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Unfazed minister returns to Khirke

Somnath Bharti at the AAP office in New Delhi on Thursday. Picture by Prem Singh

New Delhi, Jan. 23: India’s foreign ministry has described Somnath Bharti’s late-night raid on Nigerian and Ugandan women as “condemnable,” but the Delhi law minister this evening returned to the neighbourhood that has earned him notoriety and, his supporters say, popularity.

Bharti, the local MLA, met his constituents at south Delhi’s Khirke Extension where he had led a mob against alleged prostitutes and drug peddlers on January 15. But his choice of venue ahead of a party meeting to decide his immediate political future may not have been decided on a whim.

According to a close friend of the law minister from his days as a postgraduate mathematics student at IIT Delhi, Bharti believed he would remain among chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s close political aides even if he were asked to quit as minister.

“I don’t think he fears any long-term impact on his political career,” the friend said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He knows that Kejriwal trusts him.”

Eventually, the chief minister got the party to back Bharti today.

Kejriwal had tried to justify his minister’s raid on a group of women — who have formally complained against Bharti to the police — by flashing letters that he claimed a Uganda high commission official had handed Bharti last Sunday.

However, the Uganda high commission has told The Telegraph that no official from the mission was in New Delhi last Sunday — a claim backed up by the external affairs ministry’s records.

“This was an incident that was condemnable, that could not be condoned in any manner whatsoever,” foreign office spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said today in the Centre’s first public comments on the raid, which has caused India diplomatic embarrassment.

“And that’s what we have told our African friends, reassuring them that what happened in no way reflects the point of view of the Indian government.”

Last Saturday, a day after reports of Bharti’s raid surfaced, the foreign ministry had called an emergency meeting with all African envoys in New Delhi to assuage their concern at what many of them have described as racism.

“Our response on a holiday (last Saturday), and the immediacy of our response tells you how much this was a matter of concern for us,” Akbaruddin said.

But Bharti, born in the southern Bihar district of Nawada, has indicated that diplomacy is not his concern. His focus is on the demands by the residents of semi-urban Khirke Extension, even if those demands and his actions on them invite charges of racism.

“Every child in Khirke knows that the Africans in his neighbourhood are involved in a drug-and-prostitution racket,” reads a poster image in Hindi that Bharti tweeted on Wednesday.

“For all Khirke residents, Somnath Bharti is a hero who has done more than what others have done in 60 years.”

The law minister is no stranger to legal challenges —such as the police complaints registered by the Ugandan women against him.

Bharti, who studied law at Delhi University after his IIT stint, was indicted by a Delhi court last August for tampering with evidence and has been sued successfully in a California court by veteran IT lawyer Dan Balsam for serial spamming.

The Delhi court had accused Bharti, the defence lawyer in a bank fraud case, of calling up the prosecution to seek information on the evidence it possessed — a misconduct deemed as tampering. The Delhi Bar Council is probing the matter.

Bharti has also fought court cases for Kejriwal’s Public Cause Research Foundation, the NGO the current Delhi chief minister ran before the Anna Hazare-led movement against corruption erupted in 2011.

When Kejriwal faced a mountain of defamation-related cases through 2011 and 2012 — filed by, among others, Robert Vadra and Reliance Industries — it was Bharti who defended him.