Power Through Back Door

Ramesh Menon Ramesh Menon
22 Mar 2021

Another controversial Bill has been introduced in Parliament that gives overarching powers to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and will cripple the working of the elected government. Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia said that the Bill sought to curtail the powers of an elected government and will render elections meaningless. It is unconstitutional and undemocratic to give the L-G powers to do what the Central Government wanted, he said.

The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill 2021, if passed, will make it necessary for the Delhi government, ruled by the Aam Aadmi Party, to obtain the opinion of the L-G before taking any executive action. So, when Sisodia said that it would make elections meaningless and have dangerous consequences for India’s federal structure, he has a point.

Ever since the AAP rode to power soon after the BJP ended the reign of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA, there has been friction between the Delhi government and the Centre. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has time and again said that his government is not being allowed to function as the Centre is using the L-G to stall projects and paralyse the implementation of projects like mohalla clinics. 

At one point in 2017, 45 AAP MLAs protested at the office of the L-G insisting that Anil Baijal, the L-G, clear files related to the creation and running of mohalla clinics, an idea that was unique and progressive as it helped the poorest of the poor to access healthcare.

 Incidentally, the Supreme Court had earlier said that though the L-G enjoyed supremacy over the state government, he should not sit on the files for too long.

For the last seven years, Kejriwal has been demanding statehood as that is the only way to break away from the Centre controlling the Delhi government. But, that is not going to happen.

Tussle for Power

It is no secret that the Narendra Modi government wants to be in power in Delhi as it is a question of prestige. While it has won over many States in India, Delhi continues to be a mirage. 

In 2020, the BJP could win only eight of 70 seats though it put all its might in the Assembly elections with every Cabinet Minister campaigning. The rest of the seats went to AAP.  In 2015, the BJP had won just 3 of the 70 seats, despite the Modi wave. In a recent by-election to five municipal wards in Delhi, BJP drew a blank while AAP got 4 and the Congress bagged the remaining one.

The Bill says that all executive actions of the L-G whether taken on the advice of his Ministers or otherwise would be expressed in the name of the Lieutenant Governor. Before any executive action is taken after the decision of the Council of Ministers, the opinion of the L-G has to be obtained. If there is a difference of opinion between the L-G and the Ministers in making laws, the L-G would refer it to the President for a decision.

Kejriwal has pointed out that he has little say in even appointing bureaucrats and officials to key posts as the L-G would interfere with appointments or not allow it. Under the new law, it would now be mandatory for the AAP government to seek the L-G’s opinion before implementing any decision. It will henceforth have to send all proposals to the L-G.

After the Supreme Court judgment of July 2018, the Kejriwal government had heaved a sigh of relief as the state was only required to inform the L-G about its decisions. Now, it is the L-G who will call the shots. Even if the Cabinet had passed it, the L-G could disagree and then send it to the President for approval. 

The continued friction between the Delhi government and the Centre ever since it came to power in 2015 has resulted in Delhiites losing out as the turf war not only continues but promises to get worse affecting governance in the end. 

The Supreme Court had said in July 2018 that the L-G was bound by the advice of Delhi’s Council of Ministers which just had to be communicated to the L-G but concurrence was not necessary.  

The Bill will change this.  The L-G will be all-powerful facing what would look like a puppet government though they had got a resounding mandate from the people of Delhi.  

Projects Stalled

Till this judgment, so many projects of the Kejriwal government had been stalled like installation of CCTV cameras, opening of mohalla clinics for the poor, doorstep delivery of various services like ration, the appointment of teachers and public prosecutors. After the judgment, all this started moving.

In fact, the judgment ensured that there was a ceasefire between the centre and the Kejriwal government allowing the administration to work smoothly after a long time.  But with this new Bill, the Centre has effectively over-ridden the Supreme Court’s ruling which held that the Council of Ministers did not have to obtain the concurrence of the L-G on every single matter. It also shows that a thumping majority does not matter in the power game anymore as the L-G would be armed with more powers than an elected Chief Minister. The Bill reduces the Kejriwal government to a mere figurehead.

Kejriwal hit out saying that after losing elections, the BJP wanted to grab power through the backdoor.  

The Times of India in an editorial said: “The amendment is deeply hurtful for Indian democracy. It gives grist to the pervasive criticism that democracy is being downgraded even as political power is getting centralised. An elected government awaiting the opinion of the unelected L-G on administrative decisions will considerably slow down governance.”

Weak Defence

The Leader of the Opposition in the Delhi Assembly, Ramvir Singh Bidhuri of the BJP, said that the Bill would ensure better governance as it would clearly define the constitutional roles of the state government and the Lieutenant Governor in matters pertaining to the administration.

He did not specify how the Bill would ensure better governance.  How can any government independently function when the L-G will specify all matters on which “opinion” is to be sought? What role will an elected government have if the Assembly or any of its committees cannot conduct inquiries on administrative decisions?

Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal said the Bill makes MLAs caged representatives. CPM leader Sitaram Yechury said that the amendment negates and insults people’s electoral verdict and mandate.

With the L-G holding the reins of power, governance will considerably slow down as the Centre will not want Kejriwal to succeed and win a third term. This unconstitutional act of the Centre undermines democracy.  This could not have come at a worse time for Delhi that is plagued with numerous problems like pollution, traffic jams, large-scale migration from rural India in search of work and opportunities and so on.

Statehood for Delhi maybe a long-standing demand, but that is not going to happen. If it does, how can the Centre control Delhi? Even the Congress did not want to grant statehood though it was in power in Delhi for many years. While land, public order, police, and public services will continue to be controlled by the L-G, there is little any government can do and the blame game for anything that goes wrong will continue to skip accountability. 

Ploy to Neutralize AAP

When Sisodia alleges that the amendment Bill was being used by the Centre to incapacitate the Delhi government, he has a valid point. Sisodia went on to say that as the BJP lost the elections in Delhi twice and it could not buy MLAs as it did elsewhere to form the government, it brought in the amendment to take over the functions of the Delhi government.

Kejriwal is on the warpath again. This time, fighting for his rightful turf. Despite having a resounding mandate which no Chief Minister has, he has been rendered powerless with the proposed amendment. He has told the Centre that if it becomes a law, then it would be a betrayal of the people of Delhi that gave him a mandate. 

At a protest meeting in the Capital, Kejriwal said that the Bill was brought in to stop the spread of the Aam Aadmi Party to states beyond Delhi.  AAP recently won seats in the municipal elections in Surat which was a BJP stronghold in Gujarat.

In the months to come, Delhiites can anticipate agitations, court cases challenging the amendment, delayed projects like flyovers, sewage lines, stalling of some excellent programmes in education and public services like healthcare as governance will grind to an all-time slow with the Delhi government and the L-G sparring.

Clearly, the Central Government wants to limit the march of AAP and its hold on Delhi. As it is, the Delhi government has diluted powers and diluting it further will not in any way help better governance. We will soon be seeing it play out in the Capital of the world’s largest democracy. Ironic.

(Ramesh Menon is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He is a recipient of the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism and is the editor of The Leaflet.)

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