Delhi Turns into a Battleground For Centre-State Relations
A SERIES of events has turned the capital Delhi into a battleground in recent weeks. First it appeared that a typical power struggle between opposing political forces had broken out. There was open mudslinging between Delhi’s Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), over who has the right to appoint senior bureaucrats and others in sensitive positions. Even as the row continued, an unprecedented development turned the densely populated East Delhi into a garbage dump as municipal employees went on strike refusing to dispose of garbage piling up at street corners because they had not been paid wages for three months. Meanwhile a minister in the AAP government was arrested for having forged degrees. All these events appear to be unconnected. They could be different strands of the usual degenerate politics of a mismanaged and amoral metropolis. But actually there is a running thread that ties up everything together.
To understand the Jung-Kejriwal tussle two things need to be kept in mind. One is the peculiar status of Delhi in terms of how power is shared between the central government and the Delhi government. The other is the unbounded frustration and blinding rage of the BJP at being so soundly and comprehensively routed in the Delhi Assembly elections earlier this year. Let’s take a closer look at both.
Before independence, Delhi was one of the six Chief Commissioner’s Provinces. In 1950, when the Constitution came into existence, it was made a Part C state with its assembly and chief minister. But this lasted for only a few years. When states were reorganised in 1956, Delhi became a union territory under the direct control of the president through the chief commissioner. In 1966, underthe Government of Union Territories Act 1966, an Executive Council was created for the capital. This arrangement continued till the “Government of National Capital Territory Act, 1991” was passed and Delhi got a legislative assembly and a council of ministers. But unlike other states, certain important subjects - public order, police, and land resource management (entries1, 2 and 18 of the state list) were however kept outside the purview of the assembly and the chief minister. The Lt. Governor exercises exclusive powers over these matters. Certain important bodies like the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) which is the sole owner and disposer of land in Delhi, and the Delhi Police were thus kept under the central government control.
Besides these, the municipal corporation is largely dependent on the central government. There are 57 sections/sub-Sections in the DMC Act through which the union government wields power over this body. A part of its funds come from the Delhi government and another part are devolved to it under the Finance Commission’s stipulations as share of taxes raised by the state government. Unlike local bodies in other states, the three municipal corporations in Delhi are much closely connected to the central government. The New Delhi Municipal Council which governs the VIP area of New Delhi is a nominated body directly under the central government.
As a result of this strange dispensation, Delhi is torn apart by multiple authorities and the people suffer because of this. The BJP used to be a supporter of the demand for full statehood for Delhi as long as they were not in the central government. Now they are silent. Their vision document released just before the 2015 assembly elections made no mention of this demand. The Congress has been intermittently talking about full statehood but has relied on adjustment and bargaining with the central government all through its 15 years of rule in Delhi between 1998 and 2014. The AAP promised to fight for full statehood in its election campaign. Now that it has won the elections and is in the government, it is straining to break the central government’s stranglehold. This is where the conflict between the Delhi and central government is arising from.
Now let’s turn to the BJP. In the 2015 assembly elections they won just 3 seats out of 70, with the remaining 67 seats going to the AAP. BJP’s high profile chief minister candidate, former police officer Kiran Bedi herself lost from one of the BJP’s safest seats. Remember – this was happening in 2015, after Narendra Modi had become the prime minister riding on an anti-Congress wave. In several state elections BJP had won. Amit Shah, the new BJP president had been lauded as the ace election winner. The Modi-Shah duo was considered unbeatable by self styled political pundits and apologists in the media.
So, the BJP’s drubbing in Delhi’s elections came as a great shock to the party and its leaders. They have not been able to accept the defeat. Time and again BJP leaders have been saying that people of Delhi will ‘pay the cost’ of backing AAP. In the election campaign they had promised that with Delhi under BJP rule, the centre would function in smooth harmony with the state government. After the loss they took this opportunist logic to its logical end – if Delhi does not have a BJP government, the central government will make it troublesome for whoever wins. This is what we see happening now.
The AAP government wanted to appoint a chief of the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) a crucial part of their anti-corruption plank. The centre was not cooperating. The matter went to court and the judge said that it is within the rights of the state government to appoint the ACB chief. So, round one went to AAP. But this further angered the BJP top brass.
Then came the issue of appointment of the chief secretary – the top most bureaucrat of Delhi. At this point the two aspects mentioned above came together. The trishanku nature of Delhi’s status does not make it very clear whether the LG can appoint a temporary chief secretary while the incumbent is on leave. But political and administrative common sense tells that the chief minister should be party to such appointment. After all it is the chief minister who will work with the chief secretary to run the government.
But casting all this aside, in what appears to be a direct BJP motivated move, the LG appointed another person as chief secretary. This led to the slugfest that the world watched in shock till a few days ago.
The BJP played its hand through the municipal corporations too. The single Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) was split in 2012 into three entities. All three are controlled by the BJP, as was the precursor unified corporation since 2007.
Dependent as these corporations are on funds from the centre and state governments, a share of their revenue comes from local taxes too. When they were formed, they had liabilities handed down as legacy from the past. East Delhi municipal corporation, relatively speaking, has lower revenue earnings because residents and commercial centres in that area are not that rich as in North and South corporations. So, dependence is more on external funds. The BJP led corporation has engineered a financial crisis by neglect and acts of omission, if not by direct effort, which led to the non-payment of wages to safai karmacharis for a shocking three months. The BJP was pinning its hope on creating chaos in Delhi by this move.
BEHIND THE SCENES
There is one part of the tale of Delhi that has remained less talked about. AAP has promised to investigate various kinds of corruption in the city and also to completely check the privatised electricity distribution system. Now, big stakes are involved in this. Reliance and Tatas are the two big corporates involved in power distribution in Delhi. Any investigation or audit of past accounts would mean ruffling their feathers. That is why all kinds of shenanigans have been launched against the AAP. And, that is also why there is such a tug of war on bureaucrats. After all, it is the ACB which will investigate whether any favours were given by Sheila Dixit government to power discoms. And the chief secretary needs to be on the side of the state government if these measures are undertaken. So, the BJP government is also interested in scuttling various appointments. For this the Lt. Governor has proved himself to be a pliable and willing accomplice. On the other side, AAP is itself so bogged down in its infighting that the dirty tricks department of the BJP thought it was an opportune time to bring in the demolition squad.
However, all is not done and dusted. AAP, despite all its ideological stumbling and acrimonious infighting, does have 67 MLAs in an assembly of 70. And BJP has 3. And Congress has zero. So, just rage, frustration and hubris are not going to deliver the goods for BJP, all the more not for Congress.