Arvind Kejriwal celebrates his first anniversary as Delhi chief minister on February 14, Valentine’s Day, but love is certainly not in the air. If anything, he faces a mounting litany of challenges, best symbolised by the piles of garbage at street corners, courtesy striking municipal workers. Government hospitals have been shut, as have schools, while he was away undergoing therapy at a Bangalore health farm, but clearly his biggest challenge lies with his running battle with a resident of the “smart city” part of his domain: Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The silent war between the two is evident on the rare occasion they meet in public--they ignore each other, much like jilted lovers. It is nothing personal and entirely political. Modi, says Kejriwal, is out to destabilise his government (see interview) and find a constitutional excuse to dismiss his government. The origins of that lie in the day, exactly a year ago, when Kejriwal, at 46, was sworn in as CM, having stopped Modi’s electoral juggernaut in its tracks. More humiliating was the margin of victory. The BJP was reduced to three members in the house of 70, with the Aam Admi Party (AAP) grabbing the remaining 67. Kejriwal and his supporters openly allege that Modi is out for revenge, pure and simple.
In one sense, it is an unequal battle. One is a short, puny man who doesn’t mind frayed shirts and open sandals; the other boasts of a 56-inch barrel chest and will not repeat a jacket for weeks. This is the ex-IRS officer’s first full stint as chief minister after his 49-day fiasco; Modi, a full 18 years older, did two full terms and more of the much larger Gujarat before moving into 7, Race Course Road. Namo of course has twice the followers on Twitter than AK-47. But they are equal through one key prism—the size of the vote they received and the support they can muster. And the current impasse shows that a majority is no magic ticket in Indian democracy. For AAP at the hands of the BJP; or, in return, for the BJP at the hands of the Congress. That, and the fact that Madame Tussaud’s may cast Kejriwal in wax before they do Modi.
Modi’s bane: Kejriwal has emerged as one of the most recognisable non-Congress faces.
“Delhi is neither a UT nor a full state. It is a city for god’s sake,” fumed a top BJP leader last week. “And Kejriwal is at best the chairman of its municipality.” That kind of statement would have made sense a year ago, when Modi won all he surveyed. Today, after Delhi and after Bihar, it only denotes arrogance bordering on contempt for voters. In any case, Kejriwal himself, and perhaps only rhetorically, makes light of his plight. “I am the quarter-sized chief minister of a half-state. He is the ruler of the country. Why is he after me?”
One reason is that Delhi is not just another capital; it is the national capital. And for another, the “half-state” is one of the few revenue-surplus states in the Union, with an annual budget of almost Rs 40,000 crore, rivalling many small states like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. But perhaps a key reason is that Kejriwal has emerged as one of the most recognisable non-Congress opposition figures in a short span of time, cavorting with Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee, or visiting Hyderabad for Rohith Vemula. Wiser after losing all but half a dozen of the 403 Lok Sabha seats AAP contested in 2014, Kejriwal claims he does not have national ambitions. But with elections in five states, including Punjab up ahead, Modi knows that stopping him in his tracks, even if by discrediting him, is crucial to limiting the potential damage in 2019.
Kejriwal’s Downside (L to R) Garbage piled on the streets by striking municipal staff. Guest teachers demonstrate seeking permanent posts. Kejriwal has had a bitter spat with Lt Gov Jung. MCD sanitation workers strip to demand salaries. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat, Tribhuvan Tiwari, Jitender Gupta)
“There’s been a constant effort to pitch babus against the state govt.”—AAP’s Ashutosh
So, using a variety of devices at its disposal—a lieutenant-governor who can read the rulebook on appointments and transfers, a CBI which uncages itself when required, a police chief whose force operates under the Union home ministry, loyal IAS officers who strike on command etc—the Modi government has sought to shackle Kejriwal’s regime.
“There has been a constant effort to pitch the bureaucracy against the Delhi government,” says AAP’s Ashutosh. But for all their sustained efforts, some smart, out-of-the-box thinking by AAP on key issues like water (20,000 litres free every month), health (free diagnosis, treatment, drugs), education (doubling outlay, removing exemptions), environment (odd-even formula) have helped Kejriwal to earn the goodwill of the aam masses who voted him to power and pollsters who routinely confer on him the title of “best chief minister”. And therein lies the rub.
Doval once asked Kejriwal to meet Modi. Kej riwal agreed—in vain.
There are administrative measures which have also made a difference. The government has simplified the rules, allowed for self-attestation of documents and has ensured online issue of 18 different certificates including for birth, caste and death. “Event management companies complained that they needed clearances from 27 departments, the last one from the fire department coming just one hour before an event. The process took four months. We have put the entire process online and the organisers of the Zubin Mehta concert last year got all their clearances in 20 minutes,” Kejriwal told Outlook. That’s the kind of smarts that’s beginning to unsettle BJP strategists. “He’s pragmatic. Kejriwal is focusing on things he can do and forgetting about the things he can’t,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan.
In that sense, the BJP has walked squarely into an AAP trap. Kejriwal derives strength by playing victim, and by painting Modi as the source of all his troubles, he manages to place himself on the same plank as the prime minister and ends up showing Modi as a petty, peevish man who couldn’t stomach a crushing defeat. It’s a classic David versus Goliath. And on Kejriwal’s pet issue of corruption, the BJP has plenty to explain. It took away the Anti-Corruption Bureau from the state, dithered on a probe into giant corporates, and set up obstacles in the path of an investigation into the affairs of the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA). Just what Kejriwal wanted.
“Kejriwal is pragmatic, so he is focusing on the things he can do and forgetting about the things he cannot.”
Shiv Visvanathan, Sociologist
In his office on the seventh floor of the Delhi Secretariat, the vice-chairman of Delhi Dialogue Commission, Ashish Khetan, reveals another figure that indicates why the stakes for controlling Delhi are so high. The state government, the former journalist says, has as many as 10,000 employees serving on contract and hired through employment agencies that are controlled by politicians of various political parties. “Worse, they are not even paid minimum wages by these agencies,” says Khetan. So, as the Kejriwal government tries to figure out a way of regularising their services, those who may have to shell out are playing dirty.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Kejriwal’s one-time mentor who was unceremoniously evicted from the party along with ideologue Yogendra Yadav, points out that the (often colourful) adjectives that Kejriwal uses to describe Modi apply equally to him as well: “There’s a big gap between what he says and does. The Jan Lokpal bill that he has passed is a joke. It will never get the approval of the President of India.” Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi himself spews out a bunch of adjectives. He says, “No doubt some good initiatives like the odd-even formula have been conceived, but this is a government of kneejerk reactionaries, accusations, confrontations, divisiveness and excessive shrillness.”
But none of that can camouflage the BJP-led central government’s tumultuous relationship with the AAP state government that turns Modi’s advertised aim of “cooperative federalism” on its head—and could serve as a warning bell to other state governments, including the BJP’s own allies. Indian states, including Gujarat, which boycotted the national development councils under Modi, have long complained of the Centre’s “step-motherly treatment”. Kejriwal seems determined to give as good as he gets. He has called the prime minister a “psychopath” and “intolerant” and squandered some good public money to get the message across that he is not being allowed to function.
“The adjectives Kejriwal uses to describe Modi equally apply to him as well. There’s a huge gap between what Kejriwal says and does.”
Prashant Bhushan, Ex-AAP leader
“There is nothing federal about what is going on, and there is of course no cooperation. What we are witnessing is a full-blown confrontation between two strong personalities,” says an AAP insider. “If all this could have gone on for one full year under the very nose of the President, Parliament and the Supreme Court, one can only imagine what the next four years will be like at this rate.”
The chief minister’s associates recall with relish a presidential banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan, where National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval impressed upon Kejriwal the need to work closely with the prime minister. The two had of course known each other for a long time. The India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign in 2011, which culminated in the formation of the Aam Admi Party in November 2012, had been supported extensively by the Vivekananda Foundation, the right-wing think-tank of which Doval, a former Intelligence Bureau chief, was then the head.
The two therefore chatted amiably enough and the NSA, according to these sources, offered to set up a meeting with the prime minister. The Delhi chief minister effectively was the ‘chief minister of a mohalla’ with little power vested in him, the NSA stressed, adding that it was futile for him to take on the prime minister. Kejriwal readily agreed that it would indeed be nice if the two could sort out their differences and put an end to the growing bitterness. But the chief minister’s office never heard from the NSA or the PMO thereafter.
“No doubt there have been some good initiatives like odd-even formula, but this is a government of kneejerk reactions and shrillness.”
Abhishek Singhvi, Congress leader
People close to the chief minister believe that the idea of a meeting and reconciliation would have been shot down by the prime minister himself. Modi, they suggested to Outlook, considered AAP a genuine political threat to the BJP and to himself. In the 2013 election for the Delhi assembly, they claim, a large number of volunteers from the RSS had campaigned for AAP. But in 2015, the RSS had held back its support at the behest of Modi, they allege. “Modi can handle Rahul Gandhi, but he is ill at ease while handling Kejriwal,” explains a Kejriwal acolyte.
That Modi and Kejriwal are like two predators circling each other is obvious. On the two occasions they have officially met one-on-one, Modi spoke in monosyllables. Kejriwal accuses Modi’s principal secretary in the PMO, Nripendra Mishra, of being the mastermind behind the attacks on his government. Kejriwal goes a step further and says: “Even his own ministers tell me that when he hears your name, he gets angry.”
What is intriguing observers is that Kejriwal’s attacks have largely been directed at the prime minister, not the party he represents, the BJP. And what is even more intriguing is the silence of the RSS as opposed to that of the BJP. Both Modi and Kejriwal’s relationship with the RSS continue to generate considerable speculation.
A section of observers believes Kejriwal is close to the RSS and points out his long association with Sankalp, the UPSC coaching centre that the RSS operates in Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar, where Kejriwal would regularly give lectures. He is also close to Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravishankar, who in turn is believed to be close to the prime minister and people around him. And his differences with social scientist and activist Yogendra Yadav are attributed by them primarily to Kejriwal’s aversion to Yadav bringing in his ‘socialist’ friends.
Feathers In His Cap
Right Track (L to R) A mohalla clinic in Peeragarhi camp, west Delhi. The cumbersome BRT corridor is being done away with. State government-run schools for girls get a big boost. The odd-even experiment comes in for much praise. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat, Tribhuvan Tiwari, Tribhuvan Tiwari)
During his recent retreat in Bangalore, eyebrows were raised when Kejriwal went off to spend his last day with Sri Sri in the latter’s ashram. There is another section which believes Kejriwal has neither left nor right leanings. They point to his work with the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa to claim that he could not have been inclined towards the RSS. This section also concedes that Kejriwal’s deputy, Manish Sisodia, has deep links with the RSS. His rift with Yogendra Yadav, this section holds, was more due to Yadav’s attempts to emerge as a power centre in Haryana than with his socialist leanings.
Whether the attacks on Kejriwal gain him sympathy or resentment is hard to say, since he remains popular with Delhiites, especially after the success of his odd-even scheme. As a former bureaucrat, he knows what can work and what will take time, so he has focused on doables, like cheaper water to weaker sections, cheaper electricity and transparency in governance. Says Ashish Talwar, his political advisor: “He expects efficiency and action. He has the remarkable ability to read non-fiction,” referring to government files. His alter ego, Manoj Sisodia, is an efficient number two, dealing with central ministers and his amiable manner of functioning does bring results.
In that sense, and quite ironically, Modi and Kejriwal are very much alike. They both think innovatively and both are undisputed leaders of their political parties. Like Modi in 2014, Kejriwal galvanised the nation a few seasons ago with his anti-corruption crusade and his commitment to the problems of the common man—the Aam Aadmi Party stemmed from there. The global community fancies them both. Both are mercurial and have an authoritarian streak. Both are focused and have a single-minded determination to achieve what they have set their eyes on. Both are workaholics, who like to be hands-on and unconventional.
Yet, the fraught relationship between prime minister and chief minister bodes ill, not just for each other but for the nation and city the two seek to champion. The key question is whether the BJP can afford to unsettle a popularly elected government, a government which enjoys brute majority in the assembly. Surely, dismissal of the government is too far-fetched a possibility, especially after the Arunachal Pradesh fiasco. While the possibility has not been entirely ruled out by Kejriwal, who hints at it in his tweets, his associates say the unprecedented success of its political rally in Punjab in January, the equally unexpected success of the plan to allow only odd and even-numbered private cars on odd and even dates, the public endorsement of the scheme by the Chief Justice of India, and a trial court pulling up the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for not following laid-down procedures before raiding the Delhi chief minister’s office have given them a breather.
There’s a new angle to Kejriwal’s battle with Modi. He is now looking for sympathisers in the BJP, and in other regional parties, who he describes as “peedit (suffering) party”, who have reason to be unhappy with Modi. His proximity with his counterparts in Bihar and Bengal have made headlines. Within the BJP, he sought an appointment with senior leader L.K. Advani, which was declined in a hurry, but speculation continues. His recent election campaigns in Punjab are significant and it is clear that he is trying to usurp the political space that belonged to the Congress. The AAP is actually being tipped to win in Punjab, as initial reports from the state indicate. That has set off its own round of conspiracy theories: that he could be willing to switch as chief minister of Punjab, where he can be free of central interference, a rumour he dismisses offhand.
Kejriwal has just returned from his treatment, rested and rejuvenated, and ready for battle. The bell has rung for the second round in the most intriguing political rivalry of our times.
How the equation has changed between the PM and the CM
- 2013 At election rallies for Delhi assembly, Kejriwal attacks all but Modi; “Kejriwal for Delhi, Modi for India” is underlying message
- 2014 Kejriwal says Modi is in Mukesh Ambani’s pocket, goes to Gujarat and fails to get time with the then CM to discuss gas price issue
- 2014 Stands as AAP candidate against Narendra Modi from Varanasi in the general elections, loses by 3.7 lakh votes
- 2015 After second victory in Delhi in February, which handed BJP a 3-67 drubbing, Modi invites Kejriwal for high tea
- 2015 July Kejriwal to Modi via radio: Take out time for Delhi Police or give Delhi Police to us. AK brings out ads, “pradhanmantriji ko appeal”.
- 2015 July Kejriwal writes to Rajnath Singh, complains against PM’s alleged intervention in the appointment of women’s commission chief
- 2015 August Throws open challenge to PM, dares him to either improve the law and order situation in Delhi within six months or hand over police to his govt
- 2015 December Kejriwal takes a jibe at Modi’s foreign trips. “Some people are touring the world. I’ve hardly left Delhi ever since I became chief minister.”
- 2016 Kejriwal says: ‘I am the quarter-sized CM of half a state, Modi is ruler of the country. Why is he after me?”
How Delhi govt and Centre are on confrontation course
- Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung rejected two IAS officers preferred by the Kejriwal government and appointed Shakuntala Gamlin. She remained acting CS for ten days.
- Status: K.K. Sharma is now CS
- Suspension of two special secys who refused to notify a cabinet decision stayed by the Centre on the ground that the state govt had no power to suspend officers reporting to the Centre.
- Status: Reinstated.
- For four months, the ACB was headed by ACP S.S. Yadav. In June, the L-G appointed M.K. Meena against the wishes of the state government, to head the anti-corruption bureau.
- Status: Meena heads ACB
- Kejriwal demanded control over Delhi Police—describing it as corrupt, inefficient—as part and parcel of full-statehood for Delhi.
- Status: Delhi police still very much under Union home ministry
- Union home ministry says L-G has primacy in transfers. CM opposed move, saying it “saves the transfer-posting industry run by bureaucrats”.
- Status: HC says L-G is bound to act upon the aid and advice of state govt
- Three months after the Delhi Assembly passed the Jan Lokpal Bill, it is yet to receive the L-G’s assent. In over a dozen legislations referred to the Centre, its nod is still awaited.
- Status: Lokpal bill with L-G.
- Centre said the state govt had no power to constitute a commission to look into allegations of corruption in DDCA, headed till 2014 by Jaitley.
- Status: Work yet to start. Gopal Subramaniam is busy with prior commitments.
- Centre concedes the jurisdiction of the state govt over the three municipal corps, all three controlled by BJP; state govt says corporations refuse to allow even a scrutiny of accounts
- Status: Fresh elections recommended
By Mihir Srivastava and Uttam Sengupta