Arvind Kejriwal’s resume could be kept concise and hilarious: Underdog Extraordinaire. Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, is a politician with an obvious appetite for theatrics, and he deserves admiration for his knack for blurring the line between the reality of his problems with the Narendra Modi Government at the Centre and the tricks of his own house of mirrors in the capital that cast him as a superhero who champions the rights of the common man. What has helped so far, in no small measure, is his projection of himself as the ultimate victim-hero.
Undeniably, his political ascent has been stunning, especially for a new entrant to the cut-throat world of Indian politics. In mid- 2014, he gave Delhi voters their ‘kumbaya’ moment, an illusion of empowerment based on his Aam Aadmi Party’s electoral sweep that resulted in a tally of 67 of the Union Territory’s 70 Assembly seats. Kejriwal strode the hustings like a Collosus, capturing the electorate’s imagination as an irrepressible David to BJP’s Goliath. He came to symbolise the unconventional and highlight the participatory dynamism of elections and governance in a city grown cynical and weary of politics as usual.
Two years on, it is becoming apparent that he is no breakaway from the typical mould of the politician as a deception artist. Like others of his ilk, he is prone to the political uses of trickery, and as his affected humility shows signs of coming apart, the Kejriwal myth seems ready to unravel.
Two scams worth hundreds of crores, both involving rather aam issues such as bus services and water tankers, could take the AAP chief down. For months, he managed his public image using what appeared to be a winning tactic: court one controversy after another by taking on the Centre over the extent of his power and the boundaries of his citadel, and protest tirelessly about being victimised and thwarted by Narendra Modi and Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, who the Chief Minister perceives as Modi’s puppet. Jung, in all his civility, has refused to rebut these oft-repeated charges publicly.
It was little surprise that on 21 June, soon after news broke that the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) had filed FIRs against Kejriwal’s government and that of his predecessor, Sheila Dikshit, for corruption involving water tankers, Kejriwal reacted on Twitter with characteristic pomposity: ‘Thanks, Narendra Modi, you have proved that your fight is directly with me.’
The ACB had acted soon after Jung gave his nod for the formal initiation of graft charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act based on a complaint drawn from a report prepared by AAP MLA Kapil Mishra. Last June, the Delhi government had constituted a five-member fact-finding panel to probe these allegations. Its report, submitted to the Chief Minister in two months, flagged alleged corruption worth Rs 400 crore in the process of awarding tenders for over 300 water tankers. AAP accused the Dikshit government of pelf, but the BJP trained its guns on AAP and charged the Kejriwal regime with keeping the case under wraps.
Neither the former nor current Chief Minister is named in the scam, although the governments headed by them are, leaving that much more leeway to Kejriwal for his ‘nautanki’, as opposition leaders describe his shenanigans. The AAP chief, true to type, went all out to reinforce the impression of his being a lone ranger fighting for the rights of the aam aadmi, wronged and ignore. “[Modi] wants to frighten me, threaten me, break me, bend me, make me bow. Let him do his best. I won’t oblige,” he proclaimed grandiosely.
The victimhood ploy adopted by Kejriwal, however, has been greeted with tired there-we-go-again expressions by his critics both within the party and without. “Whenever he is asked a pointed question on any irregularity, he promptly hums and haws, ducks and dives, quotes shaiyari, demurs, digresses, levels counter-charges and does anything but give a pointed reply,” maintains BJP leader and MLA Vijender Gupta, who had to resort to the unusual move of standing up on his seat in the Assembly to draw attention to how the ostensibly incorruptible Kejriwal was sitting on the scam report since last August. It was a scandal for which catching the culprits was one of AAP’s poll promises. Yet, nothing moved on it for nearly nine months. It was the pressure mounted on Kejriwal by Gupta that finally led the Chief Minister to commit that the report would be forwarded to Jung.
An FIR is also set to be registered by the ACB later this month on the alleged app-based luxury bus scam. The scheme was born of a one-page note sent to the transport department by the Delhi Dialogue Commission, headed by Ashish Khetan, asking for such a service in the national capital. The department studied the proposal for five months and concluded that it was incompatible with the Motor Vehicles Act. The Commission had not bothered to consult either the finance or the law departments, despite the plan’s implications to DTC, which runs Delhi’s local bus service, let alone the Lieutenant Governor. Yet, the Kejriwal government issued a notification maintaining that Jung had approved the service.
According to BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi, the Delhi government was in a hurry to lend a Gurgaon-based bus aggregator an advantage. It is curious how the AAP government’s proposal on the service came neither from its transport minister Gopal Rai or the department officials, but replicated the note drafted by the Khetan-headed Commission. The fallout was dramatic. Rai quit his ministry citing ill health after he was called in for questioning. AAP’s Alka Lamba, who had let slip that his quitting had to do with irregularities in his ministry and not any health issue, was sacked as a party spokesperson. Government sources say that the bus proposal was intended to favour Shuttl, a company that has raised several crores and has a website that boasts of plans for an app-based luxury bus service in Delhi. According to a report in Business Standard, Shuttl competes with Ola Shuttle in meeting local luxury transport needs; it is financially backed by Sequoia Capital and is claimed to be India’s largest bus ride aggregator, with 20,000 rides booked every day, mostly in Gurgaon.
MANY DISILLUSIONED members of AAP who feel saddled by the ‘Kejriwal cult’ contend that the leader’s noises of martyrdom are just a convenient cover to circumvent rules with impunity and whitewash his government’s actions. His rivals allege that he actually thrives on the ‘high of controversy’. Much of it, they add, is generated purely for publicity—as a smoke screen to distract people from matters inconvenient to him.
His strategy of attacking the Centre and Lieutenant Governor, however, may not last long, now that the Judiciary is set to come out with definitive rulings on administrative issues that have been in bitter contention. Each time a controversial order of his was challenged by Jung, the Chief Minister had rushed to court with much fanfare. In six of these cases, the arguments of both sides have been heard and judicial pronouncements are expected next month. If Kejriwal loses the cases, it would be worse than embarrassing for him. Reduced to the status of a glorified panchayat, his government would be left shorn of its delusions of grandeur.
Two scams worth hundreds of crores, both involving rather aam issues such as bus services and water tankers, could take the AAP chief down
For Kejriwal, Jung was a soft target in most of his well orchestrated confrontations with the Union Government. And these have been central to the maintenance of his public image as a martyr to the cause of empowering the people of Delhi, which explains the persistence of his political appeal after more than two years in office. Victimhood politics has allowed him to pin the blame for his government’s failure to meet poll promises on the Centre and thus eschew accountability for the grand commitments that AAP made.
Just weeks after Kejriwal assumed office, altercations with the Centre grew into full-blown battles. Right at the onset, he passed an order against the removal of illegal encroachments in Delhi. Jung let him know that the Chief Minister had no power to issue such an order since most violations were of land in Delhi under the charge of Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and local municipalities. In response, the AAP chief accused the Lieutenant Governor of being Modi’s man.
Last September, there was another run-in with Jung over the issue of encroachments in Mehrauli, this time with Kejriwal writing to the LG, who heads DDA, that its actions were ‘illegal, unwarranted and unconstitutional’. He alleged that the DDA was planning more such evictions and demolitions of illegal structures without first ensuring that the evicted settlers had been rehabilitated elsewhere. He then urged the homeless to occupy reserve forest areas with their hutments, thus earning the opprobrium of environmentalists.
The showdown with Jung was compounded when the Chief Minister sought a consultation with him over the transfer of police officials. Here too, he was checkmated on the contention that the police in the Union Territory were under the Union Home Ministry’s command and not the state government’s. In early May last year, Kejriwal shot off a note to the Lieutenant Governor protesting against the way police officers were being transferred without consulting the Delhi government. ‘The chief secretary and the principal secretary (home) should explain within 48 hours why the CM was not consulted,’ it said. Also, it demanded that the chief secretary not repeat this alleged mistake.
Once again, Kejriwal needed to be reminded that the matter did not fall within the Chief Minister’s purview. Chief Secretary KK Sharma, however, wrote him an apology anyway. This was in reply to a bizarrely worded letter to Sharma from Kejriwal that said, ‘You have sent the file to the LG in a secret, clandestine and surreptitious manner.’
Months into his second tenure as Chief Minister, Kejriwal ordered a magisterial probe of a law-and-order issue that had cropped up despite the advice that this could be done—by precedent— by the Chief Minister only if it was a case of adequate gravity. Jung converted it into an investigation to be done by a retired IAS official. There is no news so far on what its outcome was.
In May 2015, Kejriwal’s government moved a resolution in the Delhi Assembly directed against a notification of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs that gave express power to the Lieutenant Governor on a number of key areas of administration. Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia dubbed it “a big encroachment upon the powers of the Delhi Assembly” and something “the AAP government would oppose tooth and nail”.
Sobriety, perhaps, was never the middle name of the man who once openly described himself as an anarchist and took his chief ministerial oath under the open sky in the sweltering summer of Delhi. It was in the heat of last year’s summer that Kejriwal’s stand- off with the Centre reached another flashpoint. This was over the appointment of Principal Secretary (power) Shakuntala Gamlin as a stand-in for Chief Secretary KK Sharma who went on leave for 10 days. Tempers flared after it became public that Gamlin had complained to the Lieutenant Governor about being pressured by the Chief Minister’s office to decline the posting. Jung named her acting Chief Secretary till 24 May anyway, and the Kejriwal regime issued a public statement tearing into him for taking a ‘unilateral and unconstitutional’ decision without consulting the Chief Minister. It was another matter that Gamlin had figured on top of a list prepared by the Delhi government of five officials who could hold the post. The government’s press release maintained: ‘The LG, in an extraordinary manner, issued instructions directly to the secretary (services) to give the additional charge of chief secretary of Delhi to Shakuntala Gamlin… He bypassed the elected government, the chief minister and deputy chief minister.’ The state government argued that the Lieutenant Governor did not have extraordinary power under the Constitution to bypass an elected government and issue instructions directly to civil service officers, whatever the provocation. ‘It is further stated that the LG has acted against the Constitution, GNCT of Delhi Act and the Transaction of Business Rules,’ said the statement. Jung retorted promptly, asserting that Gamlin’s appointment was lawful and went by the rules since she was the seniormost on the list of candidates. He also took the government to task for the public reprimand of the senior IAS officer, a lady from the Northeast.
THE SINGLE MOST defining mark of governance in Delhi over the last two years—and also of AAP—has been Kejriwal’s stridency and self-obsession. One indication of how successful his victimhood-stroke-controversy tactics were proving came early, when, soon after his election to the top job, his long time comrades-in-arms of the India Against Corruption movement, social scientist Yogendra Yadav and advocate Prashant Bhushan, were forced out of AAP for questioning the leader. Instead of responding to the issues they raised, Kejriwal offered to step aside as the party’s top leader, suggesting thereby that he was to be held above suspicion.
Kejriwal perceives Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung as Modi’s puppet. Jung, in all his civility, has refused to rebut these oft-repeated charges publicly
Kejriwal’s dramatic move cleverly served to reinforce his clout in AAP’s scheme of things and also project him as a man of humility. But for the dissenting duo, the writing on the wall was clear. They left the party to form one of their own and have since struggled to gain popular appeal. Other politicians such as Shazia Ilmi, once a popular face of the party but with the BJP for a while now, allege that Kejriwal’s personality verges on the megalomaniacal.
An illustration of this, say critics, came when Kejriwal’s law minister Jitendra Tomar’s educational qualifications were exposed as being fake. Instead of allowing the law to take its course and slamming him, he rushed to his defence, casting him as a victim after the Delhi Police—under then Police Commissioner BS Bassi—placed the minister under a four-day police remand. A morally smug Kejriwal went ballistic on the alleged ‘double standards’ and ‘vengeful politics’ of the Centre, garnering public empathy with scarcely concealed delight.
The recent developments over the water tanker and bus service scams may now prove costly for Kejriwal. An unfavourable court ruling on the turf disputes would worsen his predicament. That hollow tactics posing as proper strategies obey the law of diminishing returns in the political arena is a lesson the Chief Minister may have to learn the hard way. His shoot-from-the-hip approach that accompanied his 2014 promises of participatory policymaking might still have a hold on voters who feel left out and marginalised. Yet, as AAP prepares for a massive electoral offensive in Punjab in 2017, the only other state where the party has a chance of gaining power, what seems to be at stake is Kejriwal’s carefully crafted political pitch that had catapulted him to power in the first place.
A KEY ASPECT OF the Kejriwal government’s image manipulation has been its media management. This may have run its course now. Once the darling of the press, he started showing increasing crabbiness when sections of the press started running adverse stories on his government. The party has taken to dismissing them as the pawns of the BJP, just as Kejriwal had dubbed Jung. The cussedness became apparent when reporters of a popular news channel were blocked from asking inconvenient questions of the transport minister some while ago. Later, some reporters found that the AAP leadership had pushed them out of a WhatsApp group to which they belonged.
Kejriwal has also been accused of using his government’s advertising budget to maintain sway over the local media. A newspaper recently gave the marching orders to two of its senior journalists after the Delhi Chief Minister, the man who allocates various departmental ads worth lakhs of rupees, complained to the daily’s management about their unwillingness to fall in line. The message was clear.
That Kejriwal is authoritarian is not the worst that he has been described as. He has attracted several superlatives of irrationality for his steadfast refusal to abide by the rules and conventions of administration that have been explained to him many times over. Despite the penalties laid down, the Chief Minister violated a clear rule under Article 230AA of the Constitution that only 10 per cent of the total number of members in the Delhi Legislative Assembly can be appointed as ministers. The House has 70 members. Given that, Kejriwal could at most appoint six ministers (excluding himself). But having won 67 seats out of 70, the AAP chief had to come up with a way to keep his flock happy, reduce discontent and the associated chances of a party split (or of MLAs being poached by other parties). Since all of them couldn’t be ministers, he came up with a plan. Circumventing the Constitutional rule, he decided to appoint 21 MLAs as ‘parliamentary secretaries’ to his half dozen ministers. Ostensibly, they have no extra remuneration and no emoluments, not even offices and official vehicles. But the plan has been seen through, and it doesn’t wash. Both the Bombay and Himachal Pradesh High Courts had ruled such appointments a violation of the Constitution.
To boot, Delhi doesn’t have any laws in place to employ parliamentary secretaries—unlike Karnataka, Assam or West Bengal. So that he wouldn’t get into legal trouble, Kejriwal tried to amend the Delhi Members of Legislative Assembly (Removal of Disqualification) Act, 1997. The changes would have meant that parliamentary secretaries would not be disqualified for being so appointed. But the President flatly refused his assent to the tweaks, and the Election Commission is now expected to take a final decision soon. But the developments have already embarrassed the AAP leadership and exposed the growing greed of its members for the temptations of public office. With the Union Territory government’s own powers severely constrained by the Centre, there was little scope for all AAP MLAs to be accommodated without resorting to irrational shortcuts
The aborted attempt to make those appointments may have not left the Chief Minister too popular with his own MLAs. Neither has Kejriwal been winning over bureaucrats. At one point, Kejriwal, himself a former government official, summoned a group of officers and warned them not to “play politics”. Neither the warning nor the language he used was pleasant. In another instance, he wrote to the Delhi High Court, the authority which selected Brajesh Sethi for the post of principal secretary (law), that he would not accept the recommendations and would look for a candidate of his own from judicial services outside Delhi to fill the post.
Sethi’s predecessor Kiran Nath had also found herself in a similar position before leaving the job. She would write down her opinion on cases, only to find it rejected time and again by the state government. And then there was the spectacle Delhi was treated to—of two officers holding the same post—after the Chief Minister summarily tried to sack Principal Secretary (Home) Dharmpal and appoint Rajinder Kumar in his place. Police guards had to be posted outside Dharmpal’s office after he complained that Rajinder Kumar was grabbing files off his table.
Both AAP and Kejriwal desperately need good news in Punjab when the state’s polls come round. But Kejriwal’s biggest—and immediate—challenge would be to protect from a battering the Lincolnesque image that he has assiduously crafted to endear himself to the underclass.