The crux of the tussle between the elected government in Delhi and the Union government through the Lieutenant Governor over who has the primacy in administrative matters is, at the end of the day, one between a constitutional position and aspiration. Things have come to a head because of the prickly nature of the relationship between the state and the Centre, the inevitable fallout from having an antagonistic chief minister in Delhi. However, looking beyond the case that is now before the Supreme Court, this is much more than about the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
India is a federal polity with a unitary bias. This is the essence of the constitutional provisions. This is what explains the existence of Articles 352, 356 and 360. It also explains why the Supreme Court now, and the High Court earlier, said that the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi has overriding executive powers in government.
The Centre has been going back and forth on the kind of government there should be in Delhi. The confusion stems from the fact that the city is the seat of the Union government and it, therefore, could not be a regular Union territory. So from having a chief minister between 1952 and 1956, it moved to having a metropolitan council – that was after the chief ministership was abolished – to an executive council thereafter and finally, in 1993, an elected government, an assembly and a chief minister. The demand for full statehood, which the BJP had advocated during the years it was not the powerhouse it now is, is now AAP’s demand even though the Centre has effectively put the matter in cold storage.
There is no reason that this is how it should remain. The demand for full statehood for Delhi has coincided with rising political and economic aspirations of the people. Full statehood has been an articulation of that aspiration. At 2.5 million people, Delhi is the world’s second most populous city. Anecdotally, the people of Delhi are among the most enterprising in the country. The 2016-17 figures released earlier this year show that at 8.8 per cent, its GDP is well ahead of the overall national figure.
On the ease of doing business parameters, its performance is among the reasons why India jumped 30 places in World Bank rankings. The enterprising nature reflects in the per capita income: Rs 3 lakh per annum (figures for 2016-17), which is three times the national average. It has a literacy rate of over 86 per cent – the state government has initiated steps to make Delhi a fully literate state –and over 97 per cent of the population stays in urban areas.
Evidently, the people of Delhi want to achieve more. Whether this can be fully understood and the demands executed by a non-elected entity is definitely worth finding out. Time after time, after handing AAP a corker of a mandate, the electorate found the elected government’s voice stifled, whether on the issue of having its own anti-corruption bureau or asking for an audit into the finances of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation against the backdrop of the latest Metro fare hike.
The systematic and successful denouement of an elected chief minister and the political benefits this might result in holds out the prospect of this continuing into the future if and when the shoe is on the other foot. This is where the matter goes from the issue of constitutionality to the political because what is happening in Delhi is not merely about Centre-state relations, it is an extension of the turf war between the BJP and a newbie party.
India’s multi-party system is a mechanism that provides an avenue for meeting the aspirations of just about everyone. Even when there is a powerful and overarching political force, the multi-party system has given voice to others who do not agree with the larger view. The Swatantra Party and the Praja Socialist Party were formed when the Congress was unchallenged and Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister. AAP was elected to power in Delhi in 2015 at the height of prime minister Modi’s popularity. Though small, such parties represent legitimate aspirations. Trampling them under does not make good political sense in the long term. The appointment by the Delhi government of a battery of top lawyers to represent it in the ongoing case in the Supreme Court, including former home minister P Chidambaram, illustrates the seriousness of the matter. Surely this is the time, when relations between the government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi and the Centre are perhaps most fractious, that differences over administrative authority need to be settled.