When the people of Delhi gave the Aam Aadmi Party 67 seats, it was not out of altruism. The vote was an expression of public faith in the party’s commitment to deliver on its poll promises. Unfortunately, the AAP government has not kept its side of the bargain. It squandered the first months of its tenure in an internal struggle for supremacy. The surviving maximum leader became convinced of a conspiracy against him. On Sunday at a Google Hangout, he promised “good” journalists aid from his government for setting up newspapers and TV channels. And four days earlier, his government had issued a circular drawing the attention of officials to Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, which cover defamation. It required them to inform the government of media comment that could be proceeded against under defamation law. This is a low attempt to institutionalise the misuse of defamation law to cow down criticism.
Kejriwal had earlier sought to have defamation taken off the criminal law statutes and reclassified as a civil offence that does not attract imprisonment. The Supreme Court has clubbed his petition with similar pleas moved by Rahul Gandhi and Subramanian Swamy, and will hear arguments for decriminalising defamation next month.
For Kejriwal’s government to seek to use criminal defamation law like a blunt instrument to bludgeon the media looks especially ugly because the party — and the movement it grew out of — had flourished by using the tools of an open society. It should have known that when it faltered, society would turn those very tools against it. Especially since the party is bursting with former journalists, who should understand the function and methods of the media.
The AAP should get over its obsession with the media and focus on the mandate that brought it to office. Neither do the people want it to run or back newspapers, as it has offered to do, nor do they want it to conduct revenge tragedies, upending media trials by organising public trials of the media, as it had similarly threatened. The AAP sweep had signalled the perceived need for government that is open and responsive. To deliver, the party must get over the private anxieties and paranoias which it has displayed through its first months in office, and focus on public agendas.