Delhi’s CM acts like a chief disgruntled officer… Will it pay dividends for him?


C P Surendran

The basic issue that guides Delhi to the brink in recent times tends to be interpreted as a personality problem. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, also leader of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi Legislative Assembly, is a confrontationist. So, after a fashion, is the Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi. And they don’t like each other.
Mr Kejriwal might have got away with it but for the fact that both chieftains occupy the same administrative and geographical territory. Mix that potent potion with the poison of the uncertain constitutional status of Delhi, and what you get is the present stymied situation.
Which goes like this: the AAP has been staging a dharna in the office of the lieutenant-governor, Mr Anil Baijal, who is the representative of the government at the Centre and answerable to the President. The BJP holds a counter-dharna in the chief minister’s office. The administrative officers (the IAS and those of other services) are uncooperative. Which means life goes on, though it is not clear why or how.
The issues have been simmering ever since the AAP came to power in 2015. Mr Kejriwal is not a man who likes to be ignored. And he is loath to play second fiddle to anyone. If the BJP gives him what he considers to be his due, it is entirely possible that he will join hands with the saffron party without much thought lost on the political morals involved.
And he would justify it with reasonable-sounding arguments against the Congress Party, which too he has alienated. Perhaps Mr Kejriwal thinks that since his party had won 67 of the 70 Assembly seats all on his own, the Congress should be lining up at his door. In effect, Mr Kejriwal has to take on both parties. He has in fact united the main Opposition party with the ruling BJP against him. This makes his life difficult, and pushes him into a situation where he ends up acting not as a chief minister, but as the chief disgruntled officer. This is not such a bad thing as one might assume. Mr Kejriwal has made a successful political career out of disgruntlement.
But the personalities aside, there is a problem regarding Delhi’s status as an administrative unit. This might have been largely academic had the main players been not so vindictive and demanding. Last year, the BJP-led Centre challenged the Arvind Kejriwal government’s submission in the Supreme Court on the issue of supremacy in administering the national capital territory. The Supreme Court evaded the issue altogether and said Delhi enjoyed a “special status” among the Union territories under the Constitution, but that did not make it a full-fledged state.
The Centre had argued that the Constitution was silent on awarding “co-extensive executive and legislative powers to the Delhi government”. The case spun on an earlier verdict by the Delhi high court which stated that the lieutenant-governor was the administrative head of the national capital.
The AAP’s position was that it was the elected government and that as the direct representatives of the people, the chief minister should be calling the shots. In effect, this leaves Mr Kejriwal only in charge of the daily operations of administrative matters in certain areas.
For all his faults, Mr Kejriwal is a clever politician. He knows that Delhi is a constitutional grey area. Sometime in 2019, or possibly early in the following year, Delhi will see the next Assembly elections. Mr Kejriwal is certain to play up his administrative problems and tell voters how his government had been held back from delivering on its promises because of the Centre, and the lack of powers of the Kejriwal ministry. He is likely to make the elections a constitutional issue, which lifts him from the position of a mere disgruntled man to that of a freedom fighter of a kind.
This strategy might well pay dividends. Mr Kejriwal is excellent at playing the victim card, as the underdog. The recent dharnas and morchas in the nation’s capital have caught the imagination of the people. This is because the average Indian — the aam aadmi — is as disgruntled as Mr Kejriwal, and would like to see a change in the power equations. Mr Kejriwal’s antics will gratify him. Which is the reason why Mr Kejriwal may well win the elections again.The Congress Party, which has stayed aloof from the AAP agitation, has not yet seen through this game. A recent tweet by Rahul Gandhi apportions blame equally between the BJP and the AAP. Mr Kejriwal may win the next Delhi Assembly elections. But like a classic rebel, he would still not know what to do with the power that he manages to win. Power is a tiger. Mr Modi is good at riding it.
Mr Kejriwal could learn some lessons from his enemy.