In Jain prison row, a dilemma for the AAP
The decision to continue having Satyender Jain as a minister without a portfolio appears increasingly untenable, especially for the reputation of a party that once crusaded against the VIP culture
Born out of the churn of the anti-corruption movement that held Delhi in ferment in 2011-12, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was always keen to differentiate itself from other political parties on one particular plank: Transparency and special treatment of VIPs. At the time, the ire against corruption in public life was at an all-time high, and the beleaguered United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was struggling to tide over a raft of scandals. The AAP was quick to grab the mantle of probity in public life and kept at it from that point on — through its turbulent first tenure of 49 days, to two convincing victories in the Capital and a landslide win in Punjab earlier this year. In a number of cases, the whiff of a scandal or alleged wrongdoing was enough for the party to publicly cut ties with the leader, even before a conviction or sentence had been handed out. Though there were some exceptions, it was assumed that the action of the party was largely dictated by a desire to project itself as different from many other outfits where leaders would routinely avail themselves of special treatment and cut corners. In contrast, the AAP said it was the party of the common man, aam aadmi, and, therefore, meted out no special treatment. But now, there appears to be a high-profile break in this trend, with the case of Delhi minister Satyendar Jain.
The enforcement directorate arrested Jain in May under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). Almost immediately, the AAP cried vendetta and said that Jain’s arrest was part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) plan to destabilise the government, and revenge for winning the Punjab elections.
Things got murkier last week after a video was circulated on social media in which Jain was purportedly seen getting a massage from an inmate in his cell inside Tihar, sparking a political war. The party said it was part of Jain’s physiotherapy required after surgery, but its political opponents said the video showed Jain being treated as a VIP. Then, on November 23, a second video emerged that appeared to show Jain eating a variety of food on different days, including some in which he is having fruits and salad, and some with a prepared meal, prompting further allegations of preferential treatment and violating jail norms. A third video that appeared to show a superintendent meeting Jain inside his prison cell at Tihar jail was widely circulated on social media platforms on Saturday, prompting the BJP to renew its attack on the AAP.
Several Tihar officials, including the prison 7 superintendent and head warden, have since been suspended over the alleged special treatment being given to Jain, who was also the prison minister until he was imprisoned.
To be sure, the AAP has said that the video leaks are illegal and a legal plea by Jain has said that the videos are meant to defame him. They also coincide with a two-week-old plea by Jain on a special diet being stopped; and some videos — which HT hasn’t independently verified — do seem to suggest that events are stitched together with a jump in timestamps. There are serious ethical and legal questions also surrounding the leak of the videos.
But nonetheless, it is now clear that the videos establish a damning case for alleged prison rule violation, especially after a Delhi court on Saturday said the minister was prima facie being given “preferential treatment” inside Tihar jail in violation of rules. After all, Jain was the minister in charge of the jail where he is lodged in now and charges of special treatment cannot sit well with a party that campaigned against VIP culture, preferential treatment and corruption. The videos suggest that prison rules were either bent or broken, regarding medical treatment and physiotherapy, for which there is a designated centre and jail hospital, and regarding rules about inmates being allowed to roam around after designated hours and holding meetings with the minister, and, more generally, about jail discipline.
This sparks the question — is the AAP changing its years-old tactic of dealing with allegations of corruption and wrongdoing by continuing to defend Jain? After all, in a raft of high-profile cases in the past, the party quickly and publicly cut ties with the person involved. In February 2020, former AAP councillor Tahir Hussain was suspended from the party after his name surfaced as one of the conspirators in the 2020 Delhi riots. In October 2015, the party sacked Delhi’s food minister Asim Ahmed Khan for allegedly demanding bribes from a builder. In September 2016, the party sacked Delhi’s women and child welfare minister Sandeep Kumar over an alleged sex scandal. And in June 2015, former law minister Jitender Singh Tomar resigned from his post after his arrest for allegedly using a fake law degree. Even more recently in Punjab, former health minister Vijay Singla was sacked after he was caught on tape allegedly asking for commission for tenders on contracts.
The party moved quickly, even in other matters of controversy, not related to financial wrongdoing allegations. Earlier this year, after former state social justice minister Rajendra Pal Gautam stirred up a row over his presence at an event where many people converted to Buddhism, he was sacked as minister amid reports that the party was not happy with him. This came despite Gautam saying that he merely repeated the vows of conversion drafted by BR Ambedkar in 1956. In contrast, the party’s opponents point out, Jain has not even been removed as a minister, though his portfolios have been given to others.
Jain is a senior leader of the party who was intimately involved in handling the party’s affairs, was considered close to the party’s leadership and has held important ministries. Of course, there is likely to be politics involved in the recent controversies, given that the AAP is hoping to mount a serious challenge in Gujarat and wrest control of the Delhi Municipal Corporation. Only the courts can decide whether Jain is guilty, and the AAP is well within its rights to defend him. But its decision to continue having him as a minister without portfolio, even in the face of serious charges of preferential treatment in a jail that he once had control over, appears increasingly untenable, especially for the reputation of a party that once crusaded against the VIP culture.
The views expressed are personal