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The battle maybe won, but the unwise war remains for Arvind Kejriwal and AAP

Winning a Supreme Court case shows some class but scuffles with civil servants are just the opposite.

Updated: Jul 12, 2018, 14:42 PM IST

It is time perhaps for Arvind Kejriwal to think of one of my favourite English proverbs that stretches back to Shakespeare: 'Discretion is the better part of valour'. Such gentlemanly virtue is not likely to cut ice with street activist leaders, but it does help to think of such things. The Delhi chief minister is fighting too many battles with too many people. A day after France qualified for the championship game of FIFA World Cup 2018, that reminds you of Asterix facing the Roman Empire. But the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader is more caricatured in political cartoons than celebrated in comic books. It is a tough life!

But Kejriwal's victory in the Supreme Court is no mean achievement and celebrates his Dilliwala spirit (Do you know who I am?) than any virtue that may be attributed to an English-speaking gentleman or a French-speaking warrior endowed with a magic potion to defeat ancient Romans. The Supreme Court, in saying the LG was bound by cabinet advice, gave a virtual slap on the face of Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal in reminding him that Kejriwal's AAP government was an elected one and it does not behove an ornamental LG to be obstructionist.

Alas, Baijal is also endowed with a rather thick skin that he has displayed in the aftermath of the verdict. Kejriwal has written to Baijal wondering how the LG can be "selective" in accepting the July 4 Supreme Court as he asked the Central government-appointed LG to implement the judgment in letter and spirit. Baijal, who is said to be "studying" the details, displays the traditional power of the shrewd bureaucrat as he says, "Yes, chief minister."

That brings us to a core point on how the AAP government should behave in dealing with civil servants led by IAS officers. Kejriwal is being foolhardy in taking on everybody from Congress and BJP to party breakaway groups and the LG on the one hand, and ordering about seasoned bureaucrats on the other. Arvind is no Asterix and his Dilliwala spirit is no magic potion when push comes to shove.

Kejriwal has to separate his political tussles from the administrative headaches, even if officers are acting on implicit signals from more influential people in the higher reaches of the federal bureaucracy or in politics. 

Red flags were clearly up when AAP legislators confronted chief secretary Anshu Prakash last February at Kejriwal's residence, triggering a long standoff between civil servants and AAP. A case of manhandling has been alleged but things have reached a point where facts of the incident are not important. Any elected government has to govern using an independent civil service. The "steel frame" of the IAS remains the main mechanism through which any elected government implements its policies in India, and confronting its cadres is an unwise thing to do for any party that has health and education of citizens on its mind. By accusing IAS officers of being "on strike" Kejriwal earned political brownie points, but their open challenge to him denying his claim was something else. 

AAP loves a good fight but it would be sad to see it go the way of Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, which is confrontationist all the way. Winning a Supreme Court case shows some class but scuffles with civil servants are just the opposite. IAS officers have as a group come out against the AAP government and that is not a good thing for a party that wants to be known for good governance.

A smart way for AAP to cool the IAS would be to wave a white flag that has a red corner. Given that Kejriwal is part of an anticipated federal front that plans to challenge the Modi Sarkar in general elections due next year, there is a distinct chance that senior IAS officers may have to deal with AAP leaders at the Centre, either in parliament or in a ministry. The neta-babu relationship in India is a lot like saas-bahu politics in TV soap operas: you never know whose hand is up and a lot depends on the specific episode.

It would be better for Kejriwal to convert his war movie into a soap opera. Such thoughts are easier to entertain in a moment of victory than during a setback.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)