The Delhi High Court judgement has certainly brought to an end the Catch-22-like situation which prevailed in the capital city before August. But it can be said, with almost as much certainty, that the judgement has spawned trends inimical to Indian democracy. Not only have elections in the National Capital Region been rendered meaningless, but a new style of vicious retribution could become a feature of our political culture.
To fathom what had been Delhi’s Catch-22 situation, recall Joseph Heller’s eponymous novel set in World War II. In it, airmen could opt out of bombing missions if they were insane. However, an airman citing insanity as the reason to escape flying missions unwittingly provided proof of his sanity, as his very plea implied he was conscious of his own safety – a trait said to be absent in a mad person. Since he was deemed sane, he had to undertake dangerous missions.
Heller’s satirical novel can be read as the propensity of the powerful to frame paradoxical rules which always give them the upper hand – and have them winning.
The Catch-22-like paradox was created in Delhi even more insidiously. Having kept the 2013 Assembly in suspended animation for months on end, presumably to provide the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the chance to split the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and form a government, Lt Governor Najeeb Jung had left none in doubt that he was capable of roiling the waters for AAP, regardless of the party having won all but three of 70 seats in 2015. This shadowed the relationship between Jung and AAP.
No doubt, there was the issue of different interpretations of the Constitutional provision governing the relationship between the Delhi government and the Lt Governor. This can be summed up as: Who is the government in Delhi? A party swept into power on a popular vote or the central government’s appointee – the Lt Governor? Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal thought he was. Jung claimed otherwise.
Given the difference in interpretations, as also compelling evidence of Jung’s growing proximity to the Centre – which, as starters, defanged the AAP’s Anti-Corruption Bureau – Kejriwal could seek the Lt. Governor’s prior approval on policy matters, but also run the risk of either encountering inordinate delays in executing his pet projects or outright rejection. Or he could press ahead with his decisions unilaterally – and invite charges of violating the Constitution.
Either way, the dice was loaded against Kejriwal.
He didn’t seek Jung’s prior approval on many matters, but at least had the satisfaction of watching some of AAP’s projects take off. Indeed, as long as the Constitutional issue – that is, who is the government in Delhi – was pending in the high court, the battle between Kejriwal and Jung was even steven. The AAP government took one decision after another – and the BJP, as also the Congress later, clamoured that these were in violation of the Constitution.
In August, the Delhi High Court ruled that the Lt Governor is indeed the government in Delhi. The victory is decisively Jung’s, unless the Supreme Court annuls the high court verdict. As expected, the paradox of Catch-22 now unfolds in all its severity.
For example, the Delhi High Court verdict has inspired Jung to constitute a three-member panel to examine 400 files pertaining to executive decisions that were taken without his approval. The panel is to fix responsibilities, including criminal liability. This could mean filing of more cases against AAP leaders. You could say this isn’t unusual as a good many combative politicians have paid a hefty price in the past for challenging status quo.
But what is certainly unusual is the paralysis of the Delhi government. Officials no longer care to listen to ministers. They have taken their cue from the arrest of Kejriwal’s principal secretary, Rajendra Kumar. They know the central government’s “caged parrot” – the Central Bureau of Investigation – has a beak long, and sharp, enough to wound anyone.
When officials engaged in the AAP government’s pet projects can be transferred out, often without rhyme or reason, why would anyone heed to a popularly elected government? Really, is this what is meant by Constitutional authoritarianism?
Should the Supreme Court uphold the high court’s August verdict, it makes immense sense to abolish the entity called the Delhi government. There is no point spending money on elections, 70 MLAs, and ministers if the Lt General is 'the government', as it was before Delhi was given the Assembly. Indeed, the system of dyarchy – which divides the executive into authoritarian and popularly accountable segments – introduced in colonial India in 1919 – has been incredibly thrust upon Delhi in 2016.
In case we wish to continue with the sham of elections, we should enact a law declaring that the party at the Centre will also rule the Delhi state, regardless of whether it wins three seats or none at all! Because this is what the Modi government is guilty of – ruling Delhi without a mandate.
Yet the BJP should know its present could come to haunt it in the future. For instance, during his days as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi mocked then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Pakistan policy, once declaring that a riposte to Pakistan had to be in its own language – that is, violence must beget violence. Two years in power has tempered Modi, evident from his government’s response after the attack in Uri. This underscores the importance of Opposition parties eschewing irresponsible behaviour.
It is equally true that a party in power shouldn’t violate the spirit of democracy, if for nothing else, at least to ensure it doesn’t provide a precedent to its successor. And so it might be that whenever the BJP bows out of power at the Centre, its successor could cite the Delhi example to abort or torment its state governments or party units.
Pundits say a future BJP government of Delhi would never undergo the treatment meted out to AAP. This is because the only alternative to the BJP at the Centre is a Congress-led formation – and neither gun for each other beyond a point.
They cite the example of Hindutva terror cases which the UPA government never expedited. This hypothesis will be tested over the next two years and a half on the evidence of steps the BJP government in Haryana will take to probe the allegations that Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra, was involved in dubious land deals.
As of now, the BJP and Congress’ stand on the AAP government is remarkably similar. For instance, both wanted to be impleaded in the Election Commission’s hearing on whether AAP MLAs who held the offices of profit should be disqualified; both allege AAP’s mohalla clinic generates illegitimate wealth for its MLAs; both think the Delhi police have been right in booking MLAs.
Obviously, the Congress has no reason to provide comfort to the AAP government. No Opposition party ever does, more so as AAP, in its Indian-against-corruption avatar, had flung charges of corruption against members of the Manmohan Singh government.
But what is surprising is the Congress party’s silence on issues of Constitutional propriety. We are yet to know whether it believes a democratically elected government should be subservient to the Lt. Governor who hasn’t been elected – and whom the UPA government had appointed. And to think, the Congress went ballistic when its governments in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand were dismissed! AAP did at least formally take a position against these dismissals.
Congress apart, such is the bitterness among AAP leaders and volunteers that should AAP win Punjab, it is almost certain its volunteers, and even its government, will harass the BJP and RSS there. Any government, in states or the Centre, can snare even an innocent politician in court cases. Certainly, the BJP-RSS has been too long in politics to not have a past which can be investigated – and exploited.
Not only AAP, but other parties too will be tempted to pursue the politics of vengeance even more viciously than before. This is the enduring legacy of the Modi government’s AAP policy.
(The author is a journalist based in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, is available in bookstores.)