Why Kejriwal remains a thorn on Modi's side
His government in Delhi has delivered on much of its promises, notably in education and primary health
One surprising aspect of the crisis in Delhi that began on June 11 when Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and three ministers began a dharna (sit-in) at the Lt-Governor Anil Baijal's residence-cum-office to force Baijal to meet them (he hadn't till this writing), is the bitterness between supporters of the Congress party and Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on social media. These exchanges, like the latest controversy, are rooted in politics; and Indian politics nowadays (mirroring that around the world) is a scorched-earth business, the tone set by the vindictive Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The AAP assumed power in Delhi, a state with limited self-powers, with 67 of 70 elected legislators. The remaining belonged to Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); the Congress have zero. No wonder these parties hate the AAP. Though the BJP won all seven Delhi Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 Modi wave, it is clear that the 2019 parliamentary election will produce a different result.
The AAP has delivered on much in Delhi, all of it visible. Notable is its achievements in education and in primary health. Modi, whose chief accomplishment remains the demonetisation of high-currency in November 2016, has gone after Kejriwal more viciously than after any other politician (with the exception of former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose popularity increases with each day he spends in incarceration). Delhi police pointedly ignores Kejriwal; but only makes him look more as the victim. When Modi meets the CMs collectively, he neither addresses Kejriwal nor listens to him; he doesn't even glance in his direction. Kejriwal is under Modi's skin, reflected in the way Modi's cheerleaders taunt Delhi's CM.
The current crisis stems from AAP's promise to deliver rations to citizens' doorsteps. This is another initiative certain to endear voters to AAP - and the BJP is scared out of its wits. Reports from around Delhi show that the ration card linkage to Aadhar (the biometric citizen identification card) has glitches, which Kejriwal is trying to sort out. He called a meeting with Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash, who tried avoiding Kejriwal. (The previous CS worked closely with the CM, and was rewarded by Modi with a Central Bureau of Investigation case.) When he finally met the legislators from Delhi's various corners at Kejriwal's residence, he refused to take up the ration card-Aadhar matter. There was a minor scuffle with frustrated MLAs lasting barely a minute. The LG advised Prakash to file an FIR, which does not touch upon the ration card issue. The bureaucracy has gone on strike against the government, though on Monday it softened to Kejriwal's plea to them to return to work. It awaits an apology. AAP awaits a meeting with the LG to discuss the assault and the ration card matter. The LG has, instead, been meeting bureaucrats on his own. The result of this high-handed bureaucratic behaviour is to make the BJP initiative, to invite lateral entry into the upper bureaucracy, seem overdue.
During the ministerial dharna, various politicians have lent their support, including the CMs of four non-BJP-ruled states. The opposition recognises that unity is the only way it will dislodge Modi from power next year. Kejriwal's confrontation has provided the opposition with a rallying point. The only party to stay away has been the Congress; it is obviously in direct political competition with the AAP. Congress President Rahul Gandhi in a statement framed the residents of Delhi as the ultimate victims of this confrontation, but it only highlighted his reluctance to join cause with Kejriwal. Coincidentally, both the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, who have this year combined to defeat the BJP in three parliamentary by-elections, are now speaking of excluding the Congress from their alliance next year. No wonder Congress supporters on social media have bitterly attacked AAP supporters, who continually wonder why the Congress is choosing to miss the bus of opposition unity.
The current crisis will likely end with a Kejriwal climbdown - after all, he's apologised to discarded Finance Minister Arun Jaitley without much political harm to himself or political benefit to the BJP. It will not stop Modi from looking for ways to trip up the AAP. Nor will it be the end of Opposition efforts to unite ahead of next year's polls. An indication of where it is headed will then be the election of the deputy chairman of the upper house, the Rajya Sabha: the Congress would like the post since it is the largest opposition party, but West Bengal Mamata Banerjee (one of Kejriwal's well-wishers) is keen on a non-Congress candidate to broaden the Opposition front.
Further ahead, it will not be a surprise if in December we were to find the AAP contesting the Rajasthan assembly election on its own. As it is, the Congress is dithering on building an alliance in Madhya Pradesh; both these BJP-ruled states face heavy anti-incumbency. A three-cornered contest in Rajasthan would be the Congress party's worst nightmare, and you can expect the mutual recriminations between Congress and AAP supporters to continue. Many Opposition leaders will be hoping, however, that it brings the Congress down a notch or two.
Aditya Sinha is an author and senior journalist based in India