Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Rebel without a pause

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The turf tussle between Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Lt Governor Najeeb Jung has no winners and throws up the question: Who Rules Delhi?

By Dilip Bobb

Maverick, megalomaniac, autocrat, Quixotic, crusader, Arvind Kejriwal has attr-acted all these labels over the years, and his latest clash with Delhi Lt Governor Najeeb Jung should throw up a few more. The clash, of egos and authority has dragged in the president and prime minister too, and threatens to escalate into an ugly political face-off which involves a question that has vexed legal and constitutional experts, namely, Who Rules Delhi?

It is, at its heart, a confrontation that exposes the capital city as literally an unruly state, with some powers vested in the center, namely the Lt Governor, while leaving the chief minister with no control over key elements of governance. The latest episode is to do with the appointment of senior bureaucrats, including the chief secretary, one of whom was, in a bizarre manifestation of the battle, locked out of his own office.

At one level, it has given Kejriwal the image of a man constantly in search of headlines, even if they make him look more like Don Quixote tilting at imaginary windmills, rather than the man who made a host of ambitious pledges (“a New Delhi”) when he swept to a historic election earlier this year, stopping the Modi juggernaut in its tracks. Since then, he has faced an embarrassing internal rebellion in the ranks of his Aam Aadmi Party, initiated a running battle with Delhi’s police commissioner, diluted his reformist image by taking on the media and threatening them with defamation suits, and now, ensuring that he remains a rebel without a pause in taking on the Lt Governor, who represents the center.

The current battle involves Jung’s app-ointment of an acting chief secretary for 10 days while the incumbent was away on vacation. Kejriwal opposed the move, claiming the bureaucrat, Shakuntala Gamlin, was too close to two power distribution companies (Discoms) that the chief minister sees as blood-sucking capitalists. The Lt Governor refused to budge and declared void an attempt by Kejriwal to transfer the bureaucrat who issued Gamlin’s appointment order.

Frustrated, Kejriwal says he will keep a “close eye” on Gamlin’s activities during the period to ensure she doesn’t make any mischief since “the Modi government wants to fail us”.

The center, on its part, played the racist card, claiming Kejriwal was insulting Gamlin, a woman from the North East (and wife of a former chief minister). To reinforce the message, the BJP government deployed Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs, who is from Arunachal Pradesh, to make the argument. Meanwhile, a bizarre twist was added to the tale when the principal secretary (services) who had signed the order on Gamlin, was locked out of his office and replaced with Kejriwal’s secretary, Rajendra Kumar.

There are multiple issues at play in this sorry saga. First is Kejriwal himself and his perpetual conspiracy theories which ensure that his rule—and role—becomes an “us-versus-them” battle even when they are no “thems”. Then, there is his conspiracy theory regarding the Discoms and the so-called “comfort letters” that Gamlin was to issue, to help the distribution companies get a loan, a fairly routine process.

Then, there is the larger question, namely the chief minister’s ability to make appointments and transfers in Delhi. The fact that Delhi is a Union Territory makes this an area of ambiguity. The LG claims that senior bureaucratic appointments are under his authority and what Kejriwal was trying to do in appointing officials of his choice “was against established rules and procedures”. Since coming to power in February, close to 100 officials have been transferred by the AAP government, but those were relatively junior bureaucrats.

Kejriwal’s first choice for chief secretary, Ramesh Negi, was turned down by the center and led to some angry exchanges with Home Minister Rajnath Singh. On that occasion, Kejriwal agreed to the center’s suggested choice, KK Sharma, who was shifted from Goa. This is the first time a bureaucratic appointment, that too a temporary posting, has descended to such an unseemly turf battle. In fact, the turf tussle had begun within days of Kejriwal coming to power when he instructed officials to route all important files through him and not the L-G, a move that was promptly rejected by Jung.

Modi has made his ministers and bureaucrats work hard and ensured his government remained free from scams that had sunk the previous UPA II regime.

Now, Kejriwal has issued orders saying any instructions from the L-G, written or verbal, should be routed through the concerned minister and the CM, in order to ensure that bureaucrats do not bypass the AAP government.

Logically, it seems obvious that the chief minister should have a say in senior bureaucratic appointments. But the problem is to do with Delhi’s peculiar administrative arrangement under which the center has a major say in how Delhi is run. There is an obvious—the conspiracy theorists would say deliberate—lack of clarity on the division of power between the state and the center as far as Delhi is concerned.


Bureaucrat Shakuntala Gamlin’s appointment became the bone of contention between Kejriwal and Jung

Even former chief minister Sheila Dixit had pushed for full statehood, especially control of Delhi police, which comes under the home ministry. This was during the Congress-led UPA reign. That it failed is because no government at the center wants to give up on its jurisdiction, loosely based on the fact that the city is the capital and home to so many VIPs. Partial statehood to Delhi should have come with clear demarcation of powers and responsibilities; and executive and legislative jurisdiction. As things stand, the division of responsibility is left vague, paving the way for frequent confrontations.

Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najib Jung (R) watches as Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) president Arvind Kejriwal (C) greets his supporters during his swearing-in ceremony as Delhi chief minister in New Delhi-------14/02/2015

The current problem is Kejriwal and his one-man-show governance model which is based on his perception that he is always right and everyone else is conspiring to bring his government down. All other parties in power in Delhi, including the BJP, opted to avoid a conflict and bought peace with the central government.

Former BJP Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana used to say that he was like a chief secretary and the Lt Governor had all the powers. Kejriwal is made of sterner stuff. His aggressiveness and authoritarian ways are often unpalatable but that is his inherent style of functioning. Which is why his battle to give the state government more powers carries more weight than any of his predecessors.

The truth is that Delhi, for all the power and architectural grandeur, is poorly governed, largely because of the multiplicity of authority. When there is an opposition government in the state, the center can use its special constitutional powers to embarrass the state government. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley weighed in on the current controversy when he stated: “The people of Delhi experimented with a new party, but it’s a very costly experiment. Governance is not AAP’s political agenda.”

Kejriwal’s aggressiveness is often unpalatable but that is his inherent style of functioning. Which is why his battle to give the state government more powers carries more weight than any of his predecessors.

Legal opinion is bitterly divided on the issue of CM versus L-G. One section of legal luminaries, led by senior advocate Rajeev Dhawan, feels that the Lt Governor exceeded his authority by interfering in bureaucratic appointments. There is an opposing view, expressed by constitutional expert SC Kashyap, who said: “The Union territory is administered by the Lt Governor. In case of service matters, it is the LG’s call.”

As the battle rages, governance suffers. Caught in the crossfire, bureaucrats are ducking for cover. At least 45 officers have applied for leave, others have sought transfers while the remainder are stalling on decisions, fearing for their careers. The man who signed Gamlin’s appointment was locked out of his office and has no work.

If Kejriwal’s tantrums can help the state find a long-term solution to a festering problem, it would be a major victory. Sadly, with a BJP government at the center, that is unlikely to happen. Modi and the BJP have not forgotten the slap in the electoral face delivered by Delhi voters when they chose to give the AAP a majority in the assembly.

More importantly, the fracas has devalued Kejriwal’s image in the eyes of the public. Kejriwal’s aggressiveness and authoritarian ways are often unpalatable but that is his inherent style of functioning. Which is why his battle to give the state government more powers carries more weight than any of his predecessors.
Ultimately, the turf battle between him and Jung has no winners, everyone loses.

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