Physical violence at any chief minister’s residence is a new low

Shekhar Gupta
Sunday, 25 February 2018

Nobody has a doubt that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is made of street-fighters. Most, including its critics, would agree that since the day it got elected in Delhi, humiliating Narendra Modi’s BJP at its peak by winning 67 seats out of 70, the Centre has launched a Cold War on it, not letting it function even according to the limited powers Delhi’s quasi-statehood confers on it.

Nobody has a doubt that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is made of street-fighters. Most, including its critics, would agree that since the day it got elected in Delhi, humiliating Narendra Modi’s BJP at its peak by winning 67 seats out of 70, the Centre has launched a Cold War on it, not letting it function even according to the limited powers Delhi’s quasi-statehood confers on it.

There also isn’t much doubt now that the state’s chief secretary, a senior, soft-spoken and much liked IAS officer (1986 batch) Anshu Prakash, was manhandled at Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s home late last Monday night.

Elected state governments and civil servants often fight. Humiliation of civil servants, including IAS and IPS, by chief ministers is also not new. Many also draw sadistic pleasure from it. Mayawati as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was the unchallenged transfer queen. She also takes pride in that power. In a ‘Walk The Talk’ interview with me in 2005, she boasted about this. When she first met her mentor Kanshi Ram (who lay in coma on the first floor of her Humayun Road home where we were recording), she was preparing to compete for the IAS. Kanshi Ram told her not to bother and join politics with him instead. “You want to become an IAS,” he said, “I will make you somebody IAS officers will run around.” Kanshi Ram lived up to his promise. So did Behenji in giving her officers the runaround.

At one of her 2007 election meetings in Badaun, we heard her boast to her cheering crowd: “Bureaucracy mere naam se thhar-thhar kaampti hai,” (the bureaucracy trembles at the very mention of my name).

She would toss them around so often that many stopped shifting their families to the places of their new postings. They’d just move to the circuit houses in the new place, avoid dislocating families, especially the children’s education, as there was no knowing how soon they would be on the move again. Many escaped to central postings or other secondments.

Similarly, of the rougher states I am more familiar with, Haryana did some of the same, especially under Bansi Lal and Om Prakash Chautala. There were frequent transfers and corruption cases, vigilance inquiries and sidelining of the previous regime’s favourites into what was locally called ‘khudde-line’ (I can’t translate it, the closest is, in the wilderness).

I can go on with many such examples, even specific cases of true, political bloody-mindedness. I cannot, from the memory bank of nearly four decades in journalism, rustle up another case where a senior officer was beaten up, least of all a chief secretary, and that too, in his chief minister’s house. I am not counting some cases of assassinations by mafiosi politicians, especially in old Bihar. That’s a different category.

The medical report, the video evidence seen so far and the three-decade reputation of Anshu Prakash indicate that the assault did indeed take place. So that fact is not a point of debate. Now the chief minister’s own aide VK Jain has asserted quite unequivocally that Prakash was manhandled.

As the days have passed, AAP’s own spokesmen and leaders have shifted positions, from total denial to the more defiant: you will send police to the chief minister’s house to investigate the allegation of a ‘mere two slaps’ while you do nothing to question Amit Shah for Judge Loya’s ‘murder’. You can choose to call it old whataboutery. I would say it is more like constitutional insolence. Forget contrition, there isn’t even a word of sympathy or solidarity for a human being in your service subjected to physical violence. On Friday, AAP’s Uttam Nagar MLA Naresh Balyan was also reported as saying that such bureaucrats deserve to be thrashed for not doing their work. Although, senior AAP leader Atishi Marlena was quick to strongly condemn it. All government officers need to be treated respectfully and the AAP government believes in working in collaboration with them for Delhi’s development, she tweeted.

Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP in Delhi and Narendra Modi’s BJP at the Centre have been at war now for three years. It has manifested in different ways although, most of the blows have been struck by the Centre. Successive L-Gs have squatted on the state government’s decisions. Postings made and desired by the elected government have been changed or denied. The CBI has raided and charged the chief minister’s key IAS officer Rajendra Kumar in a corruption case that doesn’t make too much sense.

In any case, the amounts it talks about look trivial. The control of the Anti-Corruption Branch, the department AAP coveted most of all, was taken away from it. The latest was the alacrity with which the Election Commission of India disqualified 20 AAP MLAs on the charge of holding dual offices, and received the President’s approval for it over the same weekend. The rude police raid at Chief Minister’s home this Friday, without any courtesy of due notice or warning was one more in the series of hostilities.

This list, by no means exhaustive, tells us that so far much of the bureaucratic and procedural artillery-fire has come from the Centre. AAP has retaliated with verbal salvos, the most famous, or infamous being Kejriwal’s description of Modi as a ‘coward and a psychopath’. The latest, physical violence, is an unprecedented turn.

Anything, we call unprecedented also sets a new precedent. Will physical violence against civil servants now become a new norm? We do describe AAP as a party of doughty street-fighters, but if they legitimise political violence of this kind, there are many, many tougher political leaders elsewhere who’ll draw the wrong lessons. Imagine a situation where an upright officer refuses to carry out a chief minister’s or a Central minister’s orders that he considers wrong. Can he be summarily thrashed at a meeting at your residence, or in his own office? One of the arguments we heard in this affair is, the chief secretary or bureaucrats do not have to face the two-and-a-half lakh people denied their rations. Will political leaders then unleash the mobs on their officers? Will senior officers now need to take police protection while visiting their elected leaders’ homes?

Political leadership and civil services have a delicate relationship. Fights do often break out over issues which may be procedural, principled or personal. Good leaders know how to handle these. The leader of a state, even one with limited powers like Delhi, is the chief minister. It is for him/her to resolve these differences, to make sure things do not take an ugly turn, and if need be, take the issue to higher constitutional authorities. When that also fails, recourse to public protest, noise in the media (which AAP is very good at) is available. But your chief secretary beaten up, even if given ‘just two slaps’ at your residence, is nothing to be proud of.

In the introduction of my 2014 Anticipating India (Harper Collins), I had said that the trio of Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal will lead a brilliant cast of characters in our politics that leaves no dull moment in us journalists’ lives. I had also hoped that all three will change: Modi towards mainstream moderation, Rahul by shedding public diffidence and risk avoidance and finally, Kejriwal towards a little establishmentarian calm. This week tells us that I was completely wrong on that last expectation.

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