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Capital coup

Print edition : Oct 11, 2002 T+T-

The Centre's move to curb the powers of the Delhi government seems to have been made with an eye on the ensuing Assembly elections.

IN an unprecedented move, a Central government circular has, in one go, curbed the Delhi government's power to legislate. On July 25, a letter was issued by a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs to Shailaja Chandra, Chief Secretary, Delhi government, stating that henceforth all legislative proposals would have to be cleared by the Lieutenant Governor. Not only was this move considered an assault on the already limited powers of the four-year-old Sheila Dixit government; it smacked of political vendetta directed at a non-Bharatiya Janata Party government.

The letter seems to reiterate the overbearing writ of the Centre over the democratically elected Delhi government. It states: "It has been decided by the Central government that in the legislative proposals relating to the National Capital Territory of Delhi the word `government' may be defined as the Lieutenant Governor of the National Capital Territory of Delhi appointed by the President under Article 239 and designated as such under article 239AA of the Constitution."

The letter goes on to explain that the Central government had been considering the definition of "government" in relation to the National Capital Territory of Delhi for some time. The considered legal definition was that the "Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi" introduced a concept that was not known in the Constitution or in the General Clauses Act, 1897. The letter stated that there was no other government in Delhi than the Central government.

It further states that Article 239AA was a special provision for Delhi, which provided that the Union Territory would be called the "National Capital Territory of Delhi" and the Administrator thereof, who would be appointed under Article 239, shall be designated "Lieutenant Governor." Thereof, the Article, the letter states, does not bring a new and independent entity into existence. It was also not accurate in legislative terms to define the word "Government" as "the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi" because such a definition causes confusion and may lead to an impression that there is a government other than the Central government for the National Capital Territory of Delhi.

On August 29, a presidential Order was issued, amending the Transaction of Business of the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi Rules, 1993, whereby the Lieutenant Governor's powers were enhanced to ensure that all classes of proposals or matters were submitted to the Lieutenant Governor. For instance, the opening words in Rule 23 were: "The following classes of proposals or matters shall be submitted to the Lieutenant Governor." This was changed to: "The following classes of proposals or matters shall essentially be submitted to the Lieutenant Governor." In addition, in subrule (1) of Rule 55, the word "Bill" was substituted with the term "legislative proposal".

The Delhi government reacted by convening a special session of the Delhi Assembly and passed a resolution, which stated that there was only one definition of "Government" for legislative and any other purpose and that was the ''Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi." The Assembly, which met on September 10, recalled the special provision in the Constitution vide the 69th Amendment Act, whereby Article 239AA gave Delhi special status as the National Capital Territory.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Vijay Kapoor convened a press conference to explain that all that the semantic substitution did was to reduce the time for Central approval. But, there were few takers for his argument because the move meant that even before a Bill is introduced in the Assembly, it would have to be sent to the Lieutenant Governor for clearance, at the proposal stage. But the Lieutenant Governor insisted that there was neither any reduction in the powers of the Council of Ministers to make appointments nor any reduction in its financial powers. The clause would not apply to subordinate legislation, rules and guidelines. The July 25 circular defining the status of the "government", he explained, was meant merely to remove confusion. He clarified that given the multiplicity of authority in Delhi, there could be no exclusive interpretation of any matter.

An agitated Sheila Dixit asked: "If it is an innocuous circular, why not withdraw it? They say it was only a reiteration of what was there earlier. We have been negated completely. I told them that I can't even think of something without taking their permission. There is no such word as `essentially' in the Constitution. We are a fully established Council of Ministers and Legislative Assembly. Why does it look to me as a hidden agenda? Because we have performed well for four years? Is it the metro? It may be a mole for the country but a mountain for me."

It was ironic that the BJP, which had clamoured for full Statehood for Delhi, had clamped down on the powers of the Delhi government after coming to power at the Centre.

There are several theories on what must have prompted the move by the Home Ministry. One of them is that the Congress government had to be put in its place especially because Assembly elections were round the corner. Moreover, the move helped convey the message to the Delhi electorate that the Delhi government had only very limited powers and that it was the Centre that called the shots.