteryear and now a key aide of Hazare, have hinted as much: she said that the ‘Lokpal’ was no ‘Jokepal’—Kejriwal’s description of the Bill that was hurriedly passed. ‘Those who term it this way perhaps want to keep the issue alive and not want [to] get started against corruption,’ Bedi tweeted.

Today, Kejriwal shakes his head at what he sees as Hazare’s co-option by the system; Hazare, he says, is blatantly being misguided by people around him.

After the poll results, Rahul Gandhi had praised Kejriwal’s model of politics. It was an expression of his threat perception, the clear and present threat that the AAP poses the Congress. The AAP leader returned Rahul Gandhi’s compliment saying that he does not need a certificate from him.

The BJP has been on the offensive against the AAP. Kejriwal, says the BJP, is not an aam aadmi, since he has taken support of the country’s most corrupt party for a so-called clean government in Delhi. But then, the BJP’s idea of an aam aadmi is perhaps Narendra Modi, who began his career as a tea-stall vendor.

That the two main parties do not wish the AAP well is clear. If Kejriwal’s record of the past ten years of public life is of any indication, then another thing should be clear: he seems to mean what he says. This means that he will enact the Jan Lokpal bill, the IAC movement’s draft, not what the Centre has tried to impose. This could result in corruption cases being probed in depth, including all the bungles over the Commonwealth Games.

The mechanics of how Delhi’s electricity bills will be slashed by half are not yet clear, but Reliance and Tata Power are unlikely to be pleased by the AAP’s moves. Note that the AAP, powered by mass contributions, has not had funding from such corporations. Kejriwal is an IIT-trained engineer, as Delhi’s private power distribution companies are aware, and has a technical grasp of the sector. He is also a former bureaucrat who knows how government processes work (and why they do not). He proposes an audit of power distributors in Delhi.

By all reckoning, Kejriwal is a sharp political thinker, too. His idea of Swaraj stems from working with the poorest of the poor over the past ten years. He is against Delhi’s exclusionist VIP culture of red beacon lights. And he is in no mood to compromise any of these ideals for power. He will have to watch out, though, for dissent within his own ranks.

Once the Jan Lokpal bill is passed, an investigation of charges of corruption in various CWG projects will be on top of the AAP agenda. This spells trouble for Dikshit, if one goes by reports filed by the CAG and then a High-Level Committee (HLC) under former Comptroller and Auditor General VK Shunglu—constituted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the promise of ‘zero tolerance’ against corruption and that ‘no one will be spared’. In its city infrastructure report, the HLC, among other things, held Dikshit responsible for decisions related to projects aimed at enhancing Delhi’s ‘city image’ that had huge cost implications. Dikshit’s government attacked the report as ‘shocking’ ‘blatant’ and a ‘product of paranoia’; it even objected to its ‘slanderous’ choice of phrases, such as ‘the stage was set for a restricted tender’, ‘subterfuge to share the spoils’ and ‘unusual interest’ with direct reference to Dikshit’s role. Delhi’s former Chief Minister even had an hour-long private meeting with the Prime Minister on 28 March 2011.

The HLC report was conveniently dumped. But with Kejriwal in power, it could yet return to haunt the Congress just before the General Election. This is all the more so because the Centre appears keen to streamline clearances for industrial projects, as seen in the exit of Union Environment and Forests Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, who The Economic Times reported was ‘sitting on’ projects worth Rs 1 lakh crore. As Rahul Gandhi said soon after: “This is what we face... in India. There are a lot of arbitrary powers. The environment minister or chief minister can take any decision he or she wants.”

Given such ground realities, will the Congress really risk letting the AAP wield power in Delhi for long?

All said, this is a win-win scenario for Kejriwal. The AAP will push for clean governance, its agenda of empowering people, and will book the corrupt. If the Congress pulls the rug from under its government, the party’s political martyrdom could give it a heroic halo. The Congress stance on AAP—drink till you can no more, then vomit till you’re empty—might be bad for the grand old party’s health.