Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mukul Kesavan: Modi vs Kejriwal: the Chief Minister is Ahead

There's a nice symmetry to the way in which the Aam Aadmi Party's leadership loses people. Its most plausible metropolitan members are purged from within by Arvind Kejriwal while its most brutish stalwarts are disabled from without by angry policemen or estranged spouses. The loss of its most cultivated members is balanced out by the loss of its coarsest, and in this way, a happy equilibrium is found.

During these periodic ructions partisan critics gloat, bien pensantfellow-travellers despair while the AAP explores new ways of being insurgent. The last mentioned isn't hard; the central government, maddened by the Delhi elections is rampaging about doing its rogue elephant routine. The plan - shackled as we are to political reason, we have to look for a plan - must be to show Delhi's voters that the man they made chief minister via an electoral avalanche, is just a gelded mayor, constitutionally disbarred from picking his nose without the central government's permission.

Delhi's voters knew that the Delhi government doesn't control the city's police; they now know through a notification issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs that it doesn't run the civil service either. The BJP's plan seems to be that if the AAP can be shown to be impotent, voters, both in Delhi and elsewhere, will come to think of the Delhi election as a bad bet and turn to the politically virile alternative: Narendra Modi and the BJP.

The legal cover for the Modi government's exercise in AAP-baiting is derived from a contested reading of the National Capital Region of Delhi Act (1991) and Article 239 AA of the Constitution which together laid the legislative groundwork for the establishment of the Delhi Assembly. The Act withheld certain powers which are normally the prerogative of state governments and vested them in the central government.

The Home ministry claims that public services, hitherto seen as the Delhi Government's domain, fall under the jurisdiction of the central government. Invoking this reading of the law to hamstring the Delhi government and provoke Kejriwal into indiscretion must have seemed a sharp scheme to Messrs Modi & Shah, still hurting as they were from February's rout, but it really isn't.

It makes no political sense to pit a nominated constitutional functionary against the largest electoral majority that Delhi (or for that matter any state assembly) has ever seen. There is no rhetorical mileage to be had from it. Or there is but only for Kejriwal; for him, this stand-off is the gift that keeps on giving. The Yadav-Bhushan purge, the dodgy law minister, the incorrigibly unattractive Somnath Bharti, these blots that keep threatening to reduce Kejriwal & Co to machine politicians are dry-cleaned into a snowy whiteness by this ongoing spectacle: plucky David assaulted by that prince of bad losers, Goliath.

The division of executive powers at the state assembly level has a particular colonial history. Once the electoral principle was conceded by the British Raj early in the twentieth century, it was anxious to ensure that provincial governments weren't hijacked by upstart Indian netasintoxicated by electoral success. One way of doing this was by making crucial administrative and law and order functions the prerogative of unelected civil servants who answered to the colonial government, not Indian electorates.

This pre-emptive division of powers where civil servants exercised authoritarian control over the sinews of government - police, justice, law and order and land revenue - while elected desis pottered about looking after 'soft' portfolios like sanitation and education, was formalised by the Government of India Act of 1919 into a system that is described in history textbooks as 'dyarchy'. It was a system detested by Indian politicians as a mockery of responsible government and in 1935, a new colonial constitution abolished 'reserved' subjects and transferred complete control over provincial administration to wholly elected provincial governments.

The strangeness of trying to reprise a quasi-colonial dyarchy in a republican democracy has been obvious ever since the current avatar of the Delhi Assembly was constituted in 1992. There is a reason why every political party in Delhi, including the BJP, has demanded full statehood including control over the police and the bureaucracy. Had Delhi not been granted an assembly and had the capital city been run in a frankly unrepresentative way as Washington is, the question of self-government might never have arisen, but that ship has sailed.

There is a reasonable case to be made for creating safeguards that prevent Delhi's governments from encroaching upon the central government's freedom of action in the nation's capital, but on any reasonable view, these fall well short of the sweeping control over the city's land, police and bureaucracy that is currently claimed by the union government.

The Aam Aadmi Party is perfectly placed to make the democratic case for full self-government. It has a massive popular mandate, a limitless appetite for confrontational face-offs - its political stock-in-trade - and a populist agenda that it can plausibly claim is being thwarted not by an inability to govern, but the obstructionist hostility of a union government which refuses to acknowledge an elected government's political remit.

So long as Arvind Kejriwal isn't provoked into a dharna on Rajpath or a quixotic resignation, there is no downside for the Aam Aadmi Party in this game of chicken. The cost to the BJP could be substantial. For one, it seems to have written off Delhi, once a BJP stronghold, as an electoral arena. When Nalin Kohli, the spokesperson of a party once committed to full statehood for Delhi, derides Delhi's newly elected chief minister as a 'glorified municipal commissioner', you know that the BJP's pique has gotten the better of its sense of political self-preservation.

Mr Modi's commitment to cooperative federalism seems not to extend to chief ministers who best him in electoral contests. No one who lived through Delhi's election campaign is likely to forget that Mr Modi literally put his face on the line... and lost. Now, his government seems to be bent on smothering the political infant birthed by that election in its crib.

Public vindictiveness is a charmless trait in a political party. We have to assume that the BJP's leadership has a reason for declaring open season on AAP, but for anyone but party diehards, the optics of this are awful.