AAP’s day out

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Education Minister Manish Sisodia (left) and Law Minister Somnath Bharti (centre) during a dharna in New Delhi on January 20. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

AAP supporters run over police barricades during a demonstration against the police in New Delhi on January 21. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

The negative publicity the AAP is getting after Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s “anarchist” protest in Delhi and his vigilante Minister’s racial slur does not seem to have affected its huge membership campaign.

JANUARY 20 was a unique day in New Delhi. The heart of the city was under siege, not by slogan-shouting, poster-holding activists but by the newly elected Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, who staged a dharna near the Rail Bhawan after his original plan to protest outside the Union Home Ministry at North Block was thwarted. Kejriwal was demanding action against policemen who had refused to act at the bidding of his Law Minister Somnath Bharti and Women and Child Development Minister Rakhi Birla. He demanded that Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde suspend or transfer the policemen who had failed to act on the Ministers’ orders. (Delhi Police comes under the jurisdiction of the Central government.)

In the middle of the night on January 16, Bharti raided a house in his Malviya Nagar constituency in Delhi where, he claimed, a drug-and-flesh trade racket was going on. He took some local people and policemen along with him to the house where some Ugandan students were residing. Bharti ordered the policemen to break into the house, but they refused. This resulted in a ruckus, and in the meanwhile, the local people caught hold of two Ugandan women, made them sit in the police vehicle and subjected them to several indignities implicating them in sex and drugs rackets. Rakhi Birla’s demand was that the police arrest four or five people who were allegedly torturing their daughter-in-law. In this case, too, the policemen refused to act. The daughter-in-law, incidentally, was set on fire and is battling for life in a hospital with 45 per cent burn injuries.

The Chief Minister demanded that the Police Commissioner and the Home Minister take action against the policemen for dereliction of duty and threatened to stage a dharna in front of the Home Minister’s office if action was not taken by the morning of January 20. Obviously, no action was taken, and when Kejriwal proceeded towards North Block to stage a protest, he was stopped near the Rail Bhawan. He sat in a dharna there itself, and was soon joined by his supporters. The police barricaded the entire area.

Kejriwal and his supporters spent the cold and wet winter night on the road and continued the dharna the following day. With the crowd of supporters swelling as time passed, the entire area was cordoned off, and the adjoining metro stations were closed. An ugly confrontation was beginning to emerge but Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung intervened to defuse the crisis. Jung ordered the policemen involved to go on leave, pending inquiry, and Kejriwal, claiming a partial victory, called off the dharna. A judicial inquiry is now going on into both the cases.

The face-off between the State government and the Centre raised many disturbing questions. Is it constitutional for a Chief Minister to stage a dharna? Should the Centre have allowed the situation to explode? Should not the Home Minister have treated Kejriwal with a little more respect? Is the AAP turning out to be a bunch of immature, inexperienced and haughty individuals? There are differing views on the constitutionality of a Chief Minister staging a protest, but Kejriwal has remained unapologetic about it. “I had no option. What could I do to get them to agree to my demands? This is the fate of the aam aadmi [common man] in this country? He has a right to protest when nobody listens to him. Tell me, have I done something wrong? Where is it written in our Constitution that a Chief Minister cannot sit on a dharna?” he asked this correspondent. The Chief Minister was even willing to put his government’s survival at stake because for him this was a matter of principle. “What is the point in being a Chief Minister if I cannot get even a few policemen transferred?” he asked. The larger issue, he said, was whether a State’s police force should be under the administrative control of the State government or not?

There seems to be a method in his seeming madness. The issue of the State government having control over the police can no longer be brushed aside, and the AAP leaders are confident that now that they have brought it into the limelight a lasting solution will be found. “Sheila Dikshit [previous Chief Minister] only kept complaining about this. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] agrees, but it did nothing all these years. We will not allow this to continue like this,” said Education Minister Manish Sisodia.

There is no denying that it cannot be business as usual any more and the Centre seems to have realised it. “These are long-pending issues and they need to be sorted out,” said a senior Congress leader, adding that sitting in dharna, however, was definitely not the way to go about it.

“There are ways to sort out differences. A Chief Minister should definitely not resort to such gimmicks,” said a Rail Bhawan employee who crossed the police barricades to reach his office after walking a long distance. “He [Kejriwal] has exposed himself to be petulant and immature. This party certainly needs some more time to take mature decisions,” another Central government employee said.

Furore over remarks

While the Chief Minister’s dharna earned the AAP a lot of negative publicity, his Cabinet colleagues’ remarks and actions caused much embarrassment to the party leadership and invited loud protests.

During the midnight raid, Bharti had reportedly said, “Nigerian girls and men indulge in prostitution and drug trafficking and it is a threat to local ma, behen, beti [mothers, sisters and daughters]” (see box). Infuriated by the Minister’s racial slur, more than 40 academics and rights activists in an open letter to Kejriwal on January 22 asked: “Is it not racist to allege that an entire community of Africans are prostitutes and drug traffickers?”

In a 2008 video-recording of a kavi sammellan held in Ranchi (Jharkhand), Kumar Vishwas, who is going to be the AAP’s Lok Sabha candidate in Amethi, was heard saying that Kerala nurses were dark-skinned ( kaali-peeli), so it was not a problem to call them sisters, while those from north India were pretty and hence it was difficult to address them as sister. This video, which gained currency, created a furore in political circles, with Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy joining the ranks of those demanding an apology from Vishwas. Chandy wrote to Kejriwal saying that such derogatory remarks against nurses from Kerala would not be tolerated. Youth Congress workers ransacked the AAP office in Kochi. However, the AAP Kerala unit spokesperson K.P. Rateesh apologised to the people of the State, and said “the AAP has the highest respect for Malayali nurses”.

Bindu Krishna, vice-president of the Mahila Congress, demanded that a criminal case be registered against Vishwas. The eminent Malayalam writer and activist Sara Joseph, who joined the AAP recently, demanded a clarification from the party leadership on the issue. BJP leader K.J. Alphons filed a petition against Vishwas with the National Human Rights Commission saying that his remarks were obnoxious and deplorable. BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi said his remarks disempowered and objectified women. The AAP central leadership has, however, refused to take action against Bharti and Vishwas. While it did not comment on Vishwas’ conduct, it maintained that it would wait for the inquiry committee report for any action against Bharti. “However, we have asked all our leaders to maintain restrain in their language,” senior party leader Yogendra Yadav said.

The negative publicity does not seem to have affected the AAP’s ongoing membership drive, however. The party launched an all-India membership drive on January 10 with the aim of enrolling one crore members by January 26. It has almost reached the target: 98.46 lakh members were admitted within 10 days of launching the campaign. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, the party has decided to continue its drive until the Lok Sabha elections. “We are overwhelmed by the response. People cutting across caste, community, class, region, creed, are joining the AAP,” senior party leader Gopal Rai said.

What is making people flock to the AAP? Is it still being viewed as a serious contender for power at the Centre, challenging the two established parties, the Congress and the BJP? If opinion polls conducted by various agencies are any indication, then the party seems to have emerged unscathed from its street show and has, in fact, earned a few brownie points, the drama notwithstanding.

Only small mistakes

“If what they are doing is called anarchist, then show me where there is no anarchy. I see anarchy all around, that too of the wrong kind. Natural resources are being plundered with impunity, one family is looting the natural resources in connivance with both the Congress and the BJP in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Isn’t that anarchy? Poor people, tribal people and Dalits have no voice anywhere; violence, especially against women, has been increasing. MLAs and MPs, once elected, don’t show their faces for the next five years. In comparison to this, what the AAP is doing is absolutely harmless. After all, the party leaders were demanding a simple thing, why could the Centre not listen to them?” asked E.A.S. Sarma, former bureaucrat and a social activist based in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.

Sarma, who has been associated with the AAP leaders before the party came into existence, says the AAP has definitely emerged as an alternative to the established parties. “It is definitely trying to give a new meaning to the word swaraj. The AAP is definitely trying to bring in participatory democracy,” he said. According to him, the AAP leaders, despite their mistakes, have emerged as well-meaning people, who have slogged their way to being where they are at the moment; are totally transparent about their activities; and are genuinely trying to bring about change.

Sarma has launched the National Election Forum, which is preparing regional manifestos for every village. The manifestos would be presented to all political parties when they visit the area for campaigning. “The AAP is going about its job systematically, and once its policy papers are out, people will be forced to take the party seriously. Let’s not make mincemeat of them for small mistakes. When you do something, you make mistakes, but they are learning from their mistakes,” Sarma said.

Atul Anjan, Communist Party of India leader, is also of the opinion that the AAP has raised expectations and it should be given a fair amount of time to be judged. “Let us not hurry to write them off. Give them time. But the AAP should focus more on governance and less on drama,” he said.

Maj. Gen. (retd) J.P. Gupta, who is associated with Common Cause, which was initially a part of the Anna Hazare movement, is also of the opinion that the AAP’s silly mistakes should not make people jump to conclusions about its prospects. “This is a new experiment in participative democracy. They are trying to break free of the old and hackneyed systems, which were put in place by the British and are of no use any more. They are trying to meet people’s aspirations. They are bound to flounder and make mistakes. But they are trying to do new things, so they should be given time.” According to him, “the negative impression is sent out because the two mainstream parties, whose hegemony the AAP leaders are threatening, will put hurdles in their way and that is bound to cause friction and unsettle a few established equations.”

Sanjay Basu Mullick, a Jharkhand-based forest rights activist, who has been involved with people’s movements for the past 50 years, is optimistic about the AAP’s prospects. “The AAP is consciously trying to keep away from the kind of caste-, community-, religion- and creed-based identity politics that we normally see. It is a refreshing blend of Gandhi’s swaraj and Left’s ideologies. What remains to be seen is whether the party will be able to strike a balance. The AAP is definitely trying to give a new meaning to people’s aspirations. It is actually making people stakeholders in governance. People are fed up of being ruled by rulers who have lost contact with them,” he said. Incidentally, the AAP has enrolled over 2,22,000 members in Jharkhand. Independent activists associated with people’s movements view the AAP with great curiosity and consider it a serious third alternative with which they could join hands, he said.

But there are people who view the AAP with scepticism. Dr John Dayal, a prominent Christian leader and member of the National Integration Council who was associated with the AAP in its initial days, is critical of the party. “They are a bunch of lumpen elements with no ideology. They just want to hog the limelight. If they think just because they have formed the government in Delhi they can become a national player then they have probably not looked at the map of India,” he said. He said he became wary of the party when Baba Ramdev got associated with it in the past and when he heard slogans such as “Bharat mata ki jai” and “vande matram” being raised.

Within the party, too, there have been some dissenting voices; some of them are open, like that of Vinod Binny, who has now been expelled from the party; and others muted. Bharti’s midnight raid has especially irked many party leaders. Some of them maintained that he should have acted with some discretion and a sense of responsibility. Some others felt that the decision to stage a dharna was wrong. “This entire thing could have been handled in a slightly different way,” said another senior leader. Then there are others who think it is high time the party spelt out its stand on key policy issues because conflicting opinions on various things are being given by party leaders. “Our economic policy, for which we have formed a committee, is taking our maximum time. Once this is out of our way we can spell out others policies as well,” said a senior AAP leader.

Meanwhile, the Congress, which has extended support to the AAP government, is keenly watching the show from the sidelines. “Let people watch their nautanki [street play]. Very soon they will realise what they have done,” said a senior Congress leader, hoping the AAP may soon be hoisted by its own petard. “They have not been able to achieve anything substantial so far. Their promises are merely big words and people are soon going to realise their mistake,” the leader said.

But if the aspirants’ enthusiasm for the AAP ticket for the Lok Sabha elections is anything to go by—the party has received more than 5,000 applications, about 1,000 of them from Delhi alone, so far—then the Congress may be wrong. “The AAP has to be wary of power-seekers and opportunists and look for good candidates who have been genuinely associated with people in their activities,” Sarma said. The AAP leadership should heed such sane advice if it wishes to emerge as the game-changer at the Centre, too.

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