'Only President's rule can bring down AAP govt': Atishi

Atishi told THE WEEK that if Kejriwal resigns, it would set a dangerous precedent

36-Atishi Atishi | Sanjay Ahlawat

Exclusive Interview/ Atishi, minister and AAP leader

Arvind Kejriwal will not step down as Delhi chief minister, asserts Atishi, the veritable number two in the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Atishi insists that there is no legal or constitutional bar on Kejriwal continuing as chief minister. If he resigns, she says, it would set a dangerous precedent and provide the BJP-ruled Centre with a formula to topple governments run by parties opposed to it.

Edited excerpts:

Q/ How has Kejriwal’s arrest impacted the AAP?

A/ This is not just about the impact on the party. This is about the attack on Indian democracy. This is the first time in India’s democratic history that after the declaration of general elections, a prominent face of the opposition, a sitting chief minister, the national convener of one of the six national parties, gets arrested. There is no conviction, no charge-sheet. This is the kind of thing you hear about in failing democracies.

First, there was Operation Lotus. Then you come to governments you are not able to bring down. Here come the CBI and the ED. You file cases against these leaders, you raid them, issue summons. If they succumb and join the BJP, there would be the famous BJP washing machine and everyone gets clean and pure like Praful Patel, Chhagan Bhujbal and Himanta Biswa Sarma. If you don’t succumb, like Sanjay Singh, Satyendar Jain and Manish Sisodia, you languish in jail. Hemant Soren was arrested, and now Kejriwal.

If this was actually about an investigation, about him not answering summons, they could have arrested him two months ago. But the arrest happens after the announcement of elections.

Q/ How are the recent developments affecting the party’s poll preparations?

A/ After the Ramlila Maidan rally, Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien tweeted that he was very impressed with the AAP, that despite the captain not being there, despite all the senior leadership being in custody, the AAP successfully hosted the massive rally. The AAP has emerged in the last 10 days as a strong, united front. That has put a lid on the question of whether the AAP will survive or splinter.

39-Atishi-during-an-AAP-protest Fight to the finish: Atishi during an AAP protest against the BJP in Delhi on March 22 | Kritajna Naik

Kejriwal’s arrest has led to political and electoral benefits for us. The people of Delhi don’t regard him as just their chief minister. Women voters, especially, regard him as a family member. In the last 10 days, when we were going door-to-door, I saw women who had tears in their eyes. They feel their son has been arrested, they feel their brother has been arrested; there are women who have kept vrat for Kejriwal to come out of custody.

Q/ Are you worried that, with Kejriwal in custody, party leaders and workers will leave?

A/ There might be some people who cannot bear ED and CBI pressure. When we calculated a few months ago, there have been 180 cases against AAP leaders and MLAs since we formed the government in 2015. This battle has strengthened the AAP.

Q/ How is the party reaching out to the people?

My home is in Kalkaji. One day, I was in my car, and there was this old gentleman buying vegetables. This is an upper-middle-class locality not often regarded as a direct beneficiary of AAP policies. He stopped my car. He said, ‘We may not have been voting for you always, but what has happened is very wrong.’ The people of Delhi are saying this. It is very clear to the public that the person who makes money for himself does not give you free electricity, or good schools for your children, or free medicines.

Q/ Political observers say it is ironic that Kejriwal, who began as an anti-corruption crusader, now finds himself at the centre of alleged corruption.

A/ Why are all opposition leaders being targeted under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act? Why are cases not filed against them under the Prevention of Corruption Act? Because, under all other acts, you can get bail. It is virtually impossible to get bail under PMLA.

Once this case goes into trial, everyone will know there is no money. What kind of a money trail are you talking about if, after two years, you have not been able to recover even one rupee of the bribe. Even if you look at the remand application of the ED for Kejriwal, they started by talking about Rs100 crore scam, and they actually came down to the AAP [allegedly paying] Rs2 lakh in cash for posters and Rs8 lakh in cash for hoardings in the Goa elections.

The only case, and Mr Kejriwal also said this in the court, is based on four statements. Three of them are from government approvers, one of whom has donated  Rs 55 crore to the BJP in electoral bonds after his arrest. And two of those are father and son: Raghava Magunta Reddy and his father, Magunta Sreenivasulu Reddy, who is now contesting on an NDA ticket in the Lok Sabha election.

Q/ The ED describes the CM as kingpin and key conspirator of the alleged excise policy scam.

A/ They used the word ‘kingpin’ against Sarath Reddy. Within two days of his arrest, Rs5 crore in electoral bonds were given by his company Aurobindo Pharma to the BJP. He was in jail for four or five months. He did not say anything against Kejriwal despite repeated statements. Again, his company gave Rs50 crore in electoral bonds. He gave a statement against Kejriwal and was released on bail for back pain. Satyendar Jain needed spinal surgery. He was not given interim bail for months.

If Kejriwal is the kingpin, where is the money? In two years, they have not found anything. The only money trail that exists in this case, from liquor retailers to a political party, is from Sarath Reddy to the BJP. The ED should make them an accused and arrest J.P. Nadda as they have arrested Kejriwal.

Q/ The AAP has been named as an accused in the excise policy case.

A/ This is a very clear, all-out assault on the AAP. This has never happened in the history of the country. Three top leaders of this party are currently in jail. After Kejriwal’s arrest, for almost one week, our party office was sealed off by barricades in the name of security. There is enough whispering that our party account is going to be frozen next. So the next step after making the AAP an accused is that very soon they might simply want to deregister the party.

Q/ How is Kejriwal coping in custody?

A/ He is Arvind Kejriwal. He has fought many battles. That man has created a national party from nothing in 10 years. He is born for political struggle. He is not daunted. He has always been a fighter. But the question is not Kejriwal. The question is, what implications does this have for the country?

Q/ How is his health?

A/ There have been some concerns with regard to his health, because he has a case of very volatile diabetes. It is very closely monitored; his diet has to be very closely monitored. In fact, a couple of days on in ED custody, his sugar level dipped extremely low. And it was a matter of concern.

Q/ How is governance in Delhi getting affected because the chief minister is in custody?

A/ All our departments, be it education or health, are functioning. All ministers are working, all departments are in action. In fact, the Delhi government even put out an order, saying that there has been an attempt to spread rumours that the government is not functioning.

Q/ Is the AAP confident that there are no legal or constitutional issues involved with regard to Kejriwal governing Delhi from behind bars?

A/ There is no legal or constitutional bar. If I were to take this case further hypothetically: if there is an arrest, somebody has to resign. My leader is arrested. If the lower courts were to quash his arrest, he takes oath again. And if the High Court were to uphold his arrest, he would resign again. If the Supreme Court quashed his arrest, he would take oath again. This is the reason why you have very clear legal provisions. You cannot be an elected representative if you get convicted for more than two years. You cannot be a chief minister if you lose the confidence of the house. Kejriwal enjoys the overwhelming confidence of the Delhi assembly. So under what provisions should Kejriwal resign? Also, his resignation will set a dangerous precedent. For all opposition governments, you just have to file a fake case under PMLA. Then you arrest the chief minister and bring down the government. Therefore, in the interest of democracy, Kejriwal must not resign because this becomes a very simple formula for bringing down governments. Also, we feel they might even bring president’s rule anytime.

Q/ Lt Governor V.K. Saxena has said the government cannot be run from jail, and there is speculation that the Centre could be contemplating president’s rule in Delhi.

A/ This has been their intention all along. The purpose of Kejriwal’s arrest is two-fold. To prevent him from campaigning in the Lok Sabha elections, and to bring down the government in Delhi. The BJP knows that whatever they do, they are never going to win any elections in Delhi. The only way of bringing down the AAP government is to enforce president’s rule.

Q/ What about issues of practicality, such as holding cabinet meetings, or movement of files.

A/ Courts have made provisions in the past in specific circumstances where they have allowed people to run their offices from behind bars. The matter of his illegal arrest is in the High Court. If we don’t get relief from the High Court, we will go to the Supreme Court. We hope that the courts of this country are able to intervene to uphold democracy. If you see the history of the Supreme Court, every time there has been any serious threat to democracy, it has intervened, be it in terms of the basic structure of the Constitution, or imposition of president’s rule, the electoral bonds issue, or the recent Chandigarh mayor elections.

Q/ But is there a Plan B with regard to the chief minister’s post? It is being speculated that Sunita Kejriwal or you could be made chief minister.

A/ Arvind Kejriwal was the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal is the chief minister of Delhi and Arvind Kejriwal will remain the chief minister of Delhi. The people of Delhi want him to be chief minister. If the people of Delhi don’t want him to resign, if the constitutional provisions don’t need him to resign, if legal provisions don’t need him to resign, why would Kejriwal resign?

Q/ The BJP raised questions about the two orders that the CM issued while he was in ED custody.

A/ Kejriwal remains the chief minister, and as chief minister, he can send directions to all his ministers. If you look at the history of Indian politics, when leaders go to jail, the only thing they are thinking about is how to get themselves out, get admitted to hospital, find some way of getting bail, or make some compromise. The fact that, in custody, Kejriwal is thinking about provision for medicines and solutions for water problems in the upcoming summer says something about the man’s mettle.