Earlier this month, it was reported that the AAP government in Delhi had ordained that the administration may conduct a referendum on full statehood to Delhi. It was not made clear if the referendum is to be confined to the city of Delhi or extended to the national capital territory, or cover the whole of India. It was also not clear as to which authority — the Election Commission of India or any other state or Central agency — will conduct the referendum. Since there is no provision in the Constitution for a referendum or plebiscite process, it was also not clear as to which legal provision will govern this intended process. In any case, the Constitution seems to apply to the AAP only when it suits it — at other times, its philosophy looks to be to improvise as one goes along.
A brief retrospective in regard to referendum/ plebiscite issues may be relevant. The government of India steadfastly refused to conduct a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir in the 1940s and 1950s, despite a UN resolution; the demand for a plebiscite has still not fully abated. But during the Dravidian Tamil movement of Periyar and Annadurai, the question of referendum was not on anyone’s agenda; nor was it brought up during the peak of the Khalistan movement during the 1970s. Has Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal paused for a moment to consider the implications of a referendum in the context of many of our northeastern states? Many Naxal groups and other militants have declared “independence” — should we have a referendum in Dantewada or Gorkhaland?
Delhi is one of seven Union territories (UT) as listed in Schedule I of the Constitution. All UTs are administered directly by the government of India (except to the extent delegated by it to a local authority — in Delhi’s case to the state government). The structure of administration of a UT (including Delhi) is much the same as the admini-stration of a full-fledged state during president’s rule; the Union home ministry, on behalf of the president, is responsible for the administration. While minor details may vary, this constitutes the fundamentals of the management of a UT. The Delhi administration, which is subordinate to the Union home ministry, should not presume to deal with matters exclusively in the purview of the Central government.
The above is of particular relevance to Delhi. Delhi happens to be the capital of the country, and the fulcrum of the national administrative apparatus. Dual control of issues like territorial jurisdiction, law and order, as well as police management, is neither feasible nor acceptable in Delhi — no local Delhi-related politics should be given the remotest opportunity to interfere with the full freedom of action for any agency or authority of the government of India.
Delhi belongs to 125 crore Indians. Deciding the future of Delhi by the residents of Delhi would be akin to the residents of Howrah district claiming ownership of the Howrah Bridge. Such casual proposals exhibit a hit-and-run technique, to stir the pot and whip up passion for immediate political gains. The national political parties had earlier, in bouts of competitive populism, opened up the issue of statehood in Delhi, without concern for medium- and long-term national interests. Kejriwal can, in that sense, be excused for playing the same games. It is not easy to govern and deliver results; it is much easier to create diversions periodically, without realising the long-term damage.
Countries like Switzerland do have a referendum procedure for nearly every matter of importance; indeed many cantons are delegated enormous powers. But recall that these countries have a strong democratic temper, a tradition of public service by the administration, and are not saddled with a venal political leadership whose only objective is to gain and then retain power at any cost. The Indian electorate is also not mature enough to understand the implications.
The AAP has come to power with great expectations. Any remaining respect it commands will rapidly evaporate if it resorts to diversionary tactics and ignores its responsibilities. If the Constitution is to be amended to provide for a referendum procedure, the issue placed before the entire nation (not just Delhi) ought to be whether the statehood conferred on Delhi should be withdrawn, and it be treated fully like any other UT.
The writer is a former cabinet secretary to the Union government.