Shekhar Gupta: Discourse on Delhi's new daredevils

One thing I definitely cannot say about the latest turn in Arvind Kejriwal's politics is, 'I told you so'. I had said--wishfully--exactly the opposite. In the introduction of my 2014 book Anticipating India, I said that as he rises as a national player, Kejriwal will also learn the value of some middle-of-the-road, establishmentarian calm. You can't be holding a high public office and continue being the constant rebel. Mine was poor judgement.

His short, pre-recorded social media statement to the world, that the prime minister was so frustrated at his Aam Aadmi Party's success that he could even get him killed, marks a big new turn in our politics. I am not shying from employing the more tempting description, "a new low." Just that it is safer, in times of Twitterised discourse, to say you ain't seen nothing yet. Once you start calling every low-blow a 'new low' you have to update that status once a week. 

Kejriwal and growing millions of his supporters --surely, he is the most popular political leader today after Narendra Modi, not Rahul Gandhi--would say that Modi started it by calling him AK-49. It was a double edged stab, "AK" insinuating links with militant Left and "49" a taunt for lasting just that many days as chief minister of Delhi in his first term. Kejriwal got even with his score of 67/70 in subsequent Delhi elections. But that did not end the war between two formidable combatants.

It isn't the first time that a strong chief minister has gone to war with his prime minister. We are familiar with the issues NT Rama Rao had with New Delhi, or Jyoti Basu (remember the outrage when Rajiv Gandhi, on a visit to Basu's Kolkata, called it a dead city?). Lalu, Mayawati and Kanshi Ram have all used tough language in fights with the Centre, and so have the Akalis. 

More recently, an uneasy equation has persisted between Nitish, Akhilesh, Mamata and Modi. Arunachal and Uttarakhand chief ministers have been destabilised. Yet, the discourse has been angry but civil. Kejriwal has taken it to a new plane.

What we are now seeing isn't just normal abusive politics as we know it. Narendra Modi, in the 2004 Lok Sabha campaign had said rude things about the Gandhis, like they won't get jobs as drivers and clerks, that nobody would rent a house to Sonia as who knows her enticements or what she was doing before she married Rajiv and how since she took over, Congress party had shifted from Vande Mataram to Vande Mata-Rome. But his party then disapproved of it, then president Venkaiah Naidu expressed displeasure and Modi stepped back. In a 2004 ‘Walk The Talk’ with me, he distanced himself from this episode saying in the game of cricket too sometimes you unwittingly bowl a no-ball or a wide-ball. 

Later, Sonia herself used her infamous "Maut Ka Saudagar" (Merchant of Death) description for him. She never expressed regret or took it back, but there were red faces in Congress and she never repeated it. This time, there is no regret or remorse, but a repetition of the insinuation by fellow party-men while Kejriwal himself heads for 10 days of silence in Vipassna.

A chief minister accusing his prime minister of intent to get him assassinated implies a constitutional breakdown. Where do you then go for help or protection? And I suppose since you do not even have control of the police in your quasi-state, you won't trust them either. How do you resolve such an unprecedented breakdown in a federal system? Nobody has the constitutional authority to intervene. The president cannot counsel a chief minister and the Lt. Governor of Delhi will get a bloody nose if he dared to try. How will the state and the Centre then function together, particularly a state with a complex constitutional arrangement where the national capital is located?

There is no doubt that the manner and frequency of police and CBI action against AAP politicians and civil servants considered close to Kejriwal is vindictive. Courts have already started to make disapproving comments. But it is also true that the conclusion of the Delhi election didn't shift the mood to "business-as-usual" between a prime minister and a chief minister of adversary parties, bound by constitutional propriety. Both sought confrontation from day one, BJP in anger and frustration, and AAP as a tactic. The positioning it sought was that of the pre-eminent national challenger of Modi in 2019, sidelining Rahul and Congress. The approach has worked so far, but at a considerable cost to decorum.

The issue is not limited to the form and language of politics although a Trumpification of Indian politics is a scary thought. Similar hostility between the chief minister of a full-fledged state and the Centre can lead to a total constitutional breakdown and anarchy. Note a recent statement by a senior AAP leader warning Delhi Police to be careful with its actions as tomorrow cases could be registered against it by Punjab Police--presuming that AAP will win there next year.   

It is tempting to say no such thing will happen and this is the usual political jumla. But we better not be so sure. There is a precedent for every crazy impossibility. In next-door Pakistan once, while Benazir Bhutto's government was in power at the Centre, the Punjab state government under Nawaz Sharif booked a criminal case against one of her ministers. He was safe in Islamabad as it is a federally-administered capital zone. But the highway from Islamabad city to the airport passes through a sliver of territory under Punjab jurisdiction where he could be arrested by its police. So if he had to take a flight, the poor fellow would travel by helicopter to the airport. There were, of course, cruel jokes about the state police buying Stingers from the mujahideen.

A constitutional breakdown or non-functionality, however, is anarchy. Division of powers in a federal system works on the belief that all those wielding it would do so with a mature sense of responsibility. You cannot be in power and be locked in perennial combat. Kejriwal could argue that Modi government has pushed him to the wall. But he is revelling in it, rather too much, and his idea of keeping his promise of changing the nature of politics seems absolutely the opposite of the establishmentarian calm we had anticipated, and wished for.

Twitter: @ShekharGupta

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