DELHI CHIEF MINISTER Arvind Kejriwal recently accompanied newly elected mayor Shelly Oberoi to one of the biggest garbage dumps in Delhi. Clearing the city of its landfills was among the Aam Aadmi Party’s election promises. As he wrapped up the visit to the Bhalswa landfill, assembled journalists asked him about former deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, who is in judicial custody for alleged corruption. Kejriwal smiled and politely replied that he did not want to talk about the issue.
The arrest of Sisodia, Kejriwal’s closest confidant and his second-in-command in the AAP, was a major jolt to the party and its national convenor. Sisodia shouldered the most responsibility in the Delhi government, allowing Kejriwal to remain without a portfolio and focus on the party’s expansion. The arrest came at a time when the AAP was looking to expand, contest the assembly elections scheduled for this year and position itself as a serious contender for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
However, despite the setback, and under tremendous pressure, the AAP is attempting a fightback. “There is not going to be any change in our plans because of recent developments, be it governance in Delhi or our expansion plans,” said Delhi MLA Sanjeev Jha, who is the AAP’s state-in-charge for Chhattisgarh. “Our preparations to fight elections in Chhattisgarh are on track. If at all, the arrests will only make our campaign more forceful.”
Shortly after Sisodia and Satyendar Jain, who has been behind bars for more than nine months on money laundering charges, resigned from the Delhi cabinet, Kejriwal sat down with the party’s MLAs and councillors in Delhi. The idea being to recoup and send a message to party volunteers that the leadership was in control of the situation. Interestingly, Jain had continued to be a minister without portfolio despite being in Delhi’s Tihar jail, and Kejriwal and the AAP had continued to back him when controversial videos emerged, showing him allegedly enjoying facilities that inmates are not allowed.
According to AAP leaders, the resignations became a necessity since Sisodia was in charge of 18 departments, which included those that were transferred to him when Jain was arrested. The work had to be reassigned and there was a need to expand the cabinet to ensure that the work of the government did not get affected. However, the resignations were also a political imperative, given the need to manage perception.
Sisodia and Jain were the representatives of the Delhi model of governance, of which the key components were improvements in the education sector, helmed by Sisodia, and the mohalla clinics, which were part of Jain’s domain. Relatively younger leaders Atishi and Saurabh Bharadwaj replaced them.
The first part of the fightback is to convey that governance in Delhi will not get affected. Kejriwal is making an effort to come across as unperturbed. The party leadership feels it is essential to show that the Delhi model, which has been the mainstay of its campaign in other states, is going strong. As a result, the two new ministers have hit the ground running.
Atishi and Bharadwaj have been waiting in the wings for some time and this is an opportunity for them to make a mark. Atishi has conveyed a sense of urgency with her inspection of school projects and the progress of road works. She also wrote to Lieutenant Governor Vinai Kumar Saxena about the urgent need to appoint a secretary in the public works department―the post has been vacant for more than two months―and held meetings to work out a summer action plan for the power department.
One of the first actions of Bharadwaj, who has been assigned the health ministry at a time when Covid-19 cases and flu infections are on the rise, was to conduct late-night surprise inspections of government hospitals. In his capacity as water minister and Delhi Jal Board chairman, Bharadwaj asked Saxena to take cognisance of illegal sand mining in Haryana. When Saxena raised concern over the situation of the Wazirabad water treatment plant, Bharadwaj apprised him of how illegal sand mining is blocking the supply of Yamuna waters and instead releasing wastewater towards Delhi.
The other aspect of the fightback is political. The party is going door-to-door in Delhi with the message that the BJP-led Centre is targeting its leaders with false cases. It is also a means of ascertaining public sentiment regarding the allegations. “[Our campaign] is about the double standards being adopted by the central agencies,” said Gopal Rai, cabinet minister and the AAP’s Delhi convenor.
The AAP government has also accused the Centre of attempting to stall work in the capital through Saxena, the most recent example being the presentation of Delhi’s budget for 2023-2024. The presentation, by Kailash Gahlot, who has taken over the finance portfolio from Sisodia, was originally scheduled for March 21. But, it got delayed by a day over queries from the Union ministry of home affairs. This was unprecedented. According to sources in the lieutenant governor’s office, the Delhi government had not responded to questions by Saxena and the home ministry’s queries were regarding that. However, according to the AAP government, the lieutenant governor is not legally empowered to ask questions in the first place.
The AAP has also signalled its intent to take the fight to the Union government by launching an attack on the Modi government over police action in Delhi against the AAP’s “Modi hatao, desh bachao (remove Modi, save the country)” posters.
India’s newest national party is facing its toughest challenge since its inception 10 years ago. But, it has thus far managed to be bold and inventive in what could well be a fight for survival.