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Monday, June 27, 2022

In form and words, episode with Punjab minister fits AAP narrative

Heading two states now, AAP may have come a long way from the outfit that emerged from the larger umbrella of a civic-activist movement called the India Against Corruption (IAC). However, its anti-corruption credentials remain the party's safety umbrella.

Written by Sourav Roy Barman | New Delhi |
Updated: May 26, 2022 10:47:04 am
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann during a roadshow in Amritsar in February. (Express Photo: Rana Simranjit Singh, File)

The form and content of the two media statements, made seven years apart, bear striking resemblance, packed with references to “conscience”, “character” and “sacrifice”. They also invoke what remains the defining philosophy for AAP, at least in the image it courts: its anti-corruption character.

On October 9, 2015, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, bristling with indignation on live television, had sacked his Cabinet Minister Asim Ahmed Khan on charges of accepting bribe. “The media did not reveal this, no one did. We came to know about it and took a decision within 24 hours,” Kejriwal told a press conference then, releasing a minute-long clip of what was allegedly a one-hour-long tape documenting Khan’s “wrongdoings”. In 2018, after the court accepted the CBI’s closure report in the case, Khan was reinstated in the party and made the chairman of the Delhi State Haj Committee.

On Tuesday, a similar script played out as Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann announced the sacking of his Health Minister Vijay Singla based on a “sting operation”. No clip was, however, released this time, nor did Mann take questions from the media. “Only I knew about this case, neither the Opposition, nor the media,” Mann said in a video message, speaking at length about AAP’s “uncompromising” stand against corruption.

Heading two states now, AAP may have come a long way from the outfit that emerged from the larger umbrella of a civic-activist movement called the India Against Corruption (IAC). However, its anti-corruption credentials remain the party’s safety umbrella, the central idea that binds it, with its message about it corroding the vitals of India’s democratic polity finding a resonance with the public.

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In his 2012 book Swaraj, released when he was just an activist himself, Kejriwal wrote: “There are innumerable issues in our country and a sense of dejection starts to seep in looking at the task in front of us. But we started to realise that the root of the problem is in the political system of the country. All these issues crop up due to corrupt politicians and their parties that have a nexus with criminal elements.”

AAP’s antidotes to all kinds of ills afflicting the country also flow from that theme enunciated by Kejriwal in the book.

During its IAC days, the main idea was an all-powerful Jan Lokpal. In meetings he held at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, Kejriwal would read out names of “corrupt politicians”.

Sacked Punjab Health Minister Vijay Singla. (Express Photo by Jasbir Malhi)

Once in power, one of AAP’s first populist moves was to exhort people to “sting the corrupt”. In 2013, during his first stint as Delhi CM, Kejriwal also launched an anti-corruption helpline. But this lost steam after he had to step down as CM within 49 days of forming the government with the support of the Congress.

The first Kejriwal government also tasked the Delhi anti-corruption branch with probing an alleged scam in the purchase of streetlights during the Commonwealth Games in 2010, in which the role of the late CM Sheila Dikshit was also purportedly under the scanner.

Just three days before resigning, Kejriwal made a splash by ordering an FIR against Reliance Industries Ltd Chairman Mukesh Ambani, then Oil Minister Veerappa Moily and his predecessor Murli Deora over alleged illegal jacking up of gas prices.

When Kejriwal returned to power with a bigger mandate in 2015, these cases fell off the priority list of AAP, despite the party promising to revive them in the lead-up to the polls. The party claimed – and has stuck to this – that the BJP-led Centre’s decision to limit the powers of the anti-corruption bureau to only Delhi government employees had rendered the body toothless.

In this second term, one of the first big-ticket anti-corruption cases of the Kejriwal government was instituting a commission of inquiry against charges of corruption in the Delhi and District Cricket Association under the watch of Arun Jaitley, the late BJP stalwart.

That had ended in a damp squib after the inquiry was struck down by the Centre in 2016, terming it “illegal and unconstitutional”. In 2018, Kejriwal tendered an apology to Jaitley, in a defamation case. Before that, the AAP supremo also apologised to Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, for previously featuring him in one of its “list of most corrupts”.

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Given AAP’s limited powers in Delhi, particularly absence of any administrative control over police, the party appears to be keen to re-embrace its radical anti-corruption image via Punjab, a state where it swept to power in March.

The statements issued after the resignation of ministers were not the only parallel between the AAP governments in Punjab and Delhi. In one of his first statements after taking over on March 17, Mann appealed – much like Kejriwal solemnly did, all those years ago — to record incidents of corruption on their mobile phones, and send them to “the personal WhatsApp number of the CM”.

(With inputs from Vidhatri Rao)

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