Delhi drama shames all

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal addresses AAP workers at the party's Pradesh Mahasammelan on the issue of full statehood to Delhi, in New Delhi on Sunday, July 1, 2018. (PTI Photo)

The constitutional offices of the lieutenant governors in Delhi and Puducherry are embroiled in a bitter and very public spat with the elected state governments. While the Supreme Court (SC) had to step in to resolve the Delhi turf war between L-G Anil Baijal (and before him, his predecessor Najib Jung) and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Puducherry simmers in its own unease. In recent times, the murmurs of cooperative federalism and the failings of constitutional institutions have escalated to unprecedented levels.

From Itanagar, Bengaluru, Chennai to Bhopal the Raj Bhawans have remained in the news for alleged political considerations that did not mix well with the expected constitutional propriety, apolitical perception and restraint. While the various constitutional institutions and individual office-holders have been guilty of partisan behaviour since Independence, with all political parties in power guilty of taking certain situational liberties, the recent tensions are symptomatic of a sharper slide in public lives, political culture and an overall diminution of the constitutional spirit, across the board.  

Essentially, the latest SC verdict on Delhi has only reiterated the status quo ante prior to the first round of the legal battle, which started with the Delhi government moving the Delhi High Court in May 2015. The major provocation for the AAP-ruled Delhi government had been the sudden issuance of a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) notification on in May 2015 extending the powers of the L-G (vested earlier under a 1998 notification). The backdrop of the AAP winning a stunning 67 out of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly elections a few months earlier was not entirely irrelevant.

The extremely personalised, accusative and acrimonious campaign that had preceded the Delhi poll results in February 2015 had circumstantially elevated AAP as the principal face of national opposition in the-then forthcoming elections in Punjab. The aggressive, confrontationist and anarchical politics of AAP that revelled in establishing a David-versus-Goliath narrative in Indian politics posited the fragile egos of the political leaders in a desperate bid to outsmart each other. The fractious political tone of the L-G-CM dialogues in Delhi were cast for posterity. When the Delhi high court ruled in favour of the central government-L-G position, the AAP government moved the SC.   

The SC verdict has certainly pushed back the enthusiastic ‘overreach’ sought in the MHA notification and more or less reverted the Delhi arrangement to its original shape and contours, even though both sides claim ‘victory’ over the other. Importantly, the L-G’s position pre-2015 MHA notification was one of a significant ambiguity that allowed the L-G to refer ‘any matter’ to the President of India that he may deem to be ‘not in favour of the people of Delhi’, besides the unambiguity on matters pertaining to land, police and public order. However, the tilt in the SC ruling in favour of the elected government was unmistakable, “The L-G is bound by the aid and advice of the council of ministers” and the “L-G is an administrative head in the limited sense, and is not a governor”.

This was further nailed by dissuading the L-G from an ‘obstructionist’ path and forewarning him to exercise caution with the special powers on ‘any matter’, to be invoked in only the most exceptional circumstances and not routinely. While this push-back was contrary to the L-G-empowering stand taken by the Delhi high court earlier, it is definitely no endorsement of the AAP’s demand for full statehood for Delhi.

The delicate balance sought in the SC language is susceptible to the insidious, odious and instinctive politics that underlies the current impasse. Both parties displayed a blatant smallness in spirit, and the inelegant optics of overt politicisation was unbecoming of the government machinery of the national capital of a country. Delhi has suffered a government that blames its bureaucracy which, in turn, blames the ruling dispensation of the Delhi government of uncouth and boorish behaviour.

With general elections less than a year away, neither party would want to cede space to the other or end up looking like the loser in the battle. Almost immediately after the SC verdict, the political squabble of one-upmanship ensued with the triumphant Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia seeking powers to transfer officers, only to be told by Delhi bureaucrats in the services department that he couldn’t! The sad portents of theatrical intransigence, dharna politics, free-flowing accusations and more courtroom drama looms, yet again.

‘Hybrid’ model of governance

The fact is, Delhi has a deliberately designed ‘hybrid’ model of governance, which systemically dissuades political drama from impacting the functioning of the various institutions and offices in Delhi. The derivative constraints emanating from the ‘hybrid’ model militate against the natural instincts of any elected government that is typically answerable to its constituents (as also happened with the Congress-ruled government in both the state and at the centre, simultaneously).

Such a ‘hybrid’ arrangement necessitates maturity, compromise and constitutional decorum in expressing any concerns and addressing them. Sadly, there has been no reciprocal equanimity, generosity or respect for constitutional sobriety from either the state government or the Centre. The war cries are already rising in Puducherry, with similar accusations between the elected government and the constitutional seat of the L-G, neither of whom have dignified the discourse by their language, tenor or spirit.

KR Narayanan, who moved the needle from a ‘rubber-stamp’ President to an ‘active’ or ‘Citizen President’, as he called the transformation, did not initiate partisan politics to become ‘active’, but instead led with the gentle assertion and moral persuasion of constitutional correctness and spirit. Today, the political discourse in the country has degenerated to such inelegant, indecorous and petty levels that no intervention from the Supreme Court can give respite to either the wary citizens of Delhi, or the country at large.

(The writer is a former L-G of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)

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