Minutes before midnight, on February 19, Delhi’s Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash walked into Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s residence. Not long after, CCTV footage showed him walking out. It’s the seven minutes and eight seconds in the middle that has plunged the Delhi government into arguably its biggest crisis yet.
What happened inside is so far known only to the handful of people who were in the room. Prakash alleges he was made to sit between AAP MLAs Amanatullah Khan and Prakash Jarwal and, as soon as he started speaking, was punched and slapped by the two. He also claims his spectacles fell on the ground.
The AAP has denied these claims, and has hit back with allegations of its own. Jarwal and another MLA, Ajay Dutt, claimed Prakash used casteist slurs against them. The next day, Environment Minister Imran Hussain claimed he was assaulted inside a lift at the secretariat, ostensibly by officers as revenge for the previous night’s incident.
The point of the February 19 meeting is equally shrouded in mystery: Prakash claims the AAP summoned him to ask why an advertisement featuring Kejriwal was not cleared in time for the party’s three-year anniversary, while AAP leaders claim it was to get clarity on why people were not getting ration since the service was linked to Aadhaar cards.
The aftermath, party leaders admit, has caught the AAP by surprise. Khan and Jarwal have been arrested and sent to judicial custody for 14 days. They have also been denied bail because, as per the court, they are history-sheeters. To add to its problems, Kejriwal’s handpicked advisor, V K Jain, told police that he saw the MLAs assaulting Prakash — a development that has prompted AAP to allege he is being pressured.
The fissures have deepened to the point that Delhi government officers have refused to attend meetings or take phone calls by ministers. Communication, for now, exists only through written channels.
Associations of officers and other government employees have come together, recounting similar episodes of “humiliation”. Meetings have taken place with the Home Minister, the L-G, the Minister of State (Home) and the Cabinet Secretary.
All of this, the AAP claims, is a ploy to destabilise the government, especially at a time when 20 seats could see possible bypolls, and the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls round the corner.
In what appeared to be a bid to bring down the temperature, Kejriwal had visited L-G Anil Baijal after the incident, asking him to urge officers to get back to work.
“We are hopeful that the situation will be resolved soon. We would like the officers to come back to work and start attending meetings. But even when they are not coming for meetings, we are trying to ensure that work does not stop. The Deputy CM had asked all officers of his department to file weekly reports, and now we have extended it to all government departments. We are answerable to the people of Delhi and our priority is (to ensure) that they don’t suffer. This situation is not desirable,” Atishi Marlena, advisor to Deputy CM Manish Sisodia, said.
“The problem always has been that there has been no accountability. For instance, we have been trying to give tablets to teachers for 17 months. But that has been stuck between the Finance Department, IT department and Education department. It is such delays that cause conflicts with officers,” she said.
While publicly the AAP has lashed out at the Centre and the Delhi Police, privately there are murmurs on whether summoning the chief secretary close to midnight was the right call. “They shouldn’t have held the meeting at midnight. It’s very simple — when you call someone as senior as the CS to a meeting at midnight, it’s obviously a power ploy. But in this case, it has backfired and it was clearly a mistake,” a senior AAP leader said.
The AAP has also asked why police are proactively investigating Prakash’s complaint, but not the ones filed by party leaders. “… Action against us has been unfair. Our MLAs were promptly arrested but there is no action in the FIR against violence in the Secretariat. Our MLAs were picked up from outside the Home Minister’s residence and detained but when BJP workers protest outside my house, no one is bothered. Why this difference… I have never said that all officers are bad or do not want to work. Some are happy with us, some are not,” Sisodia, who was also at the meeting, said.
Seeds of conflict
While the current crisis may be unmatched in scale, the AAP and the bureaucracy have had several skirmishes in the past. “It has been like a tinderbox for the past few months. The government is now in a hurry to get work done. But at the same time, they are unaware of due process and the mechanics of governance, so they see conspiracies everywhere,” a senior IAS officer in the Delhi government said.
Trouble, some said, has been brewing since October. Prakash’s predecessor, former chief secretary M M Kutty had told the Delhi High Court on October 23: “I am played as a football. I am damned if I do, damned if I don’t. We are caught between the devil and the deep sea.”
Kutty, at the time, had been asked by a Delhi Assembly committee to incorporate adverse remarks against present DUSIB CEO Shurbir Singh in the Annual Confidential Report (ACR), in connection with alleged irregularities in a cooperative bank. Kutty had recommended an ACB probe.
Kutty moved to the Centre soon after, but Shurbir Singh has been in Kejriwal’s line of fire ever since. In January, the CM took to social media to dub the 2004-batch IAS officer “useless” after reports of deaths of homeless people emerged in the media.
Two weeks ago, Prakash attended his first Assembly house committee meeting in the same cooperative bank matter. Singh was on leave and a source in the committee claimed, “Prakash told the committee that he had not been briefed, and since the other officers weren’t present, he couldn’t take action. He added that he respected the house committees and expressed his desire to cooperate.”
In fact, the AGMUT cadre, in the last three years, has issued five resolutions — including four against the Delhi government. The latest resolution is over the February 19 incident. Prakash, however, hadn’t found himself at odds with the government before this. In the days before the crisis, he was described by many AAP leaders as an “upstanding officer” and “an improvement over previous officers”.
In the days preceding AAP’s celebration of three years, Kejriwal had called up the chief secretary to ask why the television advertisement had not been cleared. A CMO official said: “He (Prakash) was equally flummoxed. He said he would check immediately and a meeting was called; he was very helpful.”
Whether or not this advertisement was the subject of the February 19 meeting, the AAP has, even in the past, maintained that the Directorate of Information and Publicity (DIP) has been withholding their ads, supplying them with reasons that are allegedly farcical. DIP chief Jayadev Sarangi has also been hauled up by the government, often publicly.
The way ahead
The alleged assault, officers of the AGMUT cadre maintained, falls into a “pattern” they have seen over the past three years.
“There is a tendency in this government not to follow rules. A civil servant can’t always say yes to whatever the government wants because of prescribed process and laws. This is not about the bureaucracy being against the government, but against an institution’s relevance and the efforts to uphold that. The scenario prevalent in Delhi is not seen in any other state. How is it that you don’t get along with any officer for long?
I’m not saying that officers do not have
differences with other governments. Disagreements are part of the job but this government doesn’t take kindly to that and I don’t see that changing,” said Ashwani Kumar, former PWD and Environment secretary in the Delhi government, who is now serving as the Puducherry chief secretary.
Another officer at the secretariat said, “In a situation like this, where the entire country’s cadre is up in arms, all employees are protesting, no one is willingly going to stick their necks out (and resume communication).”
The seriousness of the conflict is compounded by its timing — the government is supposed to present its fourth budget next month. If bypolls are announced, 20 AAP MLAs, disqualified for allegedly holding offices of profit, will try and regain their seats.
But the cracks have begun to show. According to senior officials, the revised estimates — which give figures for money already spent on projects and the status of these projects, and are instrumental in making the new budget — have not been received till date. These are usually sent by November or December.
“The short-term impact is that the budget will be delayed. Officers are working in terms of communicating on files but there are discussions that need to be had with the ministers, which cannot happen only on files. That makes it a more time-consuming process. Here, even the revised estimates are not in yet. The budget is usually presented in the first half of March. I don’t see that happening,” said a senior officer, who did not wish to be named.
Moreover, both officers and senior party officials are concerned about the long-term impact of the alleged face-off. “The fact is that entire associations are rallying against you… AAP has to work with the bureaucracy for at least two more years… This hostility will end up harming the people of Delhi,” a party member said.
This could explain why AAP’s reaction to the police searches at Kejriwal’s home has been relatively muted. After Kejriwal called on the L-G with his cabinet, AAP leader and Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh on Saturday made an appeal to bureaucrats: “This is a question of the people of Delhi, their lives must not suffer.”
Among the key projects that AAP had hoped to focus on in the next few months is the plan to deliver services to people’s home. There’s also the long-pending promise of regularising unauthorised colonies, laying sewer lines extensively across Delhi, and ensuring that all homes get water.
“All of these are important for the people, but they are also important for the party. These are the key issues that we are planning to focus on in the next financial year, to propel us towards potential victories in the next elections,” said a member of the AAP cabinet.
But this can’t happen without the bureaucrats’ support. According to Ashwani Kumar, who left the Delhi government on a discordant note, the only way forward is to let the law take its course. “The bureaucracy or the elected executive have to work under this framework and it has to be protected by law,” he said.
K Mahesh, the district magistrate of Shahdara, and the honourary president of Delhi Administration Officers’
Academic Forum — a Delhi-based think tank of civil servants — said a long-term policy change is required.
“This is in no way an isolated incident. The political executive routinely humiliates the bureaucracy in many states. The difference here is that the assault was on the Chief Secretary. Even if the Chief Minister apologises, it will not be the solution. We need institutional reform… What is needed is a training course for all elected MLAs and MPs on basic rules and the Constitution. A code of conduct outlining the different scenarios that could arise in daily working should be put together,” he said.
About last week
February 19, around midnight: Delhi CS Anshu Prakash reaches CM’s residence in Civil Lines, after alleged repeated calls from CM’s advisor, V K Jain. At the meeting, he is allegedly assaulted by two AAP MLAs
Feb 20: Prakash files complaint with Delhi Police, saying he was assaulted by MLA Amanatullah Khan and another he can’t recognise, in the presence of the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister. Police register FIR against Khan, 11 others
* Chaos at Delhi Secretariat during the day as Delhi government officials — including those of the Delhi Administrative Subordinate Services (DASS) and stenographer cadres — sit on dharna outside Kejriwal’s office. Environment Minister Imran Hussain, his aide and senior leader Ashish Khetan allegedly assaulted
* Officers hold candlelight march at Rajpath, say they won’t attend meetings but work will not be hampered
February 21: V K Jain questioned by police. He says he was in the washroom and did not see the assault. Amanatullah Khan and another MLA, Prakash Jarwal, arrested in assault case
February 22: In his statement in front of a magistrate, Jain says he saw Khan and Jarwal hitting the chief secretary. Also says the meeting was called to discuss both TV advertisements and ration
February 23: Police conduct a search of Kejriwal’s residence, say they had written to the Public Works Department to hand over CCTV recordings but got no response
* Kejriwal meets L-G, says work being hampered as officers refuse to attend meetings. L-G says steps need to be taken to remove mistrust between government employees and elected government