Is Kejriwal remote-controlling Mann's Punjab govt? Whispers grow louder
In the run-up to the Punjab Assembly election in January, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal was asked how he would handle power equations within the party if Bhagwant Mann became chief minister of the state, much bigger than Delhi.
“We will work together,” the Delhi Chief Minister replied. Sitting by his side, Mann said the new AAP government in Punjab would be different from the Congress, which used its state leadership as puppets.
Mann became Punjab’s 17th chief minister on March 16 after voters delivered a historic mandate (92 seats in the 117-member assembly) to the AAP. But a series of developments since then has led the Opposition and political analysts to question who really is running the show in Punjab.
A dream fulfilled
The victory fulfilled Kejriwal’s dream of the AAP ruling a full-fledged state. The limited powers he enjoyed in Delhi despite ruling the state since 2015 had always been a sore point for him. The win also made the AAP the only regional party to rule two states. (The main Opposition Congress has too been reduced to two states.)
The AAP’s victory gave Kejriwal the confidence to expand his party’s national footprint ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Immediately after the election, Kejriwal and Mann announced joint roadshows in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, where Assembly polls are due later this year.
However, as Mann completes one month in office, his relationship with Kejriwal is coming under increasing scrutiny. True, Kejriwal is the party’s leader and Mann, it can be argued, owes him his position. However, in reality, both are chief ministers, with constitutional obligations to protect their own states’ autonomy and interests.
Punjab has historically been wary of Delhi’s stand on critical issues, such as the controversial Sutlej-Yamuna Link pact and pollution due to straw-burning.
Only last month, Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar was taking potshots at Kejriwal, telling him that since the AAP now has governments in both Punjab and Delhi, it will have “dual responsibility” on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link issue, as his state has to give water to the national capital after taking it from Punjab.
Kejriwal recently chaired a meeting in Delhi of Punjab’s top bureaucracy, leading to accusations that he wanted to control the state. The meeting included Chief Secretary Anirudh Tewari, Power Secretary Dalip Kumar and Chairman of the State Power Corporation Limited, Baldev Singh Saran. Tellingly, Mann was absent.
Dr Daljeet Cheema, spokesperson of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), accused Kejriwal of riding roughshod over constitutional norms.
“Punjabis rightfully fear that the officers of Punjab could be browbeaten to sign away the rights of the state on important issues,” he told The Federal. “Mann should understand that he has been elected to office in Punjab and he alone should hold the meetings, not the Delhi chief minister.”
The AAP’s Punjab spokesperson, Malvinder Singh Kang, told The Federal that it was an informal meeting to discuss the party’s pre-poll promise to give 300 free electricity units. “The Opposition should not read much into it, rather they should support such constructive discussions,” he added.
But the opposition was not convinced.
“The worst was feared and the worst has come to pass. Mann as a rubber stamp CM is a foregone conclusion already,” former CM Amarinder Singh said.
Former Punjab Congress chief Navjot Sidhu was also quick to attack Kejriwal: “Punjab’s IAS officers summoned by Arvind Kejriwal in CM Bhagwant Mann’s absence. This exposes the de facto CM & Delhi remote control. Clear breach of federalism, insult to Punjabi pride. Both must clarify,” he tweeted.
Accusations of micro-management
According to some critics, the meeting was not a one-off. Other developments also bear the imprint of the Delhi leadership, according to them.
With 92 MLAs in the Assembly, the AAP has the highest-ever tally of any party in Punjab’s history. As per rules, the party can appoint 17 Cabinet ministers, but so far only 10 have taken oath. Loyalty to Kejriwal appears to be an important factor in their selection.
Several MLAs who defeated prominent opposition leaders have failed to find berth in the Cabinet.
Controlling the narrative
Then there is Mann’s relationship with the media. A former actor, comedian and satirist, Mann assiduously courted journalists in the run-up to the election. In fact, some of his closest friends are from the media fraternity. But now Mann keeps the media at arm’s length and prefers to communicate via social media – a sign, some say, that Delhi “wants to control the Punjab narrative”.
“It is always the prerogative of the chief minister whether or not to speak with the media,” Navdeep Dhingra, president of Patiala Media Club, told The Federal. “But to stop the media from doing their public duty is unacceptable and serious insult to the fourth pillar of the democracy.” Dhingra was referring to a recent public function that Mann attended that was closed to journalists.
“It appears part of the party’s strategy to not let Mann speak his mind freely and allow the AAP’s central leadership to control the Punjab narrative and put Kejriwal at the centre of it,” former BBC journalist Aarish Chhabra told The Federal.
“It’s not a healthy sign if this arrangement continues.”
Again, it is instructive to see this through an historical lens. Chhabra said Punjab has its own place in history – as a state, as an idea, and as a group of people with common heritage, spread not just across India and Pakistan but around the world. This was also evident during the recent agitation against the Centre’s farm laws, he said. “It’s not about Kejriwal. It’s about the spirit, self-image and self-respect of the Punjabi people.”
Not all government decisions have been met with criticism though. The order stopping MLAs from drawing multiple pensions has been welcomed. As per the new rule, an MLA can draw only one pension, irrespective of how many times he or she wins. The move is expected to save the state exchequer ₹70-₹80 crore in the next five years.
The move to provide free ration to poor beneficiaries at their doorstep – a key Delhi government initiative that was blocked by the Centre – has also been lauded, although it remains to be seen how the scheme is implemented.
Meanwhile, the anti-corruption helpline launched last month has been received well, with Kejriwal claiming that the AAP ended corruption in Punjab within 10 days of coming to power.
A political expert told The Federal that more needs to be done to tackle corruption. “While Mann government’s anti-corruption helpline is a good step in terms of creating deterrence, it must be backed with other steps like e-governance system in all major public services, strengthening the right to service act, etc,” said Professor BS Ghuman, former vice-chancellor of Punjabi University, Patiala.