Politics

100 Days of Quiet Work, Now Upended by Skirmish with Modi

New Delhi: When Arvind Kejriwal took over as Delhi Chief Minister in December 2013, he became an instant darling of the media. Not a day passed when he didn’t provide journalists a national-level story. From becoming the first person to take his oath of office at Ramlila Maidan and refusing a bungalow and security, to quickly keeping his word on providing 700 litres of free water per household and a 50 per cent power subsidy, he went all out to woo the electorate.

At the same time, the Aam Aadmi Party leader showed his stern side — ordering an official audit of the private power distribution companies and asking the regulator to cancel their licences — and a petulant one, sitting on a dharna near Parliament on a cold winter night to protest, inter alia, against the Delhi Police and Centre for registering a case against AAP minister Somnath Bharti and his supporters for allegedly misbehaving with African women during a late night raid at a south Delhi colony.

Kejriwal also showed his political acumen by announcing a probe by a Special Investigation Team into the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. This helped him woo the Sikhs, an important city constituency. He sought to attack the Congress and show his reach by ordering the registration of FIRs against Reliance chief Mukesh Ambani, and former Ministers Veerappa Moily and Murli Deora for increasing the price of natural gas produced in India.

Just as both his supporters and detractors began to realise Kejriwal was a man in a hurry, he made a surprise exit. He resigned from the CM’s position after only 49 days in office, accusing the Congress and BJP of not letting him pass the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Delhi Assembly. The Bill had been passed by his Cabinet but not sent to the Centre for approval and in the absence of Congress support could not be introduced in the House.

Banking on what he believed was his rising popularity, Kejriwal shifted his focus to the Lok Sabha elections and headed straight to Varanasi to take on Narendra Modi. It seemed like a win-win game for Kejriwal, who caught the fancy and imagination of the media and electorate alike. But as he and his party fell at the national hustings, he realised his folly at seeking too much too soon without having a proper organisation in place.

When Delhi again went to this polls this February, Kejriwal surprised the pollsters by bagging over 50 per cent of the popular vote and winning 67 of the 70 seats. Again, he took the CM’s oath at Ramlila Maidan but made it clear that this time around he was now a changed man.

Second avatar

To silence his critics who accused him of abandoning Delhi, he declared at the outset, “I have decided that for the next five years, we will focus only on Delhi. I will serve Delhi with all my heart.”

Modi, of course, was still high on his mind. Kejriwal urged the Prime Minister to leave Delhi to him and focus on the country instead. And while calling upon people to end the country’s VIP culture, he said that if PMs in other countries could wait at bus stands, why can that not happen in India. Kejriwal also urged Modi to think about giving full statehood to Delhi. He followed this up by raising the same demand during his first courtesy call on the PM after assuming office.

If those early statements raised the spectre of confrontation and drama, the first 100 days of Kejriwal 2.0 – barring the recent destructive stand-off with Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung and, consequently, Modi — have been starkly different from his earlier avatar. Most of the posturing is gone. He did not take a Metro ride to his oath-taking ceremony, nor did he refuse his sizeable official accommodation, vehicle or security. Above all, as CM, he has been keeping a low profile.“This government has been different in many ways. We have come with a 70-point action plan and have been following it. The Delhi Dialogue Commission has been constituted to come up with out-of-box solutions to the existing problems and 21 Task Forces have been constituted to identify solutions to difficult issues confronting the city,” senior party leader Ashutosh told The Wire in an interview.

New model?

“The idea,” he said, “is to project and create a new model of governance. The myth is that a government without corruption is not possible; we want to explode this myth. In three months, even if we have not been able to finish corruption, we have managed to bring it down by several notches.” The AAP government also served notices on officials of Reliance India Limited and the shareholders of Niko Resources Limited through its Anti Corruption Bureau, which asked them to join the probe into financial irregularities in natural gas pricing at KG Basin.

As for the people, and particularly the poor who voted for Kejriwal’s AAP in large numbers, Ashutosh said the government has provided them instant relief by providing a 50 per cent subsidy in power bills for consumption of up to 400 units per month and by providing 20,000 litres of free water per household per month. “For the unauthorised colonies, we have started the process of registration and for the farmers we have announced a Rs 20,000 per acre compensation for crop loss.”

The party has also relaxed ‘refusal’ norms for auto-rickshaw drivers, who supported AAP in large numbers, and taken away from the Delhi Traffic Police the powers to prosecute auto drivers for offences other than those pertaining to the motor vehicle rules.

But the AAP Government is not just about handouts, Ashutosh insists. It has also drawn a long-term plan to address various nagging issues. “Last time we were in a minority when he had formed a government, but this time we are sure of a five year term – so all the MLAs have also been told to look at long-term solutions. The DDC is advising the government on these issues. So in the case of water, we have adopted a three-pronged approach: the water tanker mafia has been curbed and adequate water is being sent to the dry parts of the city; pipelines are being restored or being laid to improve water distribution, and the government has taken up the issue of water availability with both the Haryana government and the Centre.”

Similarly, to fulfil the promise of installing 50,000 cameras across the city and providing free Wi-Fi everywhere, Ashutosh said international models are being studied to identify the most appropriate service provider for Delhi. The government has consulted the Infocom Development Authority of Singapore and a three-day pre-bid meeting was held recently to discuss the Wi-Fi project and the possibility of having this service in Delhi Transport Corporation buses as well.

“This government is also one of participation,” said Ashutosh. “The budget was made using a consultative process. We had constituted 11 mohalla sabhas and the issues raised by them were included in the budget. We have also given greater voice to the people by strengthening the complaints mechanism and acting on the nearly 1 lakh complaints received on the helplines.”

Ground reality

But if the mohalla sabhas suggest the AAP government is willing to listen to the public, its hostile attitude towards the media belie the claims of openness. AAP leaders have been unhappy with media coverage of their internal rumblings which ended with senior leaders Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav, Anand Kumar and Ajit Jha being expelled. They have also denounced what they said was the media’s bias in reporting a woman’s complaint against Kumar Vishwas, Law Minister Jitendra Singh Tomar’s ‘fake degree’ story, and the suicide of a farmer at an AAP rally. Asked about the party’s negative attitude towards the media, Ashutosh insisted there has been “an attempt by a section” of media houses to discredit the AAP even as “bigger weaknesses or issues involving Modi are being brushed under the carpet.”

Whatever AAP leaders and their opponents in the BJP and Congress may say, the situation on the ground paints a mixed picture – of limited successes but also emerging problems.

Residents of water-stressed areas in the city confirm that the supply of water by tankers has improved slightly, and that instead of the hefty amounts charged by the ‘tanker mafia’ in the past, they are paying only about one-third the earlier amount as facilitation charge. At the same time, the power situation has deteriorated with 5-6 hour cuts becoming a norm in many areas. As for the registration of property – a useful proxy for the quality of government service delivery – brokers say the process has slowed down after recent raids following which three sub-registrars were suspended. Signature infrastructure projects such as the monorail and the ill-famed Bus Rapid Transit System are also on the chopping block.

In a recent Google Hangout, Kejriwal showed his intent to go by the rulebook when he said his government would soon send the Swaraj and Jan Lokpal Bills to the Centre for clearance before they are tabled in Delhi assembly. In his first tenure, he had refused to do so.

But the CM attacked the Centre for trying to derail the prosecution powers of the state government by not allowing its Anti-Corruption Branch to take up cases of corruption involving the Delhi Police. Kejriwal again took on the Centre after the Lieutenant-Governor appointed a senior bureaucrat, Shakuntala Gamlin, as acting chief secretary this past week against his wishes. Instead of challenging the L-G’s ‘indiscretion’ in court, he shot off a letter to Modi registering his protest. Now, of course, the confrontation has escalated further still, into a full-fledged war of words.

AAP leaders are quick to attack Modi and his regime. However, Modi and Kejriwal follow the same personality-driven politics and know each other’s game all too well. They are like poles that find it difficult to connect, even if the imperative of governance in Delhi requires both leaders to cooperate. With his government completing 100 days in office on May 24 and Modi completing one year as PM on May 26, Kejriwal has made an playful suggestion: “There should be a comparison to see how each of us have performed. It will be quite interesting.” Will Modi take the bait?

(In an earlier version of this story, Arvind Kejriwal’s first tenure as Chief Minister was wrongly stated as having lasted 46 days)