The asymmetry of power between the Centre and the State government of Delhi has been partially addressed by the Supreme Court. The ruling Aam Aadmi Party has been freed of the Lt Governor’s stranglehold on the administration and elected representatives can now govern as they see fit.
The Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 239 AA, clarifying the limits of the Lt Governor’s power, is doubly welcome because many key projects have been held up in the past year. The Lt Governor is not the decision-maker; he can only express his opinion. Like all governors, he is bound by the aid and advice of the council of ministers. Nor is he the de facto cadre controlling authority for IAS and DANICS officers posted in Delhi.
While the verdict of the five-judge bench will help in streamlining administration, there is a need for further clarity on the relative powers of the centre and state over the Union Territory. A government, by virtue of being a government, must control three things: land, law enforcement and administration. As chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal has no authority over the first two and until the apex court stepped in, had limited control over the third.
The state is defined by its power to enforce rule of law within a discrete geographical territory. The Delhi government has no such power. At best, Kejriwal is a quasi-CM, with less clout than the mayors of Washington DC and London. The population of Delhi alone is 20 million, which is almost double that of Greece and greater than that of Cambodia. Surely, it deserves an administration which reflects the popular will. The citizens of Delhi have suffered long enough from misgovernance arising from a multiplicity of agencies exercising control over it – the ministries of Home, Defence and Urban Development, the MCDs and the state government.
The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) controls land use in the capital and answers to the Ministry of Urban Development. The Delhi police is responsible only to the Ministry of Home Affairs. As for the civic bodies, it’s not clear whether they are accountable to the state government comprising the “Lt Governor and his council of ministers”, or to the Centre.
The MHA’s absolute control over law enforcement in the capital renders the state government vulnerable to harassment. Thirty-five AAP MLAs have criminal cases against them and 13 were arrested from 2015-17 on charges ranging from molestation, kidnapping, forgery, extortion, casteist remarks, rioting and domestic violence.
For 50 per cent of the total strength of the house to be facing criminal investigation and 20 per cent to be attending assembly sessions while on bail is both bizarre and unprecedented! No state government has targeted opposition MLAs in this manner. For a ruling party to be subjected to such Turkish treatment smacks of vendetta. The Delhi police has been repeatedly scolded by the courts for booking the MLAs on flimsy and purely circumstantial evidence. Had Delhi’s cops displayed half as much alacrity in law enforcement as they have in nailing AAP, the capital would not figure in the list of the world’s five most unsafe cities for women.
The AAP’s troubles did not stop there. It may be recalled that 20 AAP MLAs were disqualified for holding an “office of profit” by the Election Commission. They were later reinstated by the High Court. Meanwhile, the Lt Governor and the chief minister were at loggerheads, with the former sitting on files and rejecting decisions taken by the State. Through a 2015 notification, the State was deprived of control over bureaucrats, who therefore, held themselves accountable to the MHA rather than the Delhi government. To make matters worse, the alleged assault on chief secretary Anshu Prakash was followed by a virtual strike by IAS officers.
The stand-off between the State and the Centre implies that any government in Delhi can function effectively only if the same party is in power in both. This flies in the face of democratic norms and the only viable, long-term solution is to accept the demand for full statehood for Delhi. The BJP has strongly advocated statehood for Delhi in the past and even introduced a bill to this effect in 2003. The draft statehood bill prepared by AAP deserves consideration.
Granted that as the capital city, Delhi occupies a special status, but for the most part, the central government functions from Lutyen’s Delhi, an area served by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation. The AAP is perfectly amenable to the Union government exercising full control over the NDMC area. It’s time to acknowledge that there is a Delhi beyond the Lutyen’s Zone and its aspirations must be accommodated.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.