Updated: March 17, 2021 8:14:45 am
For at least three years during the AAP’s second stint in office in Delhi, beginning 2015, policy decisions on a range of issues, from air pollution control to law-and-order management, seemed to be held hostage to the party’s frequent run-ins with the Centre. Much of the conflict stemmed from the ambiguities of Article 239AA which empowered Delhi’s Lt Governor to refer “any matter” to the President in case of a difference with the Council of Ministers. The matter seemed to have been laid to rest in 2018 by a five-judge Supreme Court bench which upheld the pre-eminence of Delhi’s elected government in matters other than police, public order and land. Now, a new Bill introduced by the Centre in Parliament on Monday threatens to rake up the power-sharing controversy again. It has revived apprehensions of a bid by the Centre to circumscribe the powers of Delhi’s elected government. The “government” in Delhi, according to this piece of legislation, is synonymous with the LG, whose advice or opinion must be sought before taking action on any cabinet decision. Its “statement of objects and reasons” claims that the Bill seeks to give effect to the 2018 judgment, but the proposed law actually goes against the spirit of the landmark apex court verdict, and its insistence that the Centre and the Delhi government “should uphold the spirit of cooperative federalism”. It will also be a huge step backward for Delhi’s quest for full statehood, a promise held aloft by every political party — including the BJP — at various times to the electorate.
The 2018 verdict inaugurated a period of relative calm in relations between the Delhi government and the Centre. Encouraged by the apex court’s imprimatur, the Delhi government stopped sending files on executive matters to the LG before the implementation of decisions. This had the effect of giving the AAP government a freer hand on governance matters, enabling it to implement policy decisions such as free bus rides to women, doorstep delivery of rations to the city’s residents, free electricity to those using less than 200 units of power and mechanisation of sewage cleaning operations. More recently, the Centre and the Delhi government presented a united front during the crisis wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Though LG Anil Baijal did not always see eye to eye with the Kejriwal government, especially on decisions such as restricting Delhi’s medical resources to its residents, differences were resolved without much ado.
The implications of the proposed law extend well beyond the AAP vs BJP political conflict. By making it mandatory for the elected government to route all files through the LG, it threatens to take away the autonomy that any elected government legitimately requires for governance. Surely the BJP-led Centre does not mean to send out the message that it supports greater autonomy for Delhi’s government only if a BJP government rules Delhi. The Centre must rethink this ill-advised move. It would do well to revisit Justice D Y Chandrachud’s note in the 2018 verdict: “In a democratic form of government, the real power must subsist in the elected arms of the state”.
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