It’s a political script where, half way through, everyone knows two or three possible endings. Phrases like ‘breakdown of governance’ are being thrown around North Block. Intimations of drama fill the news pages. And a whole lot of crusty, dormant phrases—Article 356, Centre-state relations—have sprung to life. Delhi has been like this ever since its chief secretary was allegedly assaulted by MLAs of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on February 20. Raw to the touch and thick with rumour. But will it really go the full distance?
It’s the BJP’s Delhi unit that let go of the ambiguity: dismiss the Arvind Kejriwal government, it demanded openly, vocalising what was till then an unstated threat. The AAP regime in Delhi has been the BJP’s pet bugaboo—an object evoking some fear and plenty loathing—ever since that dramatic 67:3 verdict of February 2015, and thoughts of sweet revenge would be most natural. Duly, Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari insists it’s “a case of failure of constitutional machinery”, fit for emergency measures to be applied.
Amid this sabre-rattling, and much public jousting between Delhi’s bureaucrats and AAP leaders, the MHA is quietly seeking legal opinion on imposing President’s Rule. This was after Lieutenant-Governor Anil Baijal submitted his report about the Anshu Prakash incident to home minister Rajnath Singh. The L-G is learnt to have flagged the “breakdown of communication between bureaucrats and the political leadership”, triggering the buzz that his report may indeed form the basis of an attempt to invoke Article 356.
So will it happen? Senior BJP leaders say the idea of taking control of Delhi is tantalising. “The Capital has eluded us for two decades. Its loss, along with that of Bihar, had hurt the party the most. While we have managed to establish control over Bihar, Delhi continues to be a sore point for the party leadership. So it’s not averse to using various means and tactics to wrest control,” reveals a BJP office-bearer.
For all this, home ministry officials dismiss talk of President’s Rule as of now. Officials from the MHA’s Centre-state department met law ministry counterparts last week over this, and also consulted senior law officers and constitutional experts, reveals a senior ministry official. So far, the dominant view is “a strong enough case for dismissal” doesn’t exist yet, he adds. The Centre is waiting and watching, not wanting to appear in a hurry to sack a democratically elected government.
“It makes for bad optics, coming close to crucial assembly elections and Lok Sabha polls next year. It may become difficult to justify the toppling of an elected government, even if it’s led by an anarchist Kejriwal,” the official adds. Indeed, the idea seems to be to appear reasonable and accommodating (quite contrary to the way the Centre has generally orientated itself to the AAP government in Delhi). That’s why chief secretary Anshu Prakash signalled a thaw of sorts when he agreed to attend the cabinet meeting, along with his colleagues, called by CM Kejriwal on February 27 to finalise dates for the budget session.
Before the meeting, Prakash made it a point to write to Kejriwal that his attendance is “based on the assumption that the CM will ensure there is no physical attack and verbal assault on the officers. It is also hoped that in the meeting proper decorum will be maintained and dignity of the officers will be protected.” A most unusual demand it may seem to those who missed a week’s news, but quite in line with the extraordinary events: two AAP MLAs are in jail, and Delhi’s bureaucrats (via the Joint Forum of Government Employees) have resolved that officials will wear black bands and maintain only written channels of communication with the political executive till the CM apologises and assures them of safety and dignity at work.
The bureaucrats can barely conceal their contempt for the AAP government. “The CM and his team don’t know how to treat officers and get work out of them,” says a senior Delhi government official. “They treat even senior bureaucrats like their personal servants, who are expected to do their bidding. It is evident from the way the chief secretary was assaulted. The CM is not a seasoned politician like Sheila Dikshit, a three-time CM, who gave the bureaucrats and also the central government due respect.”
Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan feels President’s Rule may not be advisable in the given scenario. “AAP has a huge majority and it is difficult to make a case for sacking. There is no constitutional breakdown, it is a political breakdown. President’s Rule is not something to be played with for political reasons,” says Dhavan, a constitutional expert. He feels, though, that a move for rapprochement has to come from the CM. “The political standoff must be resolved for the sake of Delhi and the CM has to take the initiative,” he says.
In the recent past, the Centre has tried that controversial route twice—in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. “A defection made President’s Rule redundant in Arunachal since it gave the government a majority, and as for Uttarakhand, the Centre’s decision was overturned by the high court, much to its embarrassment. President’s Rule must be used in exceptional cases and Delhi, so far, is not in that category,” Dhavan explains.
The BJP is aware of constitutional niceties, but it’s not being trigger-happy for two reasons. First, AAP may actually want its government to be dismissed. It can then return to the electorate crying foul and seeking sympathy—obliging it may not be a smart thing to do. Second, the BJP may not be able to derive any political benefit from the move. Ground reports suggest the situation is still not ripe for them. “If polls are held anytime soon in the 20 assembly seats that have fallen vacant, the BJP is not likely to gain much. AAP may retain seven or eight, and it’s the Congress that will seemingly benefit,” a central BJP leader says.
Delhi offers a paradox of sorts for the BJP. The party has forged a new, vibrant presence in non-traditional states like Tripura, Assam and Orissa, but a redoubtable base in Delhi eludes it still. “The party unit in Delhi is weak and ridden with factionalism. Manoj Tiwari may be a big draw among the Poorvanchalis, but a big majority of the Punjabis and Baniyas (traders) have not accepted him and are always looking for ways to pull him down,” says a veteran leader. This when even the Congress, he points out, is looking better on the surface, with Sheila and Ajay Maken patching up and Arvinder Singh Lovely returning to the party. So this is a priority state for Amit Shah that has not kept the promise.
As for Kejriwal, he’s hardly new to combative situations—in fact, he seems to thrive on them. However, with his inflexible and bellicose attitude in this case, reflecting perhaps a deeply conflicted attitude towards the bureaucracy (of which he was once a part), he has managed to antagonise a key segment. Government officials are not the only ones who make things run (or its opposite when they want) in terms of governance, they also comprise a big chunk of Delhi voters and had voted for him. That’s why the BJP believes President’s Rule is not required to take care of Kejriwal. “He is his own worst enemy. We are giving him a long rope. He will expose himself to the Delhi voters before he hangs,” says a BJP general secretary.
By Bhavna Vij-Aurora in New Delhi