After three years of relentless effort, India’s democracy has finally succeeded in breaking Arvind Kejriwal’s back.
Last week, the Aam Aadmi Party leader apologised to former Punjab minister Bikram Singh Majithia for having called him the state’s drug lord. He followed this with apologies to the son of former Congress minister Kapil Sibal, and BJP minister Nitin Gadkari. With each apology, his stock among the ordinary people has sunk lower. And unfortunately, he has several more apologies to go.
Kejriwal’s detractors are openly jubilant. And they are not confined to the BJP, but are spread across all party lines. For despite the rapidly increasing polarisation between the BJP and the opposition, all seem to be in complete accord that Kejriwal and the AAP are upstarts in politics and must be destroyed.
Narendra Modi’s onslaught on AAP is well documented. It began in April 2015 with his pliant lieutenant governor, Najeeb Jung’s physical seizure of the offices of Delhi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau, and the ejection of police officers serving in it. The move was designed to pre-empt the investigation of 70 cases of corruption and extortion in the Delhi administration, nine-tenths of which involved policemen and officials of the three municipal corporations.
In the months that followed, armed with a notification issued by his own home ministry, and a judgment given by a one-judge bench of the Delhi high court that despite article 295(a) of the constitution, Delhi state was no different from the Andamans, the LG rejected bill after bill passed by the Vidhan Sabha. He took away the chief minister’s right to choose his own officers; transferred those who worked closely with him, or carried out their duties diligently without even warning, let alone consulting, him; got the CBI to ‘bring in for questioning’ no fewer than 150 junior officials and left them in no doubt that their future depended upon their diligence in reporting all the plans and decisions of their ministers to the Central home ministry.
When this cut the government off from feedback on the implementation of its policies and decisions – and forced Kejriwal to delegate the task of information gathering to his MLAs by appointing them as unpaid parliamentary secretaries to his ministers – the Election Commission, headed by a Modi appointee, suddenly found them guilty of holding offices of profit and disqualified them.
Kejriwal took all this without flinching. He refused to be provoked by this flagrant abuse of law and the constitution into intemperate responses that would give his opponents the opportunity to depict him as an iconoclast who did not know how to govern. He held his party and government together against Modi’s relentless attempts to break his government by splitting the party. And he showed the country that the people of Delhi were standing solidly behind him. When a lone defector from his party contested the bye -election that followed on a BJP ticket, he lost the seat he had won by 24,000 votes as a member of AAP, by 22,000 votes. Last week, the Delhi high court struck down the EC’s order disqualifying AAP’s MLAs.
Why BJP feels threatened by AAP
Modi’s sustained assault on Kejriwal and the AAP shows that the Sangh parivar has taken the party’s challenge seriously. For as a movement built upon ideology, it has been quick to recognise the threat from one that is built upon a radically different ideology – that of class conflict. The opposition could have profited from the presence of AAP but lacks the far-sighted leadership that can do so. AAP’s most unforgiving detractor has been the Congress. The Congress has never forgiven it for first defeating, and then annihilating it in two successive elections in Delhi. As a result, it has adamantly refused to have anything to do with the party, even when not doing so runs the risk of handing victory on a plate to the BJP.
Two recent interactions highlight how deep the animosity runs. When a pall of smoke from burning paddy straw descended upon Delhi from Punjab and Haryana in October, Kejriwal tried to contact Captain Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab, to set up a meeting. He received no reply. Not deterred, he telephoned several times, but met only stony silence.
That this was not simply a maharaja disdaining contact with a ‘menial’ became apparent four months later when Kejriwal tried to contact Rahul Gandhi repeatedly to cement an alliance in Gujarat. Kejriwal proposed neither an electoral alliance nor a sharing of seats. What he offered was to set up candidates in a number of constituencies to divide the BJP’s vote and allow the Congress to win. He knew that AAP did not have enough of a following in Gujarat to win any seats on its own, but it could cut into the votes of the BJP and enable the Congress to win. But the Congress did not respond. Rahul Gandhi, too, did not take Kejriwal’s calls. How costly this proved became apparent when the BJP won 18 out of its 99 seats by a margin of 5,000 or fewer votes, and 9 of them with a margin of less than 2,000.
The AAP had weathered the attacks of the Central government; it could also have weathered its political isolation. But what finally seems to have broken its back was not the political system, but the spate of defamation cases that had been lodged against Kejriwal and his lieutenants for the allegations of corruption they had hurled against political notables belonging to both the BJP and the Congress during AAP’s rise to power.
Libel and defamation are serious issues, but there is a huge difference between allegations that are essentially political, and therefore of a non-specific nature, and those that are personal – which may destroy a human being’s family life, reputation and capacity to work and earn a livelihood.
Kejriwal and his party members had made innumerable allegations of corruption and criminality against political parties, and specific persons. But their purpose had been to highlight the corruption and criminalisation of politics, and not specifically the individuals alleged to have benefited from it. In doing this, they had voiced what has become a virtual truism.
The Association for Democratic Rights regularly publishes lists of the assets declared by candidates for political office, and of the criminal indictments standing against their names. Both in the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas, around one third of the members and a larger proportion of the candidates, have criminal records or cases pending against them. A disturbing proportion – amounting to a majority in many state legislatures – are indicted for one of the six most serious crimes in the Indian Penal Code, i.e. murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, armed robbery and the illegal possession of arms. By the same token, the declared assets of the majority of candidates bear no relationship to their earning capability, or education. And no one has any idea how much individuals and political parties spend on elections or day-to day expenditure and how they raise this money.
Ordinary Indians do not need these statistics to understand just how completely their democratic system has disempowered them. They come face to face with this every time they go to a government office to obtain a license, a permit, an authorisation, a ration card, to collect their pension, obtain a refund on taxes, or simply collect their food ration from a fair price shop. Today none outside a thin political crust consisting of criminals and second generation politicians – princelings – stands much chance of entering politics, let alone winning a seat. Add to this a bureaucracy completely shielded from accountability to the public, and the disempowerment of ordinary Indians is complete.
This is the disempowerment that the movement against corruption that Kejriwal first joined was committed to fighting. This is what he formed the Aam Aadmi Party to fight against when he realised that petitions, demonstrations and public interest litigation would not suffice to break the nexus that had developed between corruption, crime and political power. It was inevitable, therefore, that AAP would highlight the corrupt and predatory nature of our political system. And since the mere names of many prominent politicians and their backers were already bywords for the abuse of power, that his party would use their names in its campaigns.
Our common sense tells us that if we separate the individuals who have been allegedly defamed from the systems that they have propped up and prospered under, then taking their names can be considered defamatory. But if they are part of a corrupt and criminalised political system – and a political party refers to them in order to draw the public’s attention to the extortion and corruption that has hollowed out the democratic system – then defamation of the individual cannot be considered the main purpose of taking his or her name. In doing so, therefore, AAP’s leaders may have been technically at fault, but not morally so, for their purpose was not to impugn and punish the individual but reform the political system.
American law does recognise the difference. The first amendment to its constitution and numerous Supreme Court judgments have made it exceedingly difficult to file suits alleging the latter kind of defamation. Findings of defamation are not unknown, but have been extremely rare. Unfortunately, Indian jurisprudence has gone the other way. India is one of the few democracies in the world to still retain criminal defamation as a separate offence from civil defamation. Moreover, judges routinely admit defamation cases on the flimsiest of pretexts. The federal structure of our judiciary has allowed individuals and political parties with deep pockets to harrass defendants by filing the same case in every state where a report of the allegation has been carried in the press.
Arvind Kejriwal is not facing 33 defamation cases because he defamed 33 persons, but because there are cases filed against him in 33 courts. While the defendant has to prove his or her innocence in every court, it requires conviction in only one of them to send him to jail. Fighting such multiple indictments requires endless stamina, enormous amounts of time and very deep pockets. Few defendants have all three. The plaintiffs, of course, know this. That is how they have been able to turn even the judicial system, that many consider the last pillar of democracy, into an instrument of oppression.
Kejriwal’s decision to apologise marks a tactical withdrawal from a field of battle in which he could not win. But the dismay provoked by his announcement shows that the disempowered millions have seen it as a defeat. His opponents are jubilant, but in the long run there is nothing to rejoice about, for Kejriwal’s defeat is democracy’s defeat.
The lesson that the poor have learned from this is that they cannot end their disempowerment by democratic means. From this, it is a short step to concluding that Indian democracy is itself a sham. And from there it is only a slightly longer step to violence. The Aam Aadmi party rocketed to success in Delhi because it offered an alternative to bandhs, gheraos, processions, hunger strikes and attacks on public buildings as ways of forcing the state to accede to their wishes. If it is crushed by a tacit coalition of all the political parties that form part of the criminalised elite of the country, then at least one section of the public may come believe violence remains the only alternative left open to them.
There is a lesson that the opposition needs to learn: AAP may not have the numbers, but Kejriwal has the ideological platform that the vast masses of India crave. Its appeal is to the youth and the growing professional class of the country. In this respect, Kejriwal’s personal appeal is similar to that of Bernie Saunders during the US primaries in 2016. To defeat Modi and the BJP’s brand of ‘Hindutva’, the opposition needs to gain the support of these two groups in society. Therefore, they need to work with AAP, not try relentlessly to isolate it. If they fail to do so, while large numbers of these classes may not vote for AAP in its present avatar, they may, like millions of young people in the US, choose not to vote at all.
Prem Shankar Jha is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.