As the bickering between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reaches a feverish pitch, Arvind Kejriwal’s name as a competitor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has started gaining currency, partly through AAP’s own push for setting such a discourse. Whereas the BJP is all out to damage the AAP’s incorruptible image, the regional party has drawn people’s attention to the BJP’s assault on democracy. But who will win the perception war? Saurabh Bhardwaj, AAP legislator from Greater Kailash, has an interesting take. Excerpts from an interview.
The Delhi Chief Secretary in his report has accused Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia of “deliberate and gross procedural lapses” to give “undue benefits to liquor licensees” through the Delhi excise policy. What is your response to these serious allegations?
This is all a part of Operation Lotus, which the BJP is operationalising in almost every State, with the recent example of Maharashtra. Various investigations are opened against opposition leaders to apply pressure on them to break away from their parent party, and once that objective is achieved, the inquiries and investigations go into cold storage.
At one point, the agencies were after Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy in West Bengal, but after they joined the BJP, they went silent on them. Similarly, in Maharashtra, Narayan Rane was under the scanner for cases of money laundering and alleged land scam, but now that he has joined the BJP, no one talks about him. They wanted to do the same with the AAP; Manish Sisodia revealed in the media how he was offered the post of the Chief Minister if he broke away from AAP.
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If indeed the new excise policy was transparent and economically profitable and the allegations are politically motivated, why did the Delhi government have to withdraw it?
This was one of the most progressive policies and a transparent one. We were distributing the total number of wine shops across Delhi so that people in any ward will not have to depend on illegal liquor. Instead of collecting the excise for each bottle of liquor post sales, the government came up with the idea to collect excise before sales. A part of the excise will have to be committed in advance by the vendor in the form of tenders. In our estimation, the total revenue was slated to surge to Rs.9,500 crore from Rs.6,000 crore. The vendors had deposited 25 per cent of the annual fee with the government.
This policy was reviewed and signed by the Lieutenant Governor (LG), who is appointed by the Central government. Had there been blatant flaws in the policy or any prima facie angle of corruption, the LG would not have ratified it. In fact, he gave suggestions, which were incorporated in the policy. However, two days before the liquor shops were to open on November 17, 2021, the LG decided to prohibit them in non-conforming areas, provoking the licencees to go to the court. The Delhi High Court ordered the government to repay their advance, which led to a revenue loss of 30 per cent. Some licencees were later arm-twisted by the agencies to surrender their licences.
Since the policy relied on the advance paid by the licensees, when they started surrendering their licences, revenues were set to dip. Moreover, the LG’s decision meant that there were no liquor shops in the non-conforming zones. There was a threat of bootleggers coming in and selling spurious liquor. That is why the government decided to revert to the old policy.
What is the AAP’s stand on the BJP’s apparent misuse of Central investigative agencies and dilution of the independence of ace institutions?
I remember many speeches of the Hon’ble Prime Minister when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat where he was complaining about the CBI and other Central agencies’ harassment of government officials of Gujarat. He used to mock the CBI as the Congress Bureau of Investigation. After he assumed power, his government has outdone the Congress in misusing the agencies. In the last few years, the BJP has ensured the defection of around 280 MLAs of other parties with the intention of breaking elected governments. So, basically, they are undermining democracy and acting against the people of that State by taking away their right to choose their government.
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Why is the AAP politically aloof at a time when there is need for opposition unity to thwart the BJP in the 2024 general election?
We, as a political party, demand a judicial inquiry into the BJP’s defection games. There is an overwhelming perception that Rs.20 crore is being paid to every single MLA who defects to the BJP. The Chief Minister has said that all political parties should press for a thorough, independent judicial inquiry into the source of this money.
But why is the AAP not part of the opposition’s deliberations and meetings to chalk out a strategy for 2024?
I don’t know.... But I believe that in this fight against the BJP’s toppling game, all political parties should demand an independent judicial inquiry.
What role/political space do you envisage for AAP in 2024?
I think as per the public perception and as per an opinion poll we have done in many States, there is a lot of affinity for AAP. People of different States want the AAP to come and work for the betterment of their lives. But our challenge is to convert this affinity into votes. In the last two months, the way the BJP attacked the AAP on excise policy, on building of schools and other issues, deploying first its Delhi-based leaders, and when that did not work, their senior national leaders, it is clear it is rattled by AAP. They are insecure because we are handling the BJP in BJP style. The people are hopeful that if there is a leader who can take on Narendra Modi on his own turf, it is Arvind Kejriwal.
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The AAP is silent on the question of minorities and the growing polarisation in society. Critics have also decried the party’s recent statements vis-a-vis the Rohingya refugees.
I think the so-called critics are very prone to getting trapped in the narrative created by the BJP for them. They should try to understand the nuances of politics. We know how to take on the BJP. We are not here to earn appreciation from those critics who have been advising the Congress for a long time, and evidently, their advice has not helped the Congress in any way.