AAP’S Year Of Muddled Path
On February 14, 2016, Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would complete two years of resignation of its first 49-day government in the National Capital Territory of Delhi that took office in 2013 and one year of formation of an ABSOLUTE majority government occupying 67 of 70 seats in Delhi’s Legislative Assembly. Since its formation on November 26, 2012, the AAP has walked the path of political controversies, many of them avoidable. Does the party have a future, would it expand beyond Delhi despite winning four seats in Lok Sabha in 2014 general election, is it the party to be trusted for eradicating corruption from India’s public life, are the questions the AAP and its leadership have raised about the status of the Delhi government (albeit in a controversial fashion) genuine, is it’s model of governance correct, constitutional, replicable and sustainable and is its party organisation democratic, are some of the questions that keep arising as we look at the AAP. An evaluation of the AAP (and Arvind Kejriwal) phenoAmenon is thus called for from the perspectives of a political party, political leadership and a clean government.
The party emerged out of anti-corruption movements in 2011 and 2012 titled ‘India Against Corruption’, a movement demanding a ‘Jan Lokpal’, or ombudsman. Ombudsman is a Nordic term and concept of a citizens’ commissioner looking into public grievances against the government and public agencies, particularly against corruption. Social worker Anna Hazare of Ralegan Siddhi fame, the experiment in rural regeneration that sparked many such efforts across the country was selected as, and he also willingly became, the face of the movement. The party thus consciously retains and labours to exude its righteous demeanour that it thinks the movement has transmitted to it. It is a different matter that very consciously Anna Hazare has withdrawn from the movement and (later) the party since September 19, 2012. A twisted political version of the existing non-starter concept of the Lokpal, ‘Jan Lokpal’ stressed a citizen-centric People’s Commissioner (sic; both ‘Jan’ and ‘Lok’ in Hindi mean people); it was seeped in politics from the word go.
More so, as its self-righteous stance against parties and government rejected both, yet within eighteen months of launching a tumultuous movement that shook the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the AAP was born as a political party. The birth of the party witnessed allegations, heated arguments and a vertical split, as Hazare opted out of the party option and despite an unsavory comment from a few that he was what he was due to the movement, he retreated to Ralegan Siddhi for his rural development work. The AAP emerged when the political space in the country was brittle – Congress under corruption shadow, BJP in a bit of disarray, the Left at its all time low and satraps from different states on a prowl for a national political space – the party caught the imagination in the country; indeed across the world. Crowd funding from India and abroad swelled its coffers, sending shivers to the more established rivals, including the BJP that had silently supported the Anna movement to the discomfiture of the Manmohan Singh government that had witnessed several corruption and scam charges in its second tenure.
But soon enough, it followed a predictable trajectory. Arvind Kejriwal, the man behind the movement and the party, had an uneasy co-existence with a number of eminent colleagues he had brought together on the anti-corruption platform and convinced them to align to form a new party. A diverse pool of public figures had joined him to form a left-of-centre alternative to a waning, weakening and rusting Congress; and a BJP that could time and again engender the optimism of a right-of-centre alternative to Congress with the ultimate aim of marching with a diverse India, but often times slid to a more radical version of what it describes as the politics of Hindutva in order to challenge the Congress politics of ‘pseudo secularism’, or lately more derisively as ‘sickularism’. The AAP attempted to present a politics that was bereft of either version of vote bank politics with the common man as its constituency.
However, his politics during the 49-day government with the Congress support, where he smugly sided with those members of the party and colleagues in the government who treated their invented self-righteousness above every public institution and the law, even the constitution. He also set up a direct eye-ball-to-eye-ball quotidian confrontation with the Union Government, projecting it and the ruling party as anti-people. His dharna against the Delhi Police was perhaps the most unnerving instance for many of his more sedate colleagues. Though they stuck together to bring the AAP under Kejriwal leadership a spectacular victory with 54.7 per cent votes (a rare in recent times) and 67 out of 70 seats in the Legislative Assembly in February 2015, the differences grew on several issues. Thus, on March 28, 2015 he edged out formidable Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav who had built the AAP with their organisational and ideological skills and brought in virtuous and democratic culture of dissent. The AAP was thus reduced to any other one-leader, intolerant-of-dissent party!
‘Difference’ and ‘honesty’ were the two mantras of the new party that emerged as the second largest party in the 70-member Delhi Assembly after December 4, 2013 election with 28 seats. Beating the largest party BJP (31) to form the government with the support of 8 Congress MLAs on 28 December, it displayed ‘difference’ by becoming a government-in-perpetual-protest still working from the opposition space. It did not respect its constitutional status and the federal spirit with which it had to function as one of the two UT governments that have been given limited autonomy with a Legislative Assembly.
While the ministers began crossing the lines of constitutional propriety and responsibility and confronted every public office in protest mode, the CM was bellicosely vocal in support. Among the most controversial, and avoidable, move was when Kejriwal defended Law Minister Somnath Bharti’s uncalled for midnight brush-in with the police and went on a dharna for suspension of the Delhi Police officers ‘responsible’ for ‘disobeying’ the minister (the TV clips clearly showed that Bharti was crossing all the lines of civility and the law, while the police officer was politely reminding him of his limits his own responsibility) near the Rajpath on January 20, 2014. He even threatened to storm the Rajpath with thousand of party volunteers to stall the republic day celebrations, forgetting that as a CM he was under oath to protect the Constitution of India that is celebrated on the republic day. Kejriwal’s retraction after two days of avoidable showdown did not undo the damage to India’s democratic tradition, as even cosmetic transfer as ‘symbolic’ punishment is discouraging and demoralising for the police.
The AAP government could not fulfill the promise of enacting a Jan Lokpal Bill in two weeks after coming to power. When the bill came up in Delhi Legislative Assembly on 14 February 2014, both the BJP and the Congress criticised it as unconstitutional, complaining that procedures had not been followed. Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung also raised procedural questions. The substantive point was regarding sweeping powers and whether a state/UT Lokpal could probe Union Government officials. His former associates also found fault with it. As a consequence, Kejriwal quit in 49 days on the issue.
The Jan Lokpal bill was finally passed in the second reign of the AAP on 4 December 2015, but not without controversies. However, Kejriwal removed the party’s Lokpal Admiral Ramdas on 29 May 2015 without informing him! Obviously, commitments and standards regarding an ombudsman have differed in the two cases. Significantly, AAP and its leadership attempted to make the tabling and passing of the bill a matter of contention with the Union government and with the BJP and the Congress (see its website: http://www.aamaadmiparty.org/Jan-Lokpal-Bill-and-full-statehood-for-Delhi) its contention to grant Delhi statehood. The Lokpal, a matter of contention between the political class and anti-corruption activist on the extent of control the government should have on appointment and removal of the Lokpal and other officials with the institution, became a contentious matter in this case too. Kejriwal appeared to have tied himself in knots because of his high pitched one-point campaign and consequent positioning himself and his party as the most honest and all the others as corrupt. However, the AAP bill, like the Act passed in 2013 by the Union Government that was criticised by Kejriwal for excessive political control, also concentrated all the powers in the Chief Minister. Former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan (1977-79), a mainstay of the India Against Corruption movement and the person who first drafted a Lokpal Bill in 1968, criticised the bill as it concentrated the powers of selection and removal of the Lokpal in the hands of the CM.
It must be recalled that the party had adopted a procedure based on application, scrutiny and personal interaction for the selection of the candidates for the 70 Delhi Assembly seats. Still it has displayed chinks in its own rectitudinous armour as several of its ministers and MLAs were caught on the wrong side of the law. Somnath Bharti’s (former law minister) marital discord brought the charge of domestic violence and at one stage, he was absconding like an ordinary criminal. MLA Rohtash Kumar physically attacked an SBI manager. Law Minister Jitender Singh Tomar’s degrees were found to be fake. MLA Surinder Singh, a former army man, was arrested for assaulting a New Delhi Municipal Committee. Another MLA Manoj Kumar was allegedly involved in a serious case of forgery of valuable security, for which the maximum punishment was life sentence; he attempted to secure bail on the basis of a false claim of ailment, which was rejected by the court. Naresh Balyan, legislator from Uttam Nagar constituency came under the police radar after the Crime Branch found 497 cartons containing 8,352 bottles of liquor, labelled ‘for sale in Haryana’, in his house in Uttam Nagar’s Om Vihar area January 31, 2015 and was questioned by the police on 11th February. Several of the MLAs have adopted violent modes of protests on a variety of big and small issues indicating an adversarial and judgemental mode of politics that is not in keeping with representative democracy, in which both sides must be heard adequately.
These are some of the 23 of the AAP ‘leaders’ who have taken sheen of its virtuosity due to their brush with the law. Obviously, the process adopted by the party has not been fool proof. Ostensibly, many who joined the party did not share the noble vision of the founders of the party. But the way the party ended up defending most of them till each one was fully exposed, showed that the AAP and its leadership too was ready to wink at some of the deviations, at least as long as they could be used to project a victimisation syndrome. No wonder, despite some of its top leadership not being under the shadow of corruption, its cries of being a party against corruption has lost its bite.
The unprecedented victory with 67 seats in the 70-member assembly in the 2015 election added arrogance to its imagined self-imposed virtuosity, giving the party a misleading impression that its mandate is an undisputed obligation to rule Delhi, the capital of the country, that brings in a national authorisation to it, which compares with the Union Government, if not exceeds it. Consequently, it has positioned itself as the adversary of the party in power at the Raisina Hill. Thus, it is attempting to put the BJP and the central government, and the LG as its agent, continuously under pressure by attacking them over one issue or the other. The mandate has been its standard pretext to question everything and anything regarding constitutional propriety. In the process, the party also attempts to bring in the issue of Delhi’s statehood, incessantly projecting NCT Delhi as more than a Union Territory. As ‘the government’ of Delhi, it also poses as ‘the national opposition’. Thus the endless gratuitous constitutional attrition with the Union Government and treating each public institution, particularly the Union agencies, as hostile and anti-people, has not done any good to the denizens of Delhi.
Avoidable bitter, almost quotidian, tussle between the Delhi government and the LG, a proxy for the Union Government, relates mostly to the Transaction of Business Rules, which formally tilt the balance of power to the LG. However, there is sufficient room for both to accommodate each other and work in coordination, which has been witnessed since the National Capital Territory government was created. First the BJP-led Delhi government worked with the Congress-led Union Government and then the other way round. An acrimony between the Sheila Dixit government and the then Union Home Minister L.K. Advani on his decision to clip the wings of the NCT Delhi’s Congress government by re-imposing Section 48 of the Transaction of Business Rules, which had been removed for the convenience of the earlier Sahib Singh Verma government (BJP) [since been omitted from the Rules]; was eventually resolved amicably by Advani calling Dixit and both together sorting out the constitutional issue.
While the AAP has never considered bipartisan politics a virtue, its substantive policy interventions are still to bear fruit. Indeed, the jury would keep mulling over the AAP experiment in Indian politics for some time to come. First, at the very outset it introduced subsidy on water (free upto 20 KL to each household) and electricity (tariff for usage upto 400 units of electricity was halved) which would be considered populist by any standards. Whether it would have been better to reasonably price both the services and use the available revenue for other services in the city is a question that the party never considered, for both populism and confrontation are built into the strategy it adopted.
Of course, the party’s action plan discusses various measures of conserving and augmenting water with rain harvesting, reviving the Yamuna and various other measures of conservation. However, even if we consider only its reign since 2015, only the subsidy part of its water and electricity swaraj is better known. Of course, audit of Discoms mentioned in the manifesto too was carried out. In any case, subsidy, which has given the party a huge vote bank from the under-privileged areas of the city, would continue to be questioned in the era of deft financial management. Considering that the ongoing municipal crisis in Delhi due to non-payment of salary to the municipal staff, who recently dumped all the garbage in front of Deputy CM Manish Sisodia’s residence, is bringing out fiscal mismanagement and avoidable partisanship in the capital’s infrastructure and service sectors.
However, partisanship is the prime strategy of the AAP that has led to adversarial politics as never before. The party’s achievements listed in its 70-point action plan have FIRs registered against Mukesh Ambani, M. Veerappa Moily and Murli Deora. The party highlights these as steps it has taken towards eradicating corruption. However, in forefronting corruption as its prime agenda, the AAP took on the Union Government. It declared the Delhi Police corrupt and untrustworthy and appointed five police officers from Bihar on deputation in the Anti Corruption Bureau. Consequently, the ACB ended up having two chiefs, the Delhi government-appointed Additional Commissioner S.S. Yadav and the LG appointed Mukesh Meena. Also, the Delhi government approached the High Court against the appointment of Meena by the LG, which was turned down. All these conveyed the impression that the war and strategy against corruption was used to give the party and Arvind Kejriwal an image of a crusader before Delhi’s underclass, whom the party has tried to nurture as its vote bank. Even though no finger has been raised against the top leadership, the taint against twenty members and MLAs has not done any good to its image.
One year into office, over three years as a party in active politics and five years as a movement against corruption, the AAP has traversed some good distance, if not miles as the other parties it is taking on have. The transition of the Indian National Congress to a political party was gradual, with intermediate periods of participation in local government and at the provincial levels. It really had an alien adversary, but the history of the national movement tells us that despite Gandhian and other movements, grace and dignity were never given a go by, not even when a triangular politics emerged with the colonial government deftly playing the Congress and the Muslim League against each other and the League’s politics became increasingly sharp. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh/BJP faced adversity due to its RSS connection time and again, but it persevered to be mainstreamed with participation in government in 1967-72, in the JP movement and by merging with the Janata Party. It remained an opposition sharp, faced sharp political criticisms time and again, but alternated well on the treasury and opposition benches. Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP (he is the sole leader now) see only political adversity beyond themselves, corruption everywhere except in their constituency and within. Hence, there are tussles and confrontation that do not help the people. In fact, beyond the tussle, the main question is about how India’s capital of 18 million can be governed in a just and fair manner for all citizens, rich and poor.
The AAP is now pitching for Punjab that would go to poll this year to elect a new legislative assembly. This would not be its first foray beyond Delhi, it got four MPs in the Lok Sabha from Punjab in 2014 general election. Given the brittle political surface on which the party system stands today, it may have some success there. Importantly, whether one leader model would survive after that would be keenly watched. In any case, AAP does not present a model of an institutionalised party as of now.
By Ajay K. Mehra
(The writer is Honorary Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida)