Should a shot at settling petty political scores with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) override its avowed commitment to principles of federalism? As the Congress leadership firms up its position on the contentious Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Ordinance, it is this question that has confounded the party’s strategists.
The NCTD Ordinance, promulgated last week, has been dubbed by the AAP as the BJP-led central government’s unconstitutional and autocratic bid to overturn a constitution bench judgment by the Supreme Court that bestowed executive powers over Services (bureaucracy) to the Delhi government.
Also read: Delhi: Centre issues big ordinance on postings, transfers; AAP says it defies SC order
Since the ordinance was notified, the Delhi chief minister has been soliciting support of all opposition parties to oppose the ordinance when it is tabled in Parliament – specifically, in the Rajya Sabha – as a Bill for discussion and passing.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, his deputy and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav and now Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee have already assured Kejriwal that their parties will vote against the Bill as and when it is brought before parliament.
The Delhi chief minister is set to seek similar support from the Shiv Sena faction led by Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar’s NCP, K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi, Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, MK Stalin’s DMK and other opposition outfits.
Also read: Mamata assures Kejriwal of support in his fight against Central ordinance
Kejriwal has been asserting that if the Bill is negated in the Rajya Sabha by a united opposition, it would eventually pave the way for building an electoral federal front of like-minded political parties that can defeat Narendra Modi’s BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
However, Kejriwal’s ambition of getting the NCTD Ordinance negated in the Rajya Sabha rests on the stand that the Congress, a party he has been stridently critical of, would take on the matter. The BJP will have no trouble getting the Bill passed in the Lok Sabha where it has a brute majority but the AAP believes that the ordinance can be stalled in the Rajya Sabha, which presently has 238 members (the half-way mark being 119) where the saffron party doesn’t enjoy a clear majority despite having a clear edge over the opposition.
The BJP has 93 MPs in the Rajya Sabha and can shore up support from over a dozen other MPs who are either part of the NDA coalition or belong to “friendly outfits” such as Naveen Patnaik’s BJD, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress, the BSP and the AIADMK.
The AAP, which has 10 MPs in the Rajya Sabha, believes that the ordinance can be stalled in the Rajya Sabha if Kejriwal, with the help of Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee, is able to convince other opposition parties to vote against and simultaneously persuade outfits like the BJD, Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP, HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) and some others to either side with a united opposition or abstain from voting.
Also read: Delhi ordinance, Parliament building debate help Oppn close ranks, mull anti-BJP alliance
AAP at Congress’ mercy?
However, this calculation would only work in the AAP’s favour if the Congress, with its 31 Rajya Sabha MPs, decides to vote against the ordinance.
Kejriwal, during his recent meeting with Nitsh Kumar and Yadav, had urged the duo to secure the Congress’ support against the ordinance, which the Bihar chief minister, sources told The Federal, dutifully did when he met Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and party leader Rahul Gandhi on May 22.
Sources privy to the discussions between Nitish Kumar, Kharge and Gandhi told The Federal that at the meeting, the Congress leadership was “unambiguously critical” of the ordinance and assured the Bihar chief minister that Congress MPs would oppose it in parliament.
The Congress’ caginess in going all out to oppose the ordinance stems from the stiff resistance that any move by the party that may be viewed as offering help to AAP will face from its leaders in Delhi and Punjab.
On Tuesday (May 23) as Kejriwal, with his Punjab counterpart Bhagwant Mann and AAP leaders Sanjay Singh, Raghav Chaddha and Atishi in tow, flew to Calcutta and secured Mamata Banerjee’s support against the ordinance, Congress leaders Ajay Maken, Sandeep Dikshit (both from Delhi) and Partap Singh Bajwa (from Punjab) urged the Congress high command to “show no support or sympathy” for the AAP.
“Kejriwal seeks the support of the Congress Party… His party, along with the BJP, passed a resolution requesting the Union Government to withdraw Bharat Ratna from our beloved Rajiv (Gandhi). Kejriwal backed the BJP both inside and outside of Parliament… when J&K was divided and reduced to a union territory… Kejriwal’s support for the BJP in Gujarat, Goa, Himachal, Assam, Uttarakhand, and in the recent Karnataka elections, where he fielded candidates against the Congress, also begs the question – Why only in states where Congress is the primary opposition or ruling party?” Maken posted on Twitter.
Also read: Delhi ordinance: Cong to consult like-minded parties before taking call on opposing bill
Endorsing Maken’s view, Bajwa, presently the Leader of Opposition in the Punjab Assembly, also took to Twitter to assert that the AAP and Kejriwal “deserve no support or sympathy” from the Congress as the Bhagwant Mann government has “launched a ruthless witch-hunt” against Punjab Congress leaders and “made their lives hell by misusing the police and investigation agencies”.
Bajwa, a close aide of Rahul Gandhi, also appealed to the Congress high command to “to consult the leadership of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Karnataka before even considering helping AAP”, alleging that Kejriwal’s party was “instrumental in giving a political edge to BJP in these states”.
The reason for Maken, Dikshit and Bajwa appealing to their leadership in unison against any show of support to the AAP is obvious. The AAP displaced the Congress from power in Delhi, back in 2013, and in Punjab last year. In Delhi, which the Congress ruled for 15 straight years under Sheila Dikshit before being routed by Kejriwal, the Grand Old Party is now struggling for relevance and has, for two consecutive state polls failed to win a single assembly seat.
Also read: Nitish meets Kejriwal after Cong snub to AAP; focus on Oppn unity against ordinance
Similarly, in Punjab, the AAP has been growing at the Congress’s expense and its recent victory in the Lok Sabha byelection for Jalandhar constituency, a seat that fell vacant upon the demise of Congress’s Santokh Chaudhary, suggests that the GOP’s electoral footprint across the state’s 13 Lok Sabha seats, most of which had ducked the Modi wave in 2019 and voted for the Congress, could also shrink further in next year’s general elections.
The stand taken by its Delhi and Punjab leaders has put the Congress’s central leadership in a quandary. A senior party leader told The Federal that while “in principle” the party high command is of the view that the ordinance must be opposed “to show the Congress’s commitment towards principles of federalism, strengthening elected state governments against BJP’s autocratic functioning and in the interest of Opposition unity,” it also needs to ensure that doing so will not lead to further disenchantment of party leaders in Delhi and Punjab who are already demoralised over the Congress’s moribund condition and the AAP’s tightening electoral grip in these two states.
The leader also pointed out that not opposing the ordinance in the Rajya Sabha, as desired by the party’s Delhi and Punjab leaders, will also prove difficult for Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge. As Leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Kharge will have to play a key role in devising a united floor strategy against the Centre by the opposition, which Kejriwal is currently courting with some success to oppose the ordinance. As such, can Kharge be seen as taking a stand that is in contrast to the wider opposition bloc that he is supposed to keep united?
“It is a tricky situation. How do we not oppose an ordinance or a Bill that is blatantly violative of a Supreme Court judgment that we had wholeheartedly and officially welcomed just a fortnight ago? Can we support or even take a neutral position on a Bill that goes against the very spirit of federalism by emasculating an elected state government when our own former president, Rahul Gandhi, has time and again emphasised on the need to preserve the constitutional position on federalism as India being a Union of States,” a senior party functionary who disagrees with the stand taken by the Congress’ Delhi and Punjab leaders told The Federal.
Also read: Centre’s ordinance on Delhi ‘unconstitutional’, shows Modi scared, says AAP
What is to be done?
Another senior Congress office bearer said that the party high command must “take the Delhi and Punjab leaders into confidence on the issue” and “de-lineate the subject of the ordinance with the impression that opposing it would be a sign of helping Kejriwal”.
“We have to make it clear, both within the party and before the public, that our opposition to the ordinance is on the sole ground that it is against the principles of cooperative federalism and it, by no means, suggests that we have forgiven or forgotten Kejriwal vicious and scurrilous allegations made against our leaders or the AAP’s consistently duplicitous efforts to help the BJP electorally whenever the Congress is in a position to defeat it electorally… this is not difficult and I can only hope that my colleagues from Punjab and Delhi will understand this,” the office bearer added.