Right after the dismal performance of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi during last year's general elections – it had managed to surprise in Punjab but pulled a blank in the capital – the party's chief, Arvind Kejriwal, began casting about for a way to stay in the headlines. An upcoming court date seemed like the perfect opportunity: Bharatiya Janata Party leader Nitin Gadkari had filed a criminal defamation case against Kejriwal for alleging that he had been involved in corruption, and the matter was coming up in a Delhi court.

All the elements of the ideal AAP storyline could come together in that case. Kejriwal righteously taking on corrupt leaders. The new dispensation resorting to a draconian legal provision to quell dissent. Kejriwal proving to the world that he would fight whoever it was, BJP or Congress. The only problem was that criminal defamation suits simply aren't that newsworthy in India's broader political landscape.

So Kejriwal tried to take it a step further and essentially walked his way into jail claiming to be fighting against bail bond procedures that AAP claimed were anti-poor, a cause that hasn't exactly taken centrestage since. It was clear to anyone following the party then that Kejriwal was attempting to stay in the news, an impression that former AAP leader Prashant Bhushan has since confirmed by admitting that it was mostly just drama.

Defamation crimes

While the bail bond matter was mostly put aside, with Kejriwal's jail stint mostly confirming his "dramebaaz" (showboater) image rather than demonstrating his commitment to a cause, AAP did continue to take up the issue of criminal defamation.

On July 8, the Supreme Court will hear a case that clubs together defamation suits against Kejirwal, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy and Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi. The Supreme Court will specifically be considering contentions by all three that defamation shouldn't be a criminal matter at all. The law has been challenged as an unconstitutional fetter on free speech, and one that is satisfied through the civil defamation provision.

India is classified as only a "partly free" country for the press by Freedom House, an independent, international watchdog dedicaed to the freedom of expression around the world. One of the main reasons India earns this label is its criminal defamation legislation, a feature that is starting to disappear in other countries the world over.

And by taking the matter up in the Supreme Court, AAP has shown that it is willing to do battle when it comes to the issue – unlike the bail bond fight that was not only dropped when inconvenient but became a way for Kejriwal to accuse Bhushan of misleading him into jail.

Circular route

Except for one little problem. The Delhi government under AAP seems to not just be tolerating criminal defamation, but actively encouraging its use. Since coming back to power in the capital and then presiding over a nasty internal fight within his party's ranks, Kejriwal has become increasingly bellicose when it comes to the media. Asserting that there was a big conspiracy out to get his party, the Delhi Chief Minister has called for a public trial of the media.

And now he's willing to turn that into a criminal trial too. A circular from the Delhi government calls on all government officers to report any person making statements against the CM, ministers or any public servant that could be counted as criminal defamation. The circular, issued on May 6, asserts that the home department will take up any such matters and see whether a case for criminal defamation is made out.

Technically of course, there is nothing illegal about this. Kejriwal's office is only reminding government officers about what is extant law, in this case criminal defamation. But of course, it's not a matter of illegalities. It's also a question of image. When Kejriwal went into jail in May 2014 saying he wanted to raise awareness about bail bonds and the way they worked against the poor, he was criticised for drama because it seemed opportunistic.

The same appears to be happening to his battle against criminal defamation. When it's applied against him by Gadkari, Kejriwal wants to challenge the very constitutionality of the law. When he feels the media is conspiring to finish him however, Kejriwal's office sends out a circular asking government officers to report defamation.  What is Kejriwal's real stand?