It is difficult to make sense of the latest round of discontent expressed in the form of a dharna by the Aam Aadmi Party. It seems Arvind Kejriwal’s bronchitis has become worse by his spending a night on the road in this cold spell in Delhi, worsening his cough. Somnath Bharti, the person at the centre of the trouble, is reported to be attending his office with precautions to protect himself from reporters. He is faced with greater trouble now that a police case has been initiated against him.
In an open letter to Kejriwal, representatives of some women’s organizations have urged him to condemn the role of Bharti and take appropriate action against him. Going by the evidence of television and CCTV footage, Bharati’s own statements, and the complaints of the women involved, they argue that his action presents a horrible case of harassment and racial profiling. They further argue that it is wrong to penalize or demand the penalization of police officers who did not act in accordance with the inflamed prejudice of Bharati and the people around him.
The facts of the case can be stated briefly. During the night of January 15, according to the testimony of one of the African women involved, Bharati led a group of supporters that barged into their house in south Delhi and assaulted them. These women were charged with a drug and prostitution racket and were asked to leave the country. Bharati was furious at the police for not obeying his order of raiding the place. The police expressed its inability to do so in the absence of a warrant. This led to a demand for action against those police officers who had refused to carry out the order. Kejriwal announced a dharna outside the office of Sushil Kumar Shinde, the home minister, when this demand was not met. Prevented from doing so, Kejriwal started his dharna along with his cabinet colleagues near the Rail Bhavan, defying prohibitory orders in the area. He asked honest officials among the police force to join him in his agitation, which included the demand that the Delhi police be brought under his Delhi government. Shinde’s stand was that a judicial inquiry was ordered, which would fix the responsibility in an impartial manner.
The dharna started on Monday, January 20, and was called off on the evening of Tuesday. Kejriwal claimed victory on the strength of the assurance of Najeeb Jung, the lieutenant governor of Delhi, that two concerned police officers would be sent on leave. A short, but significant, event that attracted the attention of the entire country ended in this manner. Many described it as a farce. Kejriwal was called an anarchist, and he famously admitted to being one. Traffic was dislocated and there were fears of the dislocation of the celebration on Republic Day. Important meetings of the Delhi government were cancelled. Kejriwal and his colleagues ran the government from the dharna site, signing files and issuing orders. There were also allegations that the AAP was trying to force the Congress to withdraw support so that it could exit from the Delhi government in a blaze of glory. All sorts of motives were assigned.
In the midst of it all, my attention was drawn to the fact that a cabinet meeting scheduled for last Tuesday could not be held. More than the fact of the meeting not being held, I read with concern what a minister of the Kejriwal government had to say on such a meeting. “What is a cabinet meeting all about?” Satyendra Jain, the health minister, is reported to have asked at the dharna site. His answer is worth noting: “Ministers talking to each other discussing key things. We are doing it here anyway. The required paper work will be done later.” Now that the dharna is being seen in AAP circles as successful, though partially, and even a sober person like Yogendra Yadav sees it as likely to “prove to be a turning point in the history of Delhi’s governance”, we need to take a detached view of this recent event. Yadav adds, “Some felt that we did not get our original demands. Nor did Gandhiji. He insisted on principles rather than concrete demands. So does Kejriwal.”
We need to consider the event in the context of the political situation in the country. The extent of corruption in the country, especially in higher positions, is considerable. A nexus seems to be operating that compromises all involved, including the police. The appearance of the AAP has been received with such enthusiasm in this context. The remarkable success of the AAP in the Delhi elections gave electoral expression to this reception. The AAP stands for freedom from corruption, and that is the freedom that is desired and is vital for the further development of the country. Already, the AAP has figured out and implemented a method of raising money for contesting elections that is transparent and capable of expanding with popular support. This is a significant achievement, for it strikes at the root of corruption and allows for wider political participation. That Delhi is just the beginning of the journey, not the end, can be assumed in view of the extent of discontent that exists in the country. Can the AAP prove equal to the task? Does it have a clear understanding of what lies ahead?
These questions are related, in my view, with another question. Can the required paper work be done later? It needs to be kept in mind that a cabinet meeting is more than some ministers talking with one another. There is a particular procedure to be followed in giving notice, setting the agenda supported with documents, conducting the meeting, arriving at decisions, and recording decisions. It will be a mistake to denigrate all this as paper work that can be done later. The procedure that is adopted makes the talking among ministers more than a casual drawing-room discussion, and more than uneasy talk among some ministers at the site of a dharna.
It can be argued that these procedures distance the government from the people. Does not red tape stand for bureaucratic apathy and inefficiency? The answer lies in not removing procedures, but having better procedures in place and then following them carefully. In a democratic society these procedures are meant to promote good governance and restrict arbitrariness in a manner that respects the rule of law. This respect for the rule of law does not mean respecting this or that law, but the principle that an existing law must prevail for all, unless it is changed in a prescribed manner. A Constitution is adopted by a country so that the system of laws and basic principles is clearly specified.
Was the law minister of Delhi right in breaking the law? Was the chief minister right in supporting his law minister in breaking the law and going on a course of confrontation regarding this issue? Many people in this country seem to believe that these were wrong actions. AAP has sadly not covered itself with glory by these actions, which do not give the impression of maturity and responsibility. It will be wrong to turn the debate at this point into an issue of the “under class” versus the middle class, or, for that matter, “mass” versus “class”. I do not think that concern with the rule of law is confined to a class. There is much that can be gained for the poor of the country if the Constitution of India is taken seriously.
We need to build healthy institutions in this country. This is a hard job, as was clearly understood by such leaders as Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar. As Ambedkar would say, it is not enough for a successful revolution that there is discontent. What is needed, in addition, is the conviction of political and social rights. And, indeed, it could be added, following his example, the conviction of the importance of a Constitution that enshrines these rights.