The battle goes on

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Chief Minister Kejriwal being welcomed by the staff at the Delhi Secretariat on July 4. Photo: PTI

As both the Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP claim “victory” over the July 4 ruling of the Supreme Court, the BJP’s touchiness on the subject of full Statehood for Delhi only adds grist to the mill of the AAP’s Statehood campaign.

ON July 4, when a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in the latter’s legal turf war over administrative jurisdiction with the Centre, the national capital’s politics entered a new phase. The hitherto beleaguered AAP and its government, led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, which were in a tight spot following successive defeats in elections and adverse rulings in courts, received a shot in the arm with the court’s emphatic pronouncements.

In a unanimous ruling, all five judges unequivocally stated that the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi had the decisive say in all aspects of governance except for land, police and law and order, which were subjects reserved for the Centre. The ruling seemed to uphold the position that the AAP has held ever since the controversy arose in its current tenure. Within hours of the judgment, Kejriwal and his Ministers held a Cabinet meeting and announced that the government was expediting key projects that had slowed down owing to disagreements with the bureaucracy and/or the Lieutenant Governor’s (L.G.) office. Announcing this on Twitter, Kejriwal wrote: “Cabinet meeting held. Directed all functionaries of Del govt to function according to the order of Hon’ble SC. Also directed to expedite proposals of doorstep delivery of rations and CCTV now.”

In a briefing with reporters, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said since the judgment had identified only three reserved subjects, the subject of “services” would now be back in the elected government’s domain. It had been under the Centre’s purview since May 2015 when the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a notification stating that services, or handling the transfers and postings of government officials, were under the Union government’s purview. Sisodia also clarified that the AAP’s agitation for full Statehood for Delhi would continue. The judgment had identified the national capital as neither a State nor a Union Territory.

In subsequent days, the Delhi government appeared to have regained the momentum which it displayed before August 2016 when the Delhi High Court ruled against it in the dispute with the Union government. This was evident in the Chief Minister’s well- publicised field visits to address citizens’ issues and long-pending decisions taken by the government.

Resistance to this momentum, however, was also immediately evident. When the government wrote to the Services department citing the judgment and claiming authority over transfers and postings of officials, it received a five-page note in response, which stated that since there were no specific directions regarding the MHA’s notification of May 2015, there was little that could be done. In the subsequent days, it became clear that resistance to the Delhi government’s authority from the bureaucracy, the L.G.’s office and the Union government was likely to continue at least until the court passed orders in other related cases. Seeking a resolution, Kejriwal met with the L.G. and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on its part, sought to counter bad press by projecting the July 4 order as a victory for the Centre. The Leader of Opposition in the Delhi Assembly, Vijender Gupta, said on July 4: “The entire machinery of the Kejriwal government and the Aam Aadmi Party is misleading the public as part of a planned strategy. Contrary to their propaganda, the court has cautioned that anarchy has no place in democracy. It has given a judgment in favour of respecting constitutional boundaries which the anarchist Chief Minister has always tried to dismantle.” Gupta also cautioned against raking up the issue of full Statehood in the aftermath of the judgment. “Much against the wishful thinking of Kejriwal, the court has observed that Delhi is a Union Territory and cannot be accorded the status of a State. The Chief Minister must not divert public attention from his failures by bringing the issue of Statehood to the forefront,” he said.

Finance Minister and senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley wrote on Facebook: “The opinion of the court gives due importance to the opinion of the elected State government but maintains the primacy of the Central government in the larger interest of the national capital.”

Elaborating upon his arguments in a blog post on Facebook titled “What the Supreme Court has actually observed in the Delhi government case?”, he said: “There are several issues which had directly not been commented upon but by implication there is some indication of those issues. However, unless issues of importance are flagged, discussed and a specific opinion is rendered, none can assume that silence implies an opinion in favour of one or the other. There are two obvious indications. Firstly, if Delhi has no police powers, it cannot set up investigative agency to investigate crimes as had been done in the past. Secondly, the Supreme Court has held categorically that Delhi cannot compare itself at par with other States and, therefore, any presumption that the administration of the UT cadre of services has been decided in favour of the Delhi government would be wholly erroneous.”

In the same post, Jaitley also emphasised that Delhi was not a State and thus the elected government must not expect to possess powers enjoyed by full-fledged States: “Delhi is not a State and, therefore, there could be no assumption that powers which belong to State governments also belong to the elected government of the Union Territory. It has been specifically held by the Supreme Court that it is crystal clear that by no stretch of imagination, NCT of Delhi can be accorded the status of a State under the present constitutional scheme and the status of the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi is not that of a Governor of a State, rather he remains an Administrator, in a limited sense, working with the designation of Lieutenant Governor. The Council of Ministers being headed by the Chief Minister should be guided by values and prudence accepting the constitutional position that the NCT of Delhi is not a State.”

Notwithstanding the BJP’s anxious attempts to keep at bay the issue of full Statehood, the AAP seems likely to raise it, sooner rather than later. Ironically, it is likely to be helped by the continued battle over administrative turf with the BJP-led Union government and its representatives in the national capital.

Speaking to Frontline, the AAP’s chief spokesperson and Member of the Legislative Assembly, Saurabh Bharadwaj explained why the developments following the judgment could help the party in its campaign for Statehood. “Initially, the BJP tried to confuse people with the Statehood campaign. One thing they told people was that the Supreme Court has rejected the Statehood campaign. Now, the Statehood campaign was not even an issue before the Supreme Court. Secondly, even if it becomes an issue, it cannot be decided by the Supreme Court. It can only be decided by a constitutional amendment in Parliament. They [the BJP] tried to do this at first, but now people have realised that as long as Delhi is not converted into a full State, any government which comes to power will keep creating hindrances. The way they are behaving on this matter of services, it is helping us in our Statehood campaign. People are able to see through.” He also mentioned the problems encountered by the AAP government in implementing its promise of installing CCTVs and ensuring doorstep delivery of rations.

The AAP has started a door-to-door campaign in each Assembly constituency on the matter, Bharadwaj said. “We are distributing a pamphlet from door to door telling people the advantages of full Statehood. A pre-typed letter addressed to the Prime Minister requesting him to grant full Statehood for Delhi is being signed by the people of Delhi with their own details on it. This campaign has been going on for one and a half weeks now. Our target is to reach a count of 10 lakh letters by July 26,” he said.

Much will depend on how the BJP and the Centre handle the situation.

Plea for good sense

A couple of days after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Ashok Khemka, one of the country’s best known serving Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officials, tweeted: “Bureaucrats must faithfully implement policies and programmes of elected political executive within constitutional confines. Without power to transfer or post, government rendered powerless, no better than a C-class municipality. Essential that good sense prevails in Delhi.”

Khemka was evidently writing in response to the controversy surrounding the bureaucracy’s reluctance to accede to the AAP government’s assertion that the administrative subject of services, or simply the power to transfer and post officials, will henceforth be with the elected government and not the Union government. That an officer with a reputation of resisting illegitimate orders from the political executive commented in favour of the political executive in Delhi and not the bureaucracy is the latest example of the declining public image of the latter. It is also a reflection of just how polarised the relationship between the bureaucracy and the political executive has become in Delhi.

The ugliest face of this relationship was seen in February this year when the current Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash accused Kejriwal and Sisodia of conspiring with AAP MLAs to physically hurt him. The political executive accused Prakash of making false charges and colluding with vested interests to delay the implementation of key government schemes such as doorstep delivery of rations. The case is currently sub judice. Relations between the bureaucracy and the political executive are yet to recover and the Centre’s continued close involvement in the affairs of the Delhi government has ensured the bureaucracy is more receptive to the former than the latter.

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