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Kejriwal waffles, auto-drivers heckle

New Delhi, Feb. 7: Arvind Kejriwal rode high on Delhi’s auto-drivers. Today some of them feared being taken for a ride.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader was heckled during his maiden speech today to the auto-drivers, his first set of supporters, since he became chief minister. Cries of “political stunt” and “empty promises” followed some of his announcements at the event.

Kejriwal acknowledged “he can never forget the debt of the auto-drivers” — many of whom had pasted AAP posters on their vehicles during the poll campaign — but found himself struggling to explain what took him 40 days to meet his earliest band of supporters.

Today, he spent barely 20 minutes and left without holding an interaction many had looked forward to.

Earlier, the interruptions were many. “That does not help,” yelled someone in the crowd minutes into Kejriwal’s speech as he waffled on his pet themes of corruption and sting operations.

The crowd of a few thousand — an estimated 80,000 autos run in Delhi — at Burari in the city’s north-west became more restless when Kejriwal veered off to the Jan Lokpal bill and Delhi’s power problems.

Transport minister and AAP colleague Saurabh Bhardwaj had to step in several times to calm the audience.

The chief minister criticised Delhi police — a force that is under the Centre and has been the target of his recent protests.

Currently, the police can impound autos for a range of violations. Kejriwal suggested this was arbitrary and announced seizures only in three situations failure to furnish licences, driving without vehicle fitness certificates or without a permit.

“If an auto is impounded for 15 days, the driver’s family starves. We have also seen that when he gets back his auto, many spares are stripped. This business of impounding has to stop,” Kejriwal said.

The crowd wasn’t happy. The drivers had demanded that the powers of prosecution be taken away from the police and be given to transport officials.

Kejriwal announced automatic annual fare revisions every April. He said his government was considering demands for exemption from prosecution for refusals late in the evening when many of the drivers head home. As he was saying this, a voice from the crowd rose over the din: “He is lying.”

The anger spilled over later. “He has not fulfilled even 5 per cent of the promises in the (AAP) manifesto. He had promised over 4,000 auto stands but didn’t say a word on that. He did not address the problem of the finance mafia who give loans at high interest to buy autos,” driver Rakesh Agarwal said later.

Rajender Soni, the president of the Delhi Autorickshaw Sangh, dubbed Kejriwal’s announcements “a stunt”.

Transport minister Bhardwaj claimed later that many of the protesters were “politically motivated”.