Something unprecedented happened on August 12. The chief minister and deputy chief minister of an Indian state, whose party was elected to rule by the highest majority vote the country has ever witnessed, and 11 MLAs of their party were charged with having assaulted a senior bureaucrat of their own government. They now face possible arrest, and having to appear at a police station, and to seek bail in court.
All this is happening despite clauses in the constitution, and the code of criminal procedure, that immunise every judge, every legislator and every Central or state official against prosecution without the prior consent of the government. That consent has obviously been given, but by whom?
Since Arvind Kejriwal is himself the head of government in Delhi, who had the necessary authority to sanction a criminal case against him and his deputy Manish Sisodia?
The answer, of course, is President Ram Nath Kovind. But was he even asked?
The question is relevant because over the past three and a half years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spared no effort to destroy not only the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi but also Kejriwal’s personal reputation. If a man’s fear of another is measured by how far he is prepared to go to destroy him, then Modi’s fear of Kejriwal reflects an incipient panic. If, on the other hand, this single minded persecution is motivated solely by a desire for revenge for inflicting what he considers a personal defeat on him in the Delhi 2015 elections, then it reveals a vengefulness, and a contempt for the rule of law, that makes him unfit to rule a democracy.
Both these emotions are visible behind the relentless persecution of AAP. The Modi government began by arguing before the Delhi high court that Article 239AA of the constitution which covers the state of Delhi be effectively trashed. The judgment which followed reduced the status of the state to that of the Andamans. It then used the judgment to hijack the entire Delhi administration from the elected government. Not only did then Lieutenant Governor Najib Jung refuse assent to every bill the cabinet passed, but he got the police to raid the Delhi secretariat and commandeer 400 files to setup a parallel administration in his office, and hunt for grounds on which the ministers could be prosecuted. Side by side, he used the CBI to “gently admonish” scores of mid-level officials to double check every instruction they received to the LG’s office.
When the AAP government tried to use its own MLAs for fact finding and oversight of programs and sanctioned payments to cover their expenses, the Centre successfully got a court to declare them as holders of offices of profit and get them disqualified.
When, inspite of all this, the AAP government drastically reformed education in government schools, and public health, and made significant progress in regularising unauthorised shanty colonies and providing them with power and water connections, the home ministry transferred the respective secretaries without even informing the chief minister or his cabinet.
It is against this background that the cases registered against Kejriwal and Sisodia need to be viewed. Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash was undoubtedly jostled, and possibly assaulted by MLAs sitting beside him during the late night meeting at the chief minister’s house. But no one, not even V.K. Jain, who has changed an earlier statement and confirmed the assault, has suggested that it was pre-planned, or that Kejriwal or Sisodia raised a hand against Prakash.
So on what grounds has the police filed charges of assault and conspiracy against them?
There is a third possibility: This could be the opening salvo of a bid by the RSS to fatally weaken the opposition with all kinds of cases and charges. The RSS leaders cannot but know that the strategy of communal polarisation has backfired, because it has brought the opposition together on the single platform of driving out the BJP to save the nation. They must also be aware that that with no concrete economic improvement to show for its five years in power, the BJP will find it difficult to hold onto the 31% vote it captured in 2014. Thus, there is every likelihood that it will suffer a crushing defeat 2019.
While there is no reason, as yet, to believe that this is what the Modi-Shah regime has in mind, there have been too many flagrantly provocative actions in the past few weeks: charg sheeting of the chief minister of a state; an attempt to kill student leader Umar Khalid who has attained the status of an icon for Muslim youth; three more lynchings of Muslims in the past six weeks on top of an average of one a month in the past four years, all without a single word of reprimand or single action against complicit policemen. All this has been capped by the threat that as many as four million people – many, if not most, reportedly Muslims – could lose their identities, face internment or deportation and, in any case, and with it, every vestige of a chance to improve their lives.
No one knows what will come next. Will it be more lynchings, more attempts on the lives of secular intellectuals, a stepped up hunt for terrorists and another “10 for 1” spate of firing across the LOC in Kashmir, or another stand-off with China on the Himalayan border. All that is certain is that by its sustained silence on every kind of vigilanteism, from ghar wapsi, to ‘love jihad’, to gau raksha, to attacks on Muslims daring to raise the national flag on Republic day, the Modi government has calculatedly recruited the worst elements of India’s lumpenproletariat into its ranks.
It is not possible to predict when, and on what issue, the tensions the RSS has created in Indian society will make it burst into flame. But can we be sure it would not have happened if Umar Khalid had been assassinated on Monday. Can we be sure that the next lynching will not be the one that makes the worm turn? Can we even be sure that the Muslims facing statelessness will not turn to terrorism just as the jobless immigrant-born youth of Europe are doing today.
Can we predict what the reaction of Delhi’s poor will be if they see their deeply revered chief minister and his deputy in handcuffs on their TV sets? Can we even be sure that next year the kanwariyas, emboldened by the rose petals that the UP chief of police showered upon them, will not attack Muslims in Ghaziabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar or elsewhere? Can we be sure that a firebrand Muslim will not one day rise and say that it is better to die with honour than to live as a slave and commit some unspeakable atrocity that will give the RSS the pretext it is looking for?
Former BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who passed away on August 16, spent many days on his death bed with doctors waiting for the procession of dignitaries to come pay homage to him to end before removing his life support systems. Vajpayee was many things – poet, philosopher, a man of wit and a master of repartee. But above all he was man of peace, who opened the way to ending the insurgency in Kashmir and turning Pakistan from foe to friend.
As the BJP and RSS luminaries trooped through his hospital room, I wonder how many of them paused to admit that they have undone in four years every last thing that Vajpayee had spent his life trying to achieve.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of several books.
Note: In an earlier version, the author erroneously used Article 295 instead of Article 239A and 239AA