As Arvind Kejriwal, for better or worse, stays busy fighting political battles, governance gets the short shrift in the capital
The residents of Delhi gasped for breath as air pollution reached alarming levels for over a week after Diwali on October 30. The air quality index broke all records as, in some areas, the particulate matter (PM2.5) crossed the 900 mark, which, in simple terms, means that the air people were inhaling those days was 15 times toxic than the normal. The deadly cocktail of pollutants and gases saw hundreds of residents rushing to doctors and hospitals with allergies and respiratory conditions. Finally, a good 10 days after a blanket of hazy air had enveloped Delhi, the government moved in to tackle the environment-cum-health emergency. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal ordered schools to remain closed, construction work to stop, and roads to be vacuum-cleaned. However, it was too late and surely too little.
For Delhi, Diwali-time smog is not a new phenomenon; in fact, the Delhi pollution control committee should have been monitoring pollution and should have raised an alarm when it crossed permissible limits. The agency is supposed to inspect construction sites and give them approval certificates. On the hindsight, it’s clear that the Delhi government’s various agencies had not even followed the guidelines issued by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on pollution control.
The lapses went unnoticed, since for the man at the helm, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, governance has ceased to be a priority; his ambitions had outgrown ruling Delhi as he was spending more time travelling to Punjab, Goa and other states building AAP’s case as a national political party. Kejriwal, who had come into politics with the promise of good and corruption-free governance, was challenging prime minister Narendra Modi and hobnobbing with political leaders. Besides his prolonged absence, governance also suffered because of the tug of war between him and Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, an IAS officer. At times, Kejriwal’s proposals on governance were also stonewalled by Narendra Modi’s government.
It’s not that the politics of conflict is new to Delhi. The Sheila Dikshit-headed Congress government had also worked and coexisted with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government (1998-2004) in the centre. To understand how Dikshit struck a cordial work relation with the political rivals at the centre, I met the former CM in her swanky bungalow in Delhi’s Nizamuddin East. Dikshit, since named the Congress party’s chief ministerial candidate for Uttar Pradesh, spoke to me about her tenure. Reclining on dark brown sofa that was in stark contrast to the beige cotton-silk saree she wore, Dikshit recalled how the centre had approved Delhi Metro that turned out to be her biggest achievement. This improved life for Delhiites became a reason why people voted her to rule for two more terms. Going down the memory lane, she said: “March 1999, I reached Raj Niwas sharp at 10.30 am, met the then Lieutenant Governor Vijai Kapoor with the agenda to make Delhi Metro a reality. Weeks later, we met the then union home minister LK Advani to get his approval for the project. And within three years, Delhi Metro dream became a reality.”
In the last two years, she feels, things have changed dramatically.
Sample this: The chief minister of Delhi is supposed to often meet the Lt Governor, preferably once a week. Yet, last time Kejriwal met Jung was in October – after a gap of four months. Incredible it may sound, the two didn’t meet even when Delhi was facing the chikungunya epidemic in September; both were out of town that time. As many as 15 people had died of chikungunya.
Back then, Kejriwal was in Bengaluru undergoing surgery for his enlarged tongue, while his close confidant and deputy Manish Sisodia was in Finland. Their absence during the crisis was in sharp contrast to Kejriwal’s thunderous claims made at the Ramlila Maidan on February 14, 2015: “We are not here to grab power but to give governance back in the hands of people. Now, the 1.5 crore people of Delhi will run the government.”
“Literally,” exclaims former chief minister Dikshit in a raised tone. “He has left everything in the hands of the people, because he and his ministers are not there in the capital. How can all the ministers be away during such [chikungunya] a crisis? How can you govern when you are not in Delhi?” she asked, arching her eyebrows.
“During my government we ensured that there was no crisis situation.”
Within weeks of taking charge, Kejriwal’s confrontation with the BJP-ruled centre and the LG had snowballed into a full-scale war. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had won a landslide victory in the 2015 election bagging 67 of the 70 assembly seats in Delhi. The brute majority could have helped AAP govern better; instead Delhi saw Kejriwal constantly bickering with the LG.
Kejriwal versus predecessors
Delhi is technically a union territory, not a full-fledged regular state. It used to have a legislative assembly but it was abolished in 1956. The assembly was re-established in 1993 – with the Congress ruling the centre – when BJP’s Madan Lal Khurana became the chief minister. Dikshit, chief minister from 1998 to 2013, claimed her government worked “amicably” with the Vajpayee regime at the centre.
So far, the Delhi assembly has enacted 202 laws. Former Delhi assembly secretary SK Sharma points out that AAP government has managed to get 14 bills passed by legislature, which are yet to become the law as the centre – final authority for clearing a law for Delhi – had returned all citing “procedural lapses”.
At present, the AAP government is locked in a legal battle over the appointment of 21 parliamentary secretaries. As the fate of these lawmakers, whose appointment as parliamentary secretaries stands challenged in the court, hangs in the balance, old timers recall how such issues were handled earlier. In 1997, then chief minister Sahib Singh Verma of BJP had walked to the room of the leader of the opposition Jag Pravesh Chandra in the Delhi assembly to seek his approval for the appointment of Nand Kishore Garg as a parliamentary secretary. Chandra, a Congress man, readily said yes. Small courtesies had saved the situation for the government then. Garg, however, had soon realised that his post could be deemed an office of profit and resigned four days later. First, Kejriwal broke the tradition of taking the opposition into confidence and now, when as an afterthought, the Delhi government has passed the bill to keep the post of parliamentary secretary out of the office of profit list, the president hasn’t given his assent to it. He has referred the bill to the election commission for comments. Kejriwal is back to slamming others; this time, the president, for, what he alleges is a ‘purely political’ delay.
Lawmaking in Delhi can be a long-drawn affair. The government has to send the draft of the proposed bill to the LG. After the legislature passes a bill, it is again sent to the LG, who in turn forwards it to the president for final approval. So far, the Kejriwal government has not sent the draft of a single bill, including its much touted Jan Lokpal Bill, to the LG. It has only sent the bills passed by the assembly, knowing well that these will get stuck due to the lapse of their draft not having the approval of LG.
A former Delhi government official recalls how in 2002 he had seen Dikshit make a silent case for a full statehood for Delhi. “She would meet top officials in union ministries to make a pitch for full statehood; she would do it with tact and conduct.” A few days later, Dikshit was informed that Advani had introduced a bill for full statehood to Delhi in parliament. Immediately, a special session of the Delhi assembly was convened to pass a resolution.
SK Sharma recalls: “Interestingly, the draft of the resolution to be tabled in the Delhi assembly was cleared by the centre itself. It has never happened in history that the centre drafted a bill to be tabled in a legislative assembly. It just showed the amiability between the two governments.”
Tiff with centre
The Kejriwal government’s acrimonious relationship with Jung had finally made the Delhi high court take up the issue last year and it ruled that the LG, and not the Delhi government, is the administrative head of the capital.
The court order reads: “Article 239-AA (4) mandates that the Lt Governor is required to exercise his functions in respect of matters covered by Article 239-AA (3)(a) on the aid and advice of Chief Minister and the Council of Ministers. Delhi has its own elected Government and Council of Ministers with Chief Minister as the head and Delhi can therefore be said to be administered by its elected members. The Lieutenant Governor has a defined role to play in matters not allocated to the State and that too in accordance with the TBR (Transaction of Business Rules). The word ‘administered’ in this recital in relation to ‘Services’ must therefore be confined to mean only that Public Service Personnel are drawn from the Union Cadre of the Central Government and no more.”
Forget about taking cognisance of the court order in letter and spirit, Kejriwal does not even meet Jung on regular basis. An official at the LG office told me, “Initially the CM would meet the LG once a week or two. Soon the meetings became intermittent and with time they turned rare. Now, they take place in weeks and sometimes in months.”
The chief minister’s office in the Delhi secretariat looks deserted due to Kejriwal’s prolonged absence. Delhi BJP president Satish Upadhyay said that Kejriwal hardly visited office in the last two months. “I am told Kejriwal attended CM office only twice in last two months that even for five minutes each time. He remained in other states for 28 days,” he had tweeted.
Sources in the Delhi government admit governance is getting the short shrift as the ministers are hardly informed about the administrative works taking place in their respective departments. The secretaries of departments are directly called by the LG for meetings. This has led to chronic breakdown of communication between the ministers and their secretaries. It seems the bureaucrats also go on leave without informing the ministers, said an official. The Delhi government thus faces a breach in the chain of command. “Sometimes the secretaries skip department meetings since they think the LG is their boss and not the minister,” said a Delhi official.
Due to the strained relations between the CM and LG, files on key decisions and plans remain at the LG office for long periods. On October 28, the home department had sent a letter to the LG’s office asking it to return the 24 files. The letter states that in the absence of these files, the progress on important policies, programmes and schemes have been adversely affected.
Delhi home minister Satyendar Jain said: “The files have not been returned by LG for last three months. Also, most of the administrative orders come directly from the LG. The ministers are not even kept in the loop about the meetings. The LG calls the meetings and decisions are taken without any information to the minister concerned,” he said. But isn’t the LG the administrative head? Jain said, “He is the boss, but who comes after the LG? It is the chief minister and the cabinet ministers. With such administrative gaps, it is difficult to work in a democratic setup.”
In Delhi, governance often faces the hurdle of too many authorities, which at times get locked in jurisdiction wars and blame games. During the chikungunya crisis, the BJP-ruled municipal corporations and the Delhi government had blamed each other for the viral outbreak.
Not just common people, bureaucrats too are at the receiving end of this perpetual tussle. The LG has ordered shifting of a number of senior officials in the middle of key projects ignoring the AAP government’s protest. Some of the controversial transfers were of the the PWD secretary, managing director of Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation, industry secretary and health secretary.
A former government bureaucrat, however, defends this. “When the LG is the final authority, it is upto him to decide the transfer of officials. He is the administrator of NCT Delhi. There remains no scope for the government to make a hue and cry over the appointments and transfers of the bureaucrats.”
The first AAP government, that lasted two months, was democratic; seemed keen on taking all stakeholders along and bringing in transparency in governance through citizen participation. “But in the second term, there was a vulgar display of arrogance of power, high dogmatism, opportunism, client politics with an eye on strengthening the role of loyalists in the party and vote-bank manipulators,” said professor Anand Kumar, ex-AAP member and a national convener of Swaraj Abhiyan, a breakaway group of some of the former AAP founders.
He said the current government is very different from the first. “It has a coterie, where loyalty to the big boss matters more; that coterie is ruling the entire party. Kejriwal has a group of loyalists who are his blue-eyed boys, while the rest do not even matter to him. Most of these loyalists are holding big cabinet positions, either they are party spokespersons or chairman of the commissions.”
How power seems to have got better of AAP’s initial enthusiasm for a clean and transparent policy is illustrated by an incident. On May 14, the government had set up a nine-member Delhi Dialogue Commission (DDC) to make governance more inclusive and named former journalist Ashish Khetan as its vice-president. The DDC had invited online applications for the posts of coordinators and facilitators. Within 24 hours of the advertisement, a group of men barged in the office of Ashish Joshi, member secretary, asking him to include their names in the list of applicants. When Joshi refused, they misbehaved with him. The next day Khetan confronted Joshi in the presence of AAP leader Sanjay Singh: “Times have changed. Bureaucrats have to learn to listen to people’s representatives.” Joshi then wrote a letter to the chief secretary about the mounting pressure to make appointments. He was shifted.
The angry man
Some of his partymen say that even in his early days, Kejriwal had thrown temper tantrums and displayed despotic tendencies; he also seemed to be fixated with his own ideas. AAP MLA from Bijwasan Colonel Devinder Sehrawat, a vocal critic of the CM, narrated an incident. In 2009, he said, once Kejriwal was interacting with farmers for preparing an alternative draft of the land acquisition bill. This was before he had entered politics. He remembers Kejriwal came in his trademark white shirt and grey pant and held a notebook in his hand.
“Arvind wanted to exchange notes and decide how to acquire land. While this was going on, one of the farmers got up and said that being owners the farmers should have a final say in deciding how land be acquired. He suddenly snapped at him and abruptly ended the meeting,” said Sehrawat. “Arvind later said, yeh to alag hi vichaar waale hain (These people have different views). Even back then, he had fixed ideas, even though he was consulting people he wanted to impose his own ideas,” he told Governance Now.Kejriwal didn’t complete the draft.
“Earlier we used to think that his bouts of anger and misbehaviour were due to his high blood pressure and diabetes. But soon we realised that he was like that; very dismissive of subordinates,” said Anand Kumar. He admitted that he does not have pleasant things to say about Kejriwal.
“If you ask an uncomfortable question, he does not like it,” says an AAP leader not wishing to be named. He said once Kejriwal had called party MLAs to seek their help in arranging audience for a rally at Jantar Mantar. “Each MLA was asked to get 10 fully crowded buses. This MLA from Chandni Chowk sprang up and asked, from where do we get the money to get 10 buses? I don’t have that kind of money. Kejriwal looked at him angrily and said, I think you are done with your MLA-ship, you won’t get a ticket next time,” he recalls.
It’s been nearly two years since AAP got an unprecedented mandate to rule Delhi. Has Kejriwal lost interest in ruling Delhi or has he chosen to play victim by picking battles with political bigwigs to nurture his political ambitions?
(The article appears in December 1-15, 2016 edition of Governance Now)