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Capital games

Print edition : Oct 10, 2003 T+T-

The BJP and the Congress(I) vie with each other on the issue of granting statehood to Delhi, with an eye on the Assembly elections.

in New Delhi

GRANT of statehood to Delhi has become a game of political football between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress(I), which is likely to have a bearing on the forthcoming Assembly elections. The last few weeks have seen moves and counter moves by both parties to checkmate each other, using the State of Delhi Bill, 2003, as the pawn. The BJP announced the clearance of the Bill by the Union Cabinet with jubilation, but the announcement visibly failed to filter down to the people of Delhi. The Congress (I), unable to claim credit for passing of the Bill, has taken to nitpicking.

Though smaller than any State, Delhi, which goes to the polls in November, is crucial for both the BJP and the Congress. In 1998, before the Assembly elections, Sonia Gandhi had articulated the importance of Delhi's position by stating that the BJP could not expect to run the country if it could not govern Delhi. The Congress party's argument remains the same this year.

The BJP's chief proposer of the concept of statehood for Delhi, Madan Lal Khurana, termed the clearing of the Bill by the Cabinet as a historic step. He said that the decision was in keeping with the aspirations of Delhiites. However, it is difficult to believe Khurana's interpretations of the aspirations of the people of Delhi given the fact that he made such announcements standing on a borrowed rath, calling himself the prince of parivarthan (change).

Barring one or two areas, statehood for Delhi would affect the working of the elected representatives more than the people. The demand for statehood is not new. Successive governments at the Centre have been reluctant to accord statehood to Delhi by arguing that it is the national capital and cannot be the seat of two governments. Earlier, on several occasions, the Delhi Bill had run into rough weather also because of the controversy about where to draw the boundaries. Local officials have pointed out the non-viability of the new State if certain areas are excluded. In 1998, the Union Home Ministry had proposed that New Delhi might be retained as a Union Territory in the reorganised set-up while the rest of Delhi be given statehood.

The people of Delhi will be affected by the control of land being transferred to the State government from the Central government. Control of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), notorious for its mismanagement and corruption, will now be in the hands of the Delhi government. Till now, it is the Central government that decided on the development of housing, commercial and institutional areas in the city. The State government will now work out the land-use pattern in the city as well as the master plan. This would mean that the Delhi government would have the mandate to stop encroachments on government-owned lands and check the growth of unauthorised colonies and slums. All this does not ensure that the DDA would be a better-managed organisation or a less corrupt one.

Statehood is good news for the elected representatives. The cap on ministerial berths will be removed. This opens up the possibility of Delhi ending up with a jumbo Cabinet. Already each Minister of Delhi spends almost Rs.1 crore every year on maintaining a personal staff of about 20 people. The bureaucracy opposes this provision. Said an official, on the condition of anonymity: "Not only will a jumbo Cabinet burden the exchequer; it will also create chaos and politicise the atmosphere." Delhi has a relatively systematic administrative structure, which is fairly well organised compared to States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. Unlike these States, each Minister in Delhi holds about five portfolios. With the ceiling on the Cabinet removed, there might be pressure to increase the number of departments.

The powers of the legislators will increase, as the bureaucracy will be directly answerable to them. Until now the Lieutenant-Governor controlled the transfers at the levels of the Secretary and Municipal Secretary. After Delhi becomes a State the Chief Minister will control transfers. This would make officers accountable to the Cabinet.

The Delhi Assembly will also have the power to pass or amend Bills on its own. Under the present procedure, any Bill passed by the Assembly goes to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs for approval before it becomes law. Moreover, the Legislative Assembly will have the option of presenting a deficit budget without prior approval from the Home Ministry.

Where the Bill stops short of full statehood is in its twin provisions of keeping the prestigious New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and the police under the control of the Union government. The police force remaining under the Centre's purview is an anomaly in the Indian context and also in comparison to other world capitals. The Sheila Dixit government has criticised these provisions.

The Congress(I) has also found fault with the manner in which the announcement was made. On August 19, when Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani introduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha, the Congress government in Delhi was taken by surprise. For days members of the Assembly, including Dixit, had little information on the contents of the draft legislation. "Vague and ambiguous," was how Dixit dismissed the Bill after the contents were disclosed by the BJP. Although criticism has been tempered by the forthcoming elections. Advani said the Bill, in its present form, had the concurrence of Sheila Dixit, and was introduced only after getting the nod from the Delhi government, which had favoured the incorporation of Article 371(J) into the Constitution. The Article provides for certain residual powers remaining with the Centre's representative.

That the BJP leadership has introduced the Bill keeping the Assembly elections in mind was clear from the platform from which it was announced. Kicking off the BJP's elections campaign, Advani announced that the Bill would be introduced in the current session of Parliament. On the same day he announced the candidature of Khurana for the chief ministership.

As the contents of the draft legislation were disclosed, the BJP and the Congress (I) made their differences over the issue clear. What thoroughly displeased the Sheila Dixit government was the provision by which, in case of a conflict between the Centre and the State, the former's directive will take precedence and would be binding on the latter. This is a provision that is unique to Delhi. Through this, the Centre will be able to dismiss the State government and also give directions to it on issues like good governance and proper development. Said an official: "Both the terms are undefined and could be used to include a number of issues. Moreover, why this special provision for Delhi? It goes to show that the Central government does not trust the State government to perform its duties adequately." The power to dismiss the State government was earlier in the hands of the Lieutenant-Governor.

Statistically, it is evident that the State government has been carrying on its administrative functions adequately. For instance, in 1992-1993 when the Legislative Assembly started functioning in Delhi, the total plan size was Rs.900 crores. This was a time when the Central government looked after Delhi. At present, this plan size is almost Rs.5,000 crores. Similarly, sales tax collection in 1992-93 was Rs.1,000 crores. Now it stands at Rs.4,300 crores.

The Bill is now with the standing committee on Home Affairs headed by Congress(I) leader Pranab Mukherjee. Clearly, the legislation will not be enforced after the Winter Session of Parliament, which will fall close to or after the Assembly elections. By that time, for the political class at least, several of its provisions would have lost their electoral relevance.