In February 2020, when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) returned to power for a third consecutive term, many had believed that Atishi, the party’s most prominent woman face and newly elected legislator from Kalkaji, would be inducted into Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s council of ministers. AAP insiders even wagered that Atishi would take over the education portfolio from her ‘mentor’, Manish Sisodia, who she had previously served as advisor in the city-state’s education ministry at a time when Kejriwal’s highly-publicised Delhi Education Model was still taking shape at the drawing board.
In a surprise move, Kejriwal decided against inducting any fresh faces in his Cabinet and, instead, continued with ministers who had been part of his government for the preceding five years. Kejriwal’s decision, notwithstanding, it remained clear to most that whenever the CM does decide to bring fresh faces into his Cabinet and divest his closest aide, Sisodia, of some of the dozen-odd portfolios allocated to him at the time, Atishi would be among the first new inductees sworn in as minister – and given charge of the education ministry.
Like Atishi, there were two other notable omissions from the Kejriwal Cabinet of February 2020 – Saurabh Bhardwaj, the third-term MLA from Greater Kailash who had previously served as minister in Kejriwal’s short-lived minority government of 2013 and newly elected Rajinder Nagar MLA Raghav Chaddha. Each of them was later accommodated in various boards while continuing with their roles as prominent spokespersons of the party and its government in Delhi. Last year, Chaddha was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Punjab, ostensibly as a reward for handling the AAP’s Assembly poll campaign in the state that the party won with an unprecedented majority of 92 seats in a House of 117 members.
Also read: AAP says Sisodia kept with criminals; jail authorities deny charge
On March 9, at long last, Atishi and Bhardwaj made their entry into Kejriwal’s Delhi Cabinet. However, their induction as ministers couldn’t have come at a more trying time for Kejriwal and his party. The duo fill the void created by the resignations of Sisodia and Satyendra Jain, both key Kejriwal aides who are now in jail and facing investigations in various cases of graft and money laundering.
Sisodia, who was arrested by the CBI last month for his alleged role in what AAP’s political rivals in the BJP and the Congress are calling the Delhi Excise Policy Scam, had been remanded to 15 days in judicial custody on March 4. On March 9, hours after Atishi and Bhardwaj were sworn in as ministers, Sisodia was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) while still serving judicial custody at Delhi’s Tihar Jail; this time on charges of alleged money laundering in connection with the same Excise Policy Scam that the CBI is also probing.
Jain, on the other hand, has been in jail for nearly nine months – also serving judicial custody in an alleged money laundering case being investigated by the ED. For eight of those months, Jain, who was the minister for jails, health and sundry other important portfolios, had continued to be a minister-without-portfolio in the Kejriwal Cabinet and the portfolios he had held prior to his arrest were allocated to Sisodia.
Also read: BJP claims Delhi govt setting up ‘I love Manish Sisodia’ desks, AAP denies
Kejriwal’s decision to finally accept the resignations of Sisodia, who helmed as many as 18 ministries and departments at the time of his arrest, and Jain and to induct the two replacements, perhaps, shows that the Delhi CM realises that his closest aides aren’t likely to come out of jail anytime soon. As such, the CM seems to have finally made a choice. Kejriwal has belatedly realised that the urge for scoring political points over the BJP by screaming vendetta politics, no matter how believable this charge may be, cannot be allowed to compromise matters of governance, particularly in a state that first established the AAP as a political force.
This is not to say that Kejriwal or his party would abandon Sisodia and Jain like they abandoned Seemapuri MLA and former minister Rajendra Pal Gautam when he ran into a political storm and was accused by the BJP of being “anti-Hindu” or Amanatullah Khan, the AAP’s Okhla legislator, who was arrested and later released on bail in a corruption case.
AAP insiders told The Federal that with Atishi and Bhardwaj now taking over as ministers and being given some of the portfolios previously held by Sisodia and Jain, Kejriwal and his party will continue to cry foul over the “misuse of central agencies by the BJP to target AAP”. The AAP will project the two jailed leaders as “martyrs who have been unjustly incarcerated because, as ministers, they were handling the two most popular areas of Kejriwal’s Delhi Model of governance – Sisodia, the man behind the Delhi education model and Jain, who as health minister who worked tirelessly to spruce up Delhi’s health infrastructure during the COVID crisis”.
It is also evident that this narrative will also be liberally infused with heavy doses of AAP’s pro-Hindu politics and its rhetoric of being “kattar imaandaar” (extremely honest) or “kattar deshbhakt” (extremely patriotic).
Moments after she took oath as minister, Atishi – now the minister for Education, PWD, Power and Tourism and also the only woman minister in Kejriwal’s Cabinet – made this rather clear. “When Lord Ram was exiled, his brother Bharat placed his slippers on the throne and ruled on his behalf. We will shoulder the responsibility of Manish Sisodia and Satyendra Jain till they return. We will not let work in Delhi stop,” she said. Clearly, for AAP, the incarcerated Sisodia and Jain are Lord Rams; their time in jail is an exile that they are being made to suffer by the BJP ostensibly for delivering “world class” education and health infrastructure to those Delhiites who have repeatedly spurned the saffron wave.
All of this may make for a good political slugfest between the AAP and the BJP. However, what is also clear is that Kejriwal knows that the absence of Sisodia, and arguably to a lesser degree also of Jain, presents its own set of challenges. “As long as Sisodia was around, Kejriwal did not need to worry at all about the functioning of his Delhi government. He was free to indulge in the AAP’s expansion plans and tour any poll-bound state for long periods. There was this blind trust between the two because they had both worked closely since a time when neither had gained any public recognition. Besides, Sisodia was always happy to play the abiding backroom boy with a knack for implementing ideas and a crisis manager who a politically ambitious Kejriwal could always rely upon,” an AAP leader who is also among the party’s co-founders told The Federal.
Another AAP leader, a second-term MLA, said, “the level of trust that Kejriwal had in Sisodia and also in Jain has always been far higher than what he has placed in any other colleague, including the likes of Sanjay Singh and Gopal Rai… this was also clear in the way Kejriwal ran his government – Sisodia was always the go-to person for any important decision and Jain was an important sounding board. This is why when Jain was jailed, his resignation wasn’t sought while his portfolios were allocated to Sisodia who already was in-charge of a dozen departments. Even at Cabinet meetings, Kejriwal would lay out the broad strokes of his vision for any scheme and then leave it to Sisodia and Jain to work out the nuances… now, Kejriwal will need to be more involved even though he has still not allocated any portfolio to himself.”
Some in the AAP believe that the absence of Sisodia and Jain will also upset Kejriwal’s expansion plans for his party. The AAP had ambitious plans for the Assembly polls due in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh later this year. AAP sources say Kejriwal was particularly keen on an aggressive, Punjab-like election campaign in Karnataka and Rajasthan. “The plan to contest these elections won’t change but I think Kejriwal will not be able to devote as much time and resources for these states as he did in Punjab or Gujarat because on the governance front, he will be tied down with issues of Delhi while on the question of resources to mount an aggressive campaign, he will be doubly careful given how the central agencies have been put on red alert against our party by the BJP,” an aide of the Delhi CM said.
As for Atishi and Bhardwaj – the latter will now hold charge as minister for Health, Industries, Urban Development and Water Resources – the immediate task is to steady the functioning of the departments under their charge after a prolonged period of administrative apathy on account of their predecessors being hemmed in by the CBI and the ED. As education minister, Atishi is unlikely to face any major problems since she is already well-versed with the department’s functioning from the time she worked as Sisodia’s advisor. Bhardwaj too is unlikely to have trouble catching up since he was already vice-chair of the Delhi Jal Board while his role as chief spokesperson for the government for the past several years had ensured that he knows most officers, ministerial staff as well as the government’s administrative agenda and political rhetoric.