File photo of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (right) and his deputy, Manish Sisodia, from an earlier sit-in protest. Photo: Courtesy Aam Aadmi Party
File photo of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (right) and his deputy, Manish Sisodia, from an earlier sit-in protest. Photo: Courtesy Aam Aadmi Party

The state of Delhi, which has served as India’s capital for centuries, is the setting for an ugly fracas between local and federal governments. The political battle has split voters, which means it could affect the 2019 general elections.

The battle is not new. In 2015, just months after a populist wave swept Narendra Modi to power as prime minister, Delhi held its state elections. The results surprised everyone, when a new, activist-led political group, the Aam Aadmi Party, won an overwhelming majority. Aam Aadmi took 67 assembly seats, with the Bharatiya Janata Party winning only three. This marked the beginning of what has become a continuous struggle between the BJP and the AAP.

Delhi’s unique legislative structure is also a major point of contention. Unlike other states, where the elected state government enjoys complete autonomy, Delhi severely curtails the power of the locally elected government. Under Prime Minister Modi, the federal government began to whittle away at the limited powers enjoyed by the state government. This has led to unprecedented clashes as the two parties jostle for power.

State vs federal

Delhi also has a lieutenant-governor, a political appointee of the federal government. The Modi government has made certain that the LG’s position is held by officials loyal to the federal regime.The current incumbent, Anil Baijal, is a former bureaucrat who was appointed as federal home secretary in 2004 by an earlier BJP government. He was removed as soon as a Congress-led government took over the same year. Baijal was brought back as the LG after the Modi government took over.

Delhi’s chief minister from the AAP, Arvind Kejriwal, along with half of his cabinet, has spent more than a week engaged in a sit-down protest inside the official residence of the LG. This was precipitated by an alleged “strike” by Delhi bureaucrats who report to the federal government. Kejriwal and his government argue that the actions of the bureaucrats are unacceptable and prevent the elected state government from carrying out its agenda.

Kejriwal claims that bureaucrats have been stonewalling all major initiatives of his government since February. On June 11, Kejriwal and his ministers met with Baijal to demand that he intervened to call off a strike by bureaucrats.

He accuses Baijal and the central government of being behind the moves by civil servants. Baijal on the other hand maintains that he has no power over Kejriwal and his ministers’ relationships with the bureaucracy, which have been soured since an ugly confrontation between the state cabinet and the chief secretary. The chief secretary is the senior-most bureaucrat in the state. The current incumbent, Anshu Prakash, is from the powerful Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and was close to the BJP during its last period in power, between 1999 and 2004.

After Baijal refused to accept Kejriwal’s claims, Kejriwal and his ministers launched an impromptu sit-down protest in his waiting room. Since then Kejriwal, a diabetic, along with three other ministers, has been working, sleeping and strategizing from inside the small room. Two of the ministers – Manish Sisodia and Satyendar Jain – have also gone on hunger strike. Both have had to be transferred to hospital because of deteriorating health.

Across the city, AAP volunteers and supporters are demonstrating in support of their leaders. They are now demanding full statehood for Delhi, a promise both the major national political parties, Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian National Congress, have made in recent years. Full statehood would mean a nominal role for the LG, in keeping with other states around the country.

On Sunday, Delhi Police shut down five metro stations when the AAP announced plans to march to the prime minister’s house without police permission. Hundreds of AAP supporters took to the streets. AAP sympathizers have also launched extensive social-media campaigns to press their point, and the party directly accuses Modi of taking “revenge” on Delhi citizens for not voting for the BJP.

Interestingly, Kejriwal has found support from chief ministers of four key states who are opposed to the BJP and Modi. Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala, Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and H D Kumaraswamy of Karnataka even met with Modi and requested that he quickly sort out the issue. Other major non-Congress, non-BJP leaders including the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav and Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury have also endorsed the position taken by Kejriwal.

At war with bureaucracy

Bureaucrats meanwhile cite different reasons for not reporting to Kejriwal and his ministers. The federal government has made it clear that the bureaucrats must report to it through the office of the LG. This has become such a bone of contention that local elected ministers claim the bureaucrats don’t listen to their directions.

When Kejriwal wanted to appoint a chairman for the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission, it led to a major fracas. It is believed that his then principal secretary, Rajendra Singh, who is also an IAS bureaucrat, did not help matters and insisted that the decision could only be made by the local government. But the amended laws and their interpretations by the federal government were stacked against them.

Speaking to Asia Times, AAP joint secretary Akshay Marathe said, “[The] Services Department is directly under the LG. That’s why we have been requesting that the LG ensures that this strike [is shut down], so the people of Delhi do not suffer.”

Bureaucrats on the other hand are adamant. Speaking off the record, a senior officer said, “What strike? He [Kejriwal] is peddling lies and you guys in media are buying it. Please visit any of the offices and see for yourself. We are all working.”

When asked about the boycott of ministers, he added, “Let the CM first assure us that his goons will not physically harm any of us.”

“The appointment of people AAP trusted with salaries comparable to junior bureaucrats also erupted into a fight,” a senior bureaucrat told Asia Times. The federal government immediately took action and ensured their dismissal. Many of the AAP’s pet projects in the education and health sectors depended on these external appointments. The distribution of subsidized food rations became another bone of contention and led to a midnight meeting, where Chief Secretary Prakash alleged that he had been assaulted. That precipitated the current crisis.

The AAP is now demanding full statehood for Delhi, but it is unlikely to get any support from the federal government. This creates an abnormal situation where citizens of Delhi have no access to direct democracy as their elected representatives are left unable to function. They also claim to have proof that any officer who works well with them is transferred out by the federal government.

Clearly, this has become a symbolic fight between the opposition parties minus the Congress and the BJP. The Congress stance seems to be in support of the BJP, since it views the AAP as an existential threat. Given the complexities of India’s politics, citizens are now worse off, as the nation’s capital has ground to a halt without an effective government.