By M D Nalapat
Boundary into overreach may have been crossed, not by BJP, but by ECI.
Politics in India is a saga of unintended consequences, and so it may turn out to be for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In 2014, its supremo Arvind Kejriwal seems to have been given more than the normal dose of flattery by his followers, as he believed that he could emerge as the national alternative to Narendra Modi during the year’s Lok Sabha polls. Hence, his high-decibel verbal assaults on Modi, together with the electoral challenge posed to the next Prime Minister in Varanasi. Given the nonexistent possibility of a repeat of its earlier successes in Assembly polls, it was wise of the Congress Party to silently withdraw from the 2015 Delhi Assembly contest, thereby enabling the AAP to demolish the BJP just months after the latter party had swept the Lok Sabha polls in the national capital. The victory should have served as the signal for Kejriwal to focus on Delhi and showcase to the nation his administrative skills. Instead, he continued an obsessive negative focus on (now) Prime Minister Modi, behaving more as the (by then non-existent) Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha than as the Chief Minister of the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Even more incongruously, Kejriwal, in full view of television cameras, would switch from Chief Minister to Chief Agitator at ten minutes’ notice, in the process converting an attempt at pathos into farce. Kejriwal’s neglect of urban India’s mindset through a focus on rural problems was another error. The AAP seemed to regard themselves as a 21st century version of Charu Mazumdar’s change agents in Naxalbari, rather than as the city-centric force they are best equipped to be.
The Jan Sangh began and thrived as an urban party, and to this day, the BJP relies on a Lok Sabha sweep of the cities to ensure power. Potentially, it is the AAP that can offer the stiffest challenge to the BJP in the cities and towns of India, a factor that has presumably motivated the high-voltage counterattack on AAP and its leaders by the BJP. If we look at FIRs filed against political leaders, it is almost as though there is only the AAP, so prolific has been the filing of cases against its functionaries. Given the electoral math, Kejriwal’s party is far more a long-term threat to the BJP than it is to any other party.
The problem with going after an opponent is that you may be too successful for the good of your cause, and this is what seems to be taking place vis-à-vis Kejriwal and the BJP. The boundary into overreach may have been crossed, not by the BJP but the Election Commission of India (ECI), which has disqualified 20 AAP MLAs for “holding an office of profit”. Legislators are elected by the people, and a wholly unelected body such as the ECI ought to think multiple times before reducing the choice of the voters to a nullity before their term is over. Indeed, a case exists for holding elections to the ECI, so that the commissioners are chosen directly by the people, rather than by the government of the day. Such a system would also ensure that India’s Election Commissioners have more familiarity with the practical mechanics of the electoral system than is indicated by some of their decisions.
To those such as this columnist who are not intelligent enough to understand the nuances of the “office of profit” controversy, it seems a tad unfair to disqualify elected legislators simply because they have been given an office. Legislators countrywide are provided accommodation, and this obviously costs money. So is such housing also to be regarded as “profit”? As for office staff, every legislator (and MP) should be given office space as well as staff so as to look after constituents, the way the US does. Also, previous governments, including in Delhi, appear to have appointed Parliamentary Secretaries. Why is it that the ECI had not questioned these? Is it the contention of the present commissioners that their predecessors were remiss in their duties? There are Parliamentary Secretaries in other states in India. Whatever the limits placed on the functioning of its elected executive, Delhi was made a National Capital Territory. Is the ECI gaze confined only to the city in which commissioners have their office and residences? India has an asylum full of laws, and if technicalities get used to disqualify the elected, it would be possible for zealous individuals in authority to zero in on some technicality or the other to ensure that legislatures (and Parliament) get drained of much of its members otherwise than through elections. Of course, although the AAP is blaming the Narendra Modi government for the action of the ECI, the reality is that each of the commissioners is above the age of consent, and hence they have to be regarded as fully responsible for their own actions.
Anna Hazare became a national hero in 2011 courtesy arrest by Home Minister P. Chidambaram. Despite its public stance at the time, the BJP was obviously delighted with the development, as it has given the Home Ministry official, through whom the arrest was made, an MP and now a Minister of State. The BJP leadership was clearly aware that the arrest of the venerable Hazare would further damage Congress prospects, which perhaps explains its reward for the then Union Home Secretary. Should the Congress Party return to power in 2019 courtesy the errors of the BJP, hopefully it will similarly remember the service done to it by Chief Election Commissioner A.K. Joti, the man responsible for the AAP legislators’ disqualification, and make him an MP and an MoS (Independent Charge). Joti’s move has created an aura of vindictiveness around the BJP that is undeserved because it is wholly the ECI and not at all the Modi government that is responsible. This blow could give the AAP several more votes in each of the 28 Bangalore Assembly segments of the Karnataka electoral map where it will set up a candidate. The temporary loss of 20 MLAs pales before the gain in goodwill that AAP has got across India as a consequence of CEC Joti regarding an office as “profit”.