In the aftermath of Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti’s actions last week, the escalating drama has rapidly created a situation where the main issues at stake have become tangled to their detriment. And chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s protest outside Rail Bhavan — doubling down in the standoff with the police and central government stemming from last week — is further obfuscating them, creating a confused mix of pertinent ends and faulty means. There are two main elements here. The first is law and order for the capital being within the central government’s purview rather than with the state administration. This is an administrative oddity that serves no particular purpose, undercuts the latter and enables police corruption and ineffectiveness. AAP is not alone in arguing the point; former chief minister Sheila Dikshit has spoken of this in the past, and so has the BJP. The other element is the incident last week that catalysed the current situation, and AAP’s continued backing of Bharti’s actions. This is far more problematic.
The criminal case now registered against Bharti and multiple accounts of Wednesday night’s events have made this much clear: the manner in which Bharti and his cohort compelled the Nigerian and Ugandan women to be detained and subjected to medical tests was at best extra-legal, and at worst an instance of mob justice. Neither did the law minister appear to have a clear understanding of the limits of his authority — or the police’s — when he harangued police officers for not following his instructions and raiding a house he alleged was a hub of prostitution and drug dealing. Laws preventing the authorities from freely taking action against individuals on the basis of suspicion are among the strongest barriers to state overreach. If the current protest is predicated on the assumption that putting the Delhi police under the state government’s control would compel it to fulfil AAP’s demands, no matter the circumstances, it is a dangerous one.
As troubling is the strong element of racism in the entire affair. Bharti’s rhetoric hasn’t helped in this regard. When he warns that foreigners will be tolerated only if they are “good people”, he is employing a familiar rhetoric, that of groups like the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal. And by accusing the BJP and the Congress of harbouring pimps and supporting drug dealing and prostitution, he has employed the crude tactics of mainstream parties where nuance is an ignored concept and with-us-or-against-us polemics are the order of the day.
AAP now faces a choice. There is legitimate anger in the capital against its police force and racism against African nationals is an unfortunately widespread sentiment. If Kejriwal chooses to tap into these sentiments, explicitly or implicitly, he may well find that his party has popular support. It may even be a canny move politically; by taking on the police and underlining its lack of control over them, the AAP government is putting itself in a position to disavow all responsibility for rape cases and other law-and-order problems. But this would be bargaining away a vital element of AAP’s promise. It has come to power on a plank of alternative politics. Such a politics does not include only matters of governance and corruption, but race and sex as well. Defending Bharti’s actions — and conflating them with a needed reform — is no part of it.