In February 2019, just ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had announced an indefinite fast to press for the demand for full statehood for Delhi. “Ab aar ya paar ki ladai hai (it is now a do-or-die battle),” Kejriwal famously declared, echoing A B Vajpayee’s message to Pakistan after the Parliament attack in 2001. Kejriwal wanted control over Delhi Police, the Delhi Development Authority, civic bodies as well as the power to transfer and appoint officers. He was ready to go to war with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Centre if the need arose.
Then the Balakot airstrikes happened. Kejriwal, the canny strategist, saw the futility of sitting on an indefinite fast when people’s emotions were surcharged with nationalism and the desire to see a ‘strong’ PM. The statehood issue was given a quiet burial – for the time being. Or at least that was the expectation.
But Kejriwal and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have not revived the demand. Evidence from a string of Assembly poll results since late 2018 indicate that the Indian voter is now making a clear distinction between state and national-level contests. Both time and occasion are ripe for Kejriwal to renew his commitment to statehood for Delhi in the February 8 Assembly polls. But he has chosen to look the other way.
In fact, both AAP and BJP – the latter has been associated with this demand in a big way since the late 1980s – have consciously stayed away from the issue. While the BJP’s reluctance can be put down to its role at the Centre, what could be behind AAP’s wariness with raising it?
In the Modi mould
Chief Minister Kejriwal is fighting the polls on the back of his government’s ability to deliver on issues such as free electricity, drinking water, better education and healthcare. In this attempt, Kejriwal is more-or-less in the Narendra Modi mould as far as political positioning goes. Remember the Gujarat model? Now think of the Delhi model. Kejriwal is a CM campaigning on his track record of good governance as Modi had once done. The AAP leader is also trying very hard to craft a personality cult around himself as his public rallies in the Capital city indicate.
A running battle with the Centre on statehood will bring back memories of Kejriwal, the perpetual agitator, taking the focus away from Kejriwal, the administrator. This is something that the AAP is in no mood to try in an election that has been billed as AAP’s to win.
Moreover, there is no clarity on whether the issue continues to resonate with voters at large. Over the years the character of the national capital too has undergone a change with more migrants – particularly from the eastern Uttar Pradesh and adjoining Bihar – making Delhi their home.
Also, the demand for statehood has been driven by political parties and not the people as was seen in the case of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. This is where political parties seem to have come up short in Delhi. A backward glance at history shows that parties have been in the habit of treating the Delhi statehood issue as the means to gain a foothold in the Capital and then have hung it out to dry after achieving power.
BJP’s Madan Lal Khurana campaigned for full-statehood for Delhi and became the first chief minister of Delhi in 1993 after the restoration of the legislative assembly as per the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991. Sahib Singh Verma also of the BJP, who succeeded Khurana, even prepared a draft Delhi Reorganisation Bill, granting full statehood to Delhi leaving out the New Delhi Municipal Council (Lutyen’s Delhi) areas.
The Congress remained ambivalent on the issue, barring the occasional murmur from Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit when she was facing the heat in the Nirbhaya gangrape case in 2012. In fact, when AAP raised the statehood issue ahead of the Lok Sabha election, Congress opposed it arguing that the Delhi government will incur additional expenditure – salaries of the Delhi Police, picking up the tab for running super speciality hospitals and related matters.
Anyway, after the BJP it was AAP’s turn to raise the flag for complete statehood for Delhi with missionary zeal. It called for a referendum on full statehood for Delhi in 2016 and even placed a State of Delhi Bill (2016) in the public domain for the people’s endorsement. It also mounted a legal challenge for gaining statehood and got the Supreme Court to clearly spell out the role of the Delhi Lieutenant Governor. However, much to its chagrin, the Supreme Court held that Delhi cannot be accorded the status of a state.
As things stand, AAP is seeking solace in the Apex court verdict that clearly delineates the powers of the Lt Governor. The court also made it clear that the Lt Governor is bound by the aid and advise of the Delhi Government in areas that fall within its purview. Ahead of the assembly elections, AAP has been focussing on its model of governance instead of setting off on a path of confrontation on the issue of statehood. It remains to be seen whether the party will return to the issue in the near future. Perhaps, the matter will just have to wait for a time when Kejriwal is ready to don war paint again.