News analysis

Remarks by Delhi chief minister on Singapore rooted in domestic politics

Mr Arvind Kejriwal has been criticised for the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the Delhi High Court.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who triggered a diplomatic incident by falsely claiming a "new strain" from Singapore could start a third Covid-19 wave in India, is no stranger to controversy.

His remarks are rooted in domestic politics amid a power tussle with the federal government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr Kejriwal, 52, in the Twitter post in Hindi on Tuesday (May 18), called on Mr Modi's government to cancel flights with Singapore.

Delhi has a unique power structure in that it has its own government but issues such as law and order are controlled by the federal government. In March, the federal government passed legislation in Parliament, further increasing its control over Delhi.

The following month, in April, Mr Kejriwal authorised the broadcast of an internal meeting on Covid-19 between Mr Modi and state leaders, intensifying the tiff between them amid the blame game on who was responsible for shortages of oxygen and hospital beds in the country.

"Basically he is trying to create panic and trying to project himself as somebody who is paying greater attention to his people... and doing his best to take care of the interests of Delhi residents," said Delhi-based political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

Re-elected for the third time as Delhi chief minister last year after winning elections for the 70-seat assembly, Mr Kejriwal, who comes from a middle-class family in Haryana state, entered politics through a rather circuitous route.

He quit a government job in the Indian revenue service in 2006 to pursue social activism.

In 2006, he was selected for the Ramon Magsaysay award, a top Asian honour, for Emergent Leadership for social work and initiatives to fight corruption.

The father of two was part of an anti-corruption movement in 2011 against the backdrop of a series of graft scandals that plagued the then Congress government.

As the movement was petering out, Mr Kejriwal, sensing an opportunity, launched the Aam Aadmi Party, attracting supporters from all walks of life from journalists and bankers to lawyers and homemakers.

In 2014, unable to immediately make the transition from protester to administrator, he courted controversy by leading a street protest and even slept on a Delhi road after a dispute with the police.

He then quit as chief minister but bounced back politically.

Many of Mr Kejriwal's early supporters and colleagues have left the Aam Aadmi Party, accusing him of being autocratic and unhappy with the direction of the party - claims he has denied. Critics have also accused him of an ideological bent steeped in Hindu nationalism.

He has earned plaudits for reforming the education system by improving teaching and infrastructure in government schools and setting up mohalla, or street clinics.

The chief minister has, in fact, turned to Singapore in the past for inspiration to improve amenities in Delhi. He has sent teachers to Singapore for training as part of efforts to improve the government school infrastructure and studied Singapore's water management system.

But he has been criticised for the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the Delhi High Court.

It criticised the state government in April, at the height of the shortage of oxygen, asking it to stop the "black-marketing of oxygen" and to take over an oxygen refilling plant.

But much of the blame for the devastating second Covid-19 wave in India has also fallen on Mr Modi's government and Mr Kejriwal is seen to be trying to further this perception, analysts said.

They saw this as an effort by him to chart a political future beyond Delhi.

"Kejriwal is not just looking at himself as a Delhi-based leader. He sees AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) in other states and sees himself as an alternative (national leader) in Indian politics," said Mr Mukhopadhyay.