Governance crisis

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia leaving after a meeting with Lt Governor Anil Baijal at his residence on February 23. Photo: Arun Sharma/PTI

Delhi Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash along with top bureaucrats and government employees outside Rajghat after the “March for Dignity” in New Delhi on February 28. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Lack of consensus between the bureaucracy and the political executive and the unresolved legal dispute over their administrative jurisdictions are the main challenges to the effective functioning of the AAP government in Delhi.

IN mid February, the Arvind Kejriwal-led government in Delhi was caught up in a controversy after its Chief Secretary, Anshu Prakash, accused two Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) lawmakers of assaulting him inside the Chief Minister’s residence during a late night meeting. The meeting had been called by Kejriwal and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia to discuss administrative matters.

In his complaint to the police, on February 20, Prakash accused the lawmakers of landing “several blows with fists on my head and temple” on the midnight of February 19 in the presence of Kejriwal and Sisodia. He called the alleged assault “premeditated and in conspiracy of all present with intention to criminally intimidate, cause hurt with motive to deter me from discharge of my lawful duty and compel me to follow unlawful directions. None of the persons present in the room made any effort to save me.” The “unlawful directions”, Prakash claimed, were pertaining to the delay in the release of television advertisements on the AAP’s three-year rule. The AAP denied these charges and accused Prakash of conspiring to destabilise the government and orchestrating a physical attack on one of its Ministers inside the Delhi Secretariat. However, the Chief Secretary’s claims set in motion a series of developments that led to an impasse between the bureaucracy and the political executive.

Among the most significant developments were strongly worded resolutions passed by the AGMUT (Arunachal, Goa, Mizoram and Union Territories) cadre IAS officials’ association and other government employees’ organisations. They demanded a written apology from Kejriwal and Sisodia. As per these resolutions, all formal communication between top bureaucrats and Ministers began to be conducted only in writing. Notably, they organised daily five-minute protests near the office premises during their lunch break. Quite unusually for a government, Cabinet Ministers and top bureaucrats criticised each other in public as representatives of two interest groups. One evening, Prakash himself led a candlelight march of Delhi government bureaucrats to Rajghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi.

Speaking to Frontline, a senior Delhi government bureaucrat said: “This incident is reprehensible. Nobody can even imagine that such a thing can happen. The glaring thing is that they are not even admitting that this happened. So we do not know the intentions. First of all, calling [home for a meeting] at such late hours, collecting so many MLAs at the residence and then misbehaving and even going to the extent of beating him up; it was not just manhandling but actual beating up with a plan and conspiracy. If this can happen with a Chief Secretary, then it can happen or be replicated with anyone else.”

In the initial days, Kejriwal appeared to make an attempt to calm tempers. He tweeted: “Officers not attending meetings for [the] last 3 days. Governance suffering [ sic]. I [a]m v[ery] concerned. LG assured he will take all steps to ensure officers started functioning normally. Council of ministers assured him all cooperation. All of us need to work together for betterment of Delhi.” He also retweeted a tweet by Atishi Marlena, who is an adviser to the Deputy Chief Minister. Her tweet posed two questions: “Does anyone actually think that Arvind Kejriwal will plot to get an IAS officer assaulted? And even if we stretch our imagination to believe this—would he get this done in his own home, in his own presence at 12 midnight?!!”

These dramatic accusations and the reactions to them, by themselves unprecedented, brought to the surface the long-prevailing tensions between the bureaucracy and the political executive. The tensions manifested themselves in routine governance-related issues. For instance, on March 1, the Deputy Chief Minister, at a press conference in the Delhi Secretariat, accused “senior-most officials”, including Anshu Prakash, of siding with the “ration mafia”. This accusation stemmed from an apparent delay in the implementation of the doorstep delivery of ration, a concept being pushed by the political executive. The same day, the AAP’s official spokesperson, Ashutosh, accused the Chief Secretary of conspiring to attack Cabinet Minister Imran Hussain and government functionary Ashish Khetan on the premises of the Delhi Secretariat—suggesting a direct link between the events of February 19 midnight and the attack on the Minister.

A few days after these allegations were made, a Delhi Assembly committee issued notice to the Chief Secretary to appear before it in a matter relating to non-performing assets of a local bank, among other related issues. Challenging the notice, Anshu Prakash approached the Delhi High Court. Since then the friction between the political executive and the bureaucracy has only worsened.

Issue of jurisdiction

Apart from this, the impasse highlighted the necessity to resolve two significant issues that have a direct relation with the current controversy in the national capital’s politics. First, a lack of consensus between two strong political power centres governing Delhi, namely, Arvind Kejriwal and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which reportedly keeps a close watch on governance in the national capital through the offices of the Lieutenant Governor (L.G.) as well as, occasionally, the Chief Secretary. Second, the turf battles between the Union government and the AAP-led government over administrative jurisdiction in multiple aspects of the city’s governance, cases relating to which are awaiting judgment in the Supreme Court.

Both issues are interrelated because both the power centres function under a special constitutional scheme created for Delhi in the early 1990s. Under this scheme, the executive functions relating to public order, police and land rest with the L.G. In other matters, the L.G. is expected to act on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. The L.G. is the “administrator” appointed by the Centre and works closely with the Home Ministry and, for all practical purposes, with the PMO. The Delhi High Court verdict of August 2016 resulted in this scheme being interpreted as one that gives the L.G. relatively more powers, especially in matters relating to control over the bureaucracy.

The AAP believes that control over the bureaucracy, “services” in legal parlance, lies with the city government in the constitutional scheme. It is of the view that this control is necessary to ensure that the government delivers on its promises because accountability, in public perception, lies with the elected political executive. In the current arrangement, the bureaucracy is answerable to the L.G. and the Centre, and as a result the AAP feels it is unable to get things implemented on time.

Speaking about the latest clash, which he believes is “extreme and prolonged”, Sanjay Kumar, Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told Frontline: “Since 1993, there has been no change in the constitutional power or geographical boundary of Delhi. But we never heard of this kind of confrontation. It has been happening only in recent years. I think this is driven more by personalities, and larger politics is also being played. This is an extreme case. There is also a very strong like and dislike of individuals on both sides—the Aam Aadmi Party and the Chief Secretary. The subjective element is playing a much bigger role than the objective element.”

However, he believes that this will not have an adverse impact on the AAP’s electoral fortunes if there are midterm elections. He said: “There is a sharp class divide on this. The AAP is still popular among the poorer sections. Also, there is no love for the bureaucracy among the poor. I am not saying the middle classes or upper classes love the bureaucracy, but their hatred for the AAP is much stronger. So, if there are elections held tomorrow, the AAP may lose a few seats, but they will still come back to power.”

Speaking about the political relevance of the cases in the Supreme Court, an AAP functionary conversant with the legal details explained it thus: “When people ask why there is more friction now as compared with the past, they should consider the fact that Arvind Kejriwal and Sheila Dikshit have had different legal regimes to deal with. Since August 2016, when the Delhi High Court passed its judgment restricting the elected government’s powers, matters have become much more difficult for the Delhi government.”

He also agreed with Sanjay Kumar’s contention about the subjective element. “There is a difference between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, and that shows in their governance. So, certainly, Sheila Dikshit did not have to face the kind of hostility that Arvind Kejriwal has had to face from the Centre,” the AAP functionary said. He added that the AAP expected the “one-sided” order of the High Court to be “balanced by the S.C.”.

Consequences of verdict

An indication of just how consequential the High Court verdict has been for both the bureaucracy and the political executive, though in opposite ways, was given by an IAS officer in the Delhi government. The official said: “The Delhi High Court order gave us [bureaucrats] some amount of support. Before that it was all anarchy. Before the judgment, they suspended so many officials by conducting sting operations. But until now those officials have not been found guilty by the Anti-Corruption Branch. They [the political executive] just went all out against the bureaucracy. I am not saying the bureaucracy was entirely clean; there are bad elements everywhere. But [their attitude was] either my way or the highway. Officers would try to bring to their notice that this would require the L.G’s approval, but they would bulldoze and transfer officials who did not fall in line. But now since they have no powers of taking action, we are safeguarded.”

A “legal regime” that both sides find agreeable and a broad consensus between the political power centres could provide a way out of the situation in the national capital. As of early March, this seemed a remote possibility, with both sides sticking to their positions.

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