Delhi versus Washington DC: Why we must let Federalism win

Elections for the Delhi Assembly are around the corner and the issue of statehood has come into focus again.

Updated: February 2, 2015 3:50 pm
delhi_main The Raisina Hill illuminated after the Beating Retreat ceremony at Vijay Chowk in New Delhi. (Source: Express photo by Prem Nath Pandey)

By Dr Munish Kumar Raizada 

It seems that feudalism has set in our genes. The tendency to grab power and not let it go also recurs time and again. The spirit of democracy and federalism suffers in the process. The issue of statehood for Delhi is a case in point.

Elections for the Delhi Assembly are around the corner and this issue has come into focus again.

The the national capital territory (NCT) of Delhi has a peculiar situation. It is a Union Territory (by definition, a piece of land directly ruled by the Union or Central government), but also has an elected legislative assembly. Thus, it has an elected Chief Minister who runs the administration, while the Lieutenant Governor (LG) – appointed by the President — acts as the head of the state. But, paradoxically, security (police), bureaucracy and control of land come under the Central government. As a result, the Delhi Police reports to Union Home Minister and not Delhi’s Chief Minister. The anomaly was amply highlighted when Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal – feeling hamstrung over control of law and order — decided to sit on a dharna against his own police.

The Aam Aadmi Party has from its inception advocated complete statehood for Delhi. Securing a complete statehood to Delhi has also been on the agenda of the BJP for decades and the new Modi government actively mulled the idea as a pre-poll gift to Delhi voters.

However, it seems Prime Minister Narendar Modi was advised to control the impulse, fearing a situation in which Arvind Kejriwal might become the Chief Minister. Kiran Bedi after being announced as the Chief Ministerial candidate by BJP immediately became non-committal on the issue of Delhi statehood, literally reversing local state unit’s stand. Who would like to displease the masters at the centre?

No one was better positioned than the Congress to resolve this. Sheila Dixit was Congress Chief Minister with at least a decade overlapping with the rule of party Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Centre. But in her case, neither the spirit was willing, nor was the flesh strong. When Arvind Kejriwal exposed her duplicity, Dixit said she had written letters to Home Minister, implying that it was a mere lip service.

Puducherry is another example that carries the dual burden of being a Union Territory yet having an Assembly. Its Chief Minister too has expressed the pain of carrying this burdensome dual legacy.

What is the trend in other parts of world? After all, this question does arise when it comes to ‘city capitals’. The US capital Washington DC, like Delhi, is also not a state. Washington comes under federal jurisdiction, thereby directly controlled by Congress. Statehood will give D.C. the representation in Congress, which they lack currently (at least Delhi is represented in Parliament by seven Members of Parliament). When American constitution was written more than 200 years back, they created a district (capital) that the federal government could administer itself for its convenience. The apprehension was that if a state owns it, there could be hindrances. It is bizarre that the most powerful Congress should decide on some of the local issues of Washington DC, which can be easily relegated to its local mayoral government. While residents of Washington DC too continue to aspire for a complete statehood, nevertheless, the police remain a state subject for them, meaning thereby, the local police are controlled by Mayor and municipality. However, the federal law enforcement agencies (example: United States Capitol Police) have jurisdiction in some parts of the Washington D.C.

The concept of federalism gained traction in India in 1990s when coalition era started erupting. Before that union governments had very centralist attitude and public at large never found it odd. Indira Gandhi is a prime example known for concentrating power and disregarding the federal spirit of our country. Imposition of emergency in 1970s is a valid proof of her tendencies. A hangover effect of centralist attitude is reflected in India by clamping President’s Rule by dissolving elected governments in a whimsical manner. The system of appointing district collectors (DCs) by state governments reflects the tendency of centralising powers and goes against the spirit of boosting local governments. Delhi also has been a victim of these vagaries. It was granted statehood status in 1951 and Brahm Prakash was elected first Chief Minister in 1952. However, in 1955, Delhi was converted into a Union Territory and the Assembly was dissolved. It was not until 1993 that the Assembly was reconstituted and Madan Lal Khurana (BJP) became the elected Chief Minister of Delhi.

The Union Minister of Communications Shri Ram Vilas Paswan releasing a commemorative postage stamp on Chaudhary Brahm Prakash, first Chief Minister of Delhi on August 11, 2001. (Source: pib.nic.in) Ram Vilas Paswan, Union minister in 2001, releasing a commemorative postage stamp on Chaudhary Brahm Prakash, first Chief Minister of Delhi on August 11, 2001. (Source: pib.nic.in)

The Union Minister of Communications Shri Ram Vilas Paswan releasing a commemorative postage stamp on Chaudhary Brahm Prakash, first Chief Minister of Delhi on August 11, 2001.

The journey for Delhi is, however, still incomplete.

In the next few days, Delhi will see a new Chief Minister. It needs a full-fledged Chief Minister and not a ‘lame duck’ Chief Minister. By acquiring full statehood, Delhi will have a Chief Minister who can administer law and order with police under his control and can make decisions on appointment and transfers of bureaucracy. Separate law enforcement agencies can be created to provide services in places where Union government operates.

A true ‘Swaraj’ will only prevail in Delhi when power is vested in the elected representatives. Let us not asphyxiate the principle of federalism by procrastinating the issue of Delhi statehood. Taking a cue, will Kiran Bedi stand up and declare that Delhi actually deserves a full statehood on a priority basis?

The author is a Chicago-based political commentator.

Email ID: pedia333@gmail.com

Twitter @drMunishRaizada

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent the views of The Indian Express or its employees.

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