Mainstream, VOL LII No 18; April 26, 2014
Somnath Bharti as an Embarrassment for the Aam Aadmi Party
Tuesday 29 April 2014
by Sanjay Mishra
For all its promise of cleansing the Indian politics of corruption—a tall order by any yardstick given the gargantuan and deep-rooted corruption in Indian politics—and for all its boastful tom-tom of its ephemeral, 49-day governance in Delhi being the best ever by any state government in post-independence India, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), ever since its dream electoral debut in Delhi, has been dogged by one controversy after another. This is not to brush under the carpet some of the good works that the party was able to pull off in its brief brush with power in Delhi given the constraints of a minority government. The purpose for which AAP was formed—to fight the canker of corruption—inspired the bulk of youth and the middle class to lend support to it. Of course, AAP became the beneficiary of the fact that the imagination of the youth and the middle class had already been fired by the dharna1 by Arvind Kejriwal and his mentor, Anna Hazare, under the aegis of ‘India Against Corruption’ at Jantar Mantar to pressure the Central Govern-ment to enact the ‘Jan Lok Pal’ to fight corruption.
And the manner in which AAP, with limited resources, showed the gumption to take on the two established national parties in the electorally crucial elections of the Delhi Assembly and win 28 seats in the 70-member Assembly, made even its opponents to take notice of this unconventional political venture. The media only reflected and echoed the sentiments of the aspiring India rooting for this new kid on the block. But when the same media started scrutinising, and perhaps extracting juice to the last drop from, the controversial actions and decisions of Kejriwal’s government and some of its Ministers, AAP accused the media, though not entirely untrue, of being in cahoots with vested interests. Of all the controversies and criticisms that mired the AAP Government in Delhi the one that kept the party in the eye of the storm for about a week and perhaps proved to be its undoing was the one relating to the controversial mid-night raid of its Law Minister, Somnath Bharti, and the subsequent dharna by its Chief Minister (CM) Arvind Kejriwal apparently in support of his colleague, Bharti.
The AAP Government in Delhi resigned in February, on a minor technical issue of intro-duction of the ‘Jan Lok Pal’ Bill, inviting itself again to the charge of ‘running away from governance, leaving the electorate of Delhi in the lurch, to fulfil its national ambitions’. The demand for the dismissal of Bharti from the Cabinet, raised during the Khirki raid contro-versy, is no longer relevant. But that controversy is now set to haunt this new political party and its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, who has, in keeping with his wont, shown the same raw courage to contest against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi at Varanasi in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Earlier, he had shown the guts of contesting against and defeating the three-time CM of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, by a handsome margin, thereby earning the sobriquet of a ‘giant-killer’. However, this time it would be well-nigh impossible for him to repeat his feat in view of the fact that all pre-poll surveys have placed NDA and Modi way ahead of all its political rivals. The indictment of Bharti by the Lieutenant Governor (LG)-appointed judicial probe will only complicate matters for this fledgling political outfit and for its leader, Kejriwal.
To put matters in perspective, it would be worthwhile to recall that when the stand-off between the then Delhi CM, Kejriwal, and the Central Government had ended on January 21 after the 33-hour dharna by the CM was called off, the entire nation had heaved a sigh of relief after watching it unravel nastily on the second day. At one point it had threatened to snowball into a crisis reminiscent of the police lathi charge of the crowd assembled at Ram Lila Ground for Baba Ramdev in June 2011. However, just in the nick of time, some ‘parathas’ and the much-needed face saver from the L-G for the beleaguered CM, who had already been desperately looking for an escape route from the dharna, had saved the day for Kejriwal. The L-G had sent one of the cops on paid leave, rather than suspend all the four cops as demanded by AAP, pending a judicial inquiry and the police investigation.
At that time, it was widely, and perhaps convincingly, speculated in the media that extraneous factors had forced the dharna-loving Kejriwal to call off the dharna. The fact was that, notwithstanding Kejriwal’s exhortation, a paltry crowd of 2000-3000 had turned up, which of course could have been because of inclement weather and heavy police restrictions and/or it could have been because of the unconvincing nature of the issues raised. On top of that, worsening physical health of Kejriwal because of two days of exposure to cold, injuries sustained by 31 persons in the ensuing police lathicharge, unrelenting criticisms from the media and well-meaning intellectuals, including some from within the party, and of course the fast-dwindling middle and upper middle class support and the fact that at the protest venue preparations for the Republic Day had to kick in—all these factors had forced Kejriwal to latch on to the olive branch proffered to him by the LG. The truce, in any case, was thrashed out by his senior party leader Yogendra Yadav and the LG. Strangely, this solution was worked out, as reported in the press, without even keeping in the loop the Central Government/Home Ministry who were toying with the idea of either cordoning off the protest site from the Republic Day show or of physically removing Kejriwal from the protest site.
Somnath Bharti’s ‘Shenanigans’
The media had, using a video clip, reported that after the police personnel on duty, citing ‘procedure’ and ‘protocol’, stood their ground and refused to do the bidding of the then Law Minister, Bharti had unleashed his mob of supporters on some African women in the intervening night of January 15 and 16, ostensibly to bust an alleged drug and sex racket in the Khirki Extension area. There was widespread condemnation of the Minster’s action and it was alleged that the shenanigans of Bharti reflected the worst kind of vigilantism with scant regard for the due process of law, not at all behoving a Minister, let alone a Law Minister. One of the founding members of AAP, former diplomat Madhu Bhaduri, even quit the party on this issue.
Two, it was pointed out that the conduct and the utterances of the Minister, during the entire episode, smacked of racism, xenophobia, sexism and illegality. Ironically, as was arraigned, it was done by Bharti in the name of ensuring safety for the many ‘mothers and sisters’ of the area. Women’s and human rights groups, apart from the Opposition parties, had criticised the Minister’s action and demanded not only his apology but also his resignation. Worse, critics had pointed out the brazenness in which the CM had undertaken a dharna to defend his errant Minister rather than praise the police personnel for adhering to procedure and protocol. AAP had then promised action against the controversial Law Minister if indicted by the LG-appointed judicial probe.
Now that the LG-appointed judicial probe has indicted Bharti and given a clean chit to the Malviya Nagar Police, it would not be easy for AAP to procrastinate action against Bharti, though for the time being it has bought time, saying that it has yet to receive a copy of the report. The Congress has already demanded an ‘unconditional apology’ from Kejriwal and sought Bharti’s termination of membership of the Assembly. The BJP has used the indictment to drive home the point of AAP’s ‘immoral and illegal style of functioning’. If the President gives the assent to the LG, on the basis of the judicial report, to register a criminal case against Bharti then AAP would certainly find it hard to defend Bharti. Moreover, the very raison d’être of Kejriwal’s dharna could again be raked up and questioned by his opponents.
AAP had then defended the action of the Minister, saying it was not entirely out of sync with the new political culture that AAP was trying to follow and promote. After all, the most basic task of a people’s representative is to look after his or her constituents, to redress their grievances and that is what Bharti was trying to do that night. When a group of people, belonging to Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWAs) of that area, came to him and pleaded with him to do something to check the menace of drug and sex racket involving some African nationals, he got carried away and called the police personnel and media to the site so that the racket could be busted in the full glare of the media. Moreover, AAP had argued that had there been any other legislator/Minister from a different party he or she would have taken an application from the people and assured them of forwarding it to the appropriate authority; he or she would not have bothered to go with them in the cold winter night disturbing his or her sleep.
Indeed, AAP had argued that the Minister did not go to Khirki on “any personal interest, there was no case of corruption or injustice. He, in fact, acted as responsible public represen-tative.”2 Disregarding the testimony of a Ugandan woman before the police that she was harassed by a group of men belonging to a local MLA and notwithstanding the growing clamour for the resignation of the Law Minister, AAP, after examining the unedited video footage of that eventful night, had exonerated the Minister of the three charges_ of misusing his position, of misbehaving and abusing women and of making racist remarks.3
AAP had also, to buttress its stand, released the bigger version of the video footage to show that the Minister repeatedly pleaded with the police official to call the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) but the latter chose to be insultingly indifferent. There is some reason to believe it because the police official must have been aware of the fact that the Delhi Police came under Central Government and not under the Delhi Government. Another clip showed a woman being caught from a group by a policeman, and not by Bharti’s men, as alleged, after being chased down. In another clip, a woman police constable had been shown_ to disprove the claim of not a single woman police personnel being present that night. Yet another clip, released by AAP, had depicted the existence of the problem of drug use in that area. Critics had said that if indeed the area was infested with the problem of drug abuse and prostitution, the Law Minister should have explored the legal process to solve the problem rather than take recourse to vigilantism.
However, a large number of people of that area, as reported in the press, had come out and said that police had not taken any action even after many written complaints, giving rise to suspicions of a nexus between the drug mafia and police. Indeed, after the controversy had erupted, some African women had even reported to the media of rampant sex racket prevalent in the area in which African women had been forced into prostitution by a mafia in connivance with some police personnel. No wonder, in the entire imbroglio, Bharti had emerged as a hero in the Khirki area for taking on the might of the sloth police and for highlighting the problems of the area with regard to sex and drug racket which involved the mafia and went up to the doorstep of some African embassies; indirectly, the incident had also highlighted the deep schism that exists between African nationals and Indians. It can be surmised that the afore-mentioned points did not form part of the remit of the judicial probe.
One is not privy to the exact nature of offences that will be charged against Bharti in the new FIR for which sanction has been sought by the LG from the President. While AAP had exonerated Bharti of the three charges—of misusing his position, of misbehaving with women and of making racist comments—the probe panel has found Bharti, and rightly so, guilty of obstructing a public servant from discharging his duty. While the elaborate defence put up by AAP did evoke sympathy from sections of people for some of the ends and objectives of Bharti in the mid-night raid, the methods and means adopted by him were questioned by many. It is not clear whether the probe panel has also found Bharti guilty of misbehaviour with women and racism and xenophobia, as had been alleged when the controversy had first erupted. A more plausible explanation of the illegality that Bharti has been charged with could be the following.
It appears that Bharti, when approached by the residents of the area, was probably carried away by his exuberance, by his new-found status and power of a legislator and a Minister, and threw to the winds some of the procedures and precaution. These errors could at best be attributed to his lack of understanding of the dynamics of power and of matters pertaining to law and crime and possibly even to his erroneous understanding of the problem which he sought to solve. A legal degree and an exaggerated self-opinion about his legal knowledge had perhaps made him oblivious of his rather limited experience at the bar. And since power came too quickly to him, he must have thought of using it to provide quick-fix solutions to problems which needed sensitive and deft handling not only from him and the residents of the area but also from the police.
Without casting aspersions on the findings of the probe panel headed by retired Additional District and Session Judge, B.L. Garg, which has found Bharti technically guilty of obstructing a public servant from discharging his duty, some of the points raised by AAP, particularly relating to the functioning of the Delhi Police, do carry conviction and cannot be dismissed as politically motivated. This is not to shield Bharti from the punishment that the breach of law on his part, howsoever technical and minor, warrants. One unmistakable trait of Bharti, which perhaps goaded him to cross over to the wrong side of the law, nevertheless, stands on its own: of getting intoxicated by power. The fact that the new- found power and status of Minister had an intoxicating influence on Bharti became apparent from some of his actions and use of intemperate, unpalatable and even abusive language soon after he became a Minister. Before his obnoxious remark that he would ‘spit’ on senior BJP leader Arun Jaitely and the renowned lawyer, Harish Salve, and before asking a reporter how much money Modi had paid to ask him questions, he had flaunted power and even tried to misuse it. Shortly after assuming power, when the Law Secretary, citing protocol issues, refused to obey his order for arranging a meeting with district judges, Bharti had admonished the Law Secretary. Bharti had also allegedly forced a 24-hour convenience store in Saket in south Delhi to close down after midnight and warned the Delhi Police that people will pick each one of them and beat.
That Bharti does have this mindset born of arrogance of power can be inferred from a seemingly trivial point: his attire. While Kejriwal, the quintessential middle class man that he is, did not change his traditional sweater and muffler for the white ‘pyjama kurta’ and the Nehru jacket, Bharti, it would appear, ever since his foray into politics, has been relishing his Nehru jacket—a garb with which politicians, with all their paraphernalia, tantrums and trappings of power, have been traditionally associated with in our country. This is, of course, not invariably true of all politicians having a fetish for the white dress and a Nehru jacket. When the Khirki raid controversy first broke out, AAP and particularly its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, had stone-walled demands for the dismissal of Bharti even after a revelation in the media that Bharti had earlier been indicted by a CBI court for trying to influence a prosecution witness in a graft case. Even reports, which surfaced in the media around that time, that Mr. Bharti had once been an unethical spammer, had failed to evoke any punitive action from Kejriwal. Possibly, Bharti’s contribution in the founding of AAP and his proximity to Kejriwal had initially precluded any action against Bharti. AAP had then promised action against Bharti if indicted by the LG-appointed judicial panel.
If the President gives assent to the sanction for prosecution and an FIR is registered against Bharti, it would be curious to see how Bharti, given his traits of ‘fierce ambition, combative-ness, disregard for long established rules and aggression’4 and for his proclivity to flaunt his power and play the activist and vigilante, hangs on to the inner circle of Kejriwal. Of late Kejriwal has been trying to ratchet up pressure on the LG to dissolve the Assembly of Delhi, blaming him for acting on the diktat of the Congress party. Is it a well-thought strategy on the part of AAP to pressure the LG in a spot so that the spotlight on Bharti’s indictment gets deflected and the LG goes slow on the Bharti case? It is also possible to argue that the Congress party would not like to embarrass AAP and the President would sit on the sanction to prosecute Bharti, at least till the general elections are over or even after that.
This is because the Congress, realising that it is fighting a losing battle in these elections, has pinned its hope on AAP to stall the Modi juggernaut. The Congress party must have taken note of the nuanced shift in Kejriwal’s diatribe against the Congress and BJP. Earlier, he used to accuse both the Congress and BJP of being equally corrupt. Of late, the manner in which Kejriwal has been questioning the Gujarat model of development and the funding of the BJP’s election campaign, and the stridency with which he has been raising the bogey of majority communalism of the BJP—all these must be music to the Congress’s ears. It is in this context that BJP has been accusing the AAP of being the ‘B team’ of the congress party. Earlier, the BJP had accused both the Congress and AAP of joining hands to forestall the formation of the BJP Government in Delhi. As for Bharti, shortly after the Khirki raid he had hinted in one of his blogs that he needed to unlearn many things.
This is easier said than done because street politics, vigilantism and the propensity to use foul language, which do not sit easily with established procedures and norms, form the very kernel of Bharti’s personality, no matter how good his intentions are. On February 24, a South Corporation building official of Delhi was manhandled by alleged AAP supporters at the office of the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Police of South Zone. Though Bharti, who later joined a protest against corruption in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) in front of the DC office, South zone, denied the charge, the Executive Engineer, who was assaulted, claimed that the attackers had AAP caps on their heads. All said and done, a technical illegality, if not a faux pas, by an individual leader should not become an occasion to completely demoralise this new political party which has been trying hard to inject a modicum of probity in Indian politics.
1. A peaceful protest, a sit-in or protest march, often accompanied with fasting. Anna Hazarre, the civil rights activist, had aroused the youth through a series of hunger strikes in 2011. In July-August 2012, Team Anna’s fast for the Jan Lok Pal Bill lasted for 10 days. In March 2013, after the formation of AAP, Kejriwal undertook a dharna, fasting for seven days against the “inflated“ power bill in Delhi.
2. AAP‘s senior leader, Yogendra Yadav’s statement, The Times of India, New Delhi, January 24, 2014.
3. Himanshi Dhawan, Ibid.
4. Himanshi Dhawan, Ibid.
The author is an Associate Professor of Political Science, MMH (PG) College, Ghaziabad. He can be contacted at e-mail: dr.sanjaymishra_1969 [at]yahoo.co.in