The five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra on Wednesday pronounced its verdict on the power struggle between the lieutenant governor and the chief minister in Delhi.
The apex court ruled that the lieutenant governor does not have independent decision-making powers, and is bound to act on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. This verdict is being claimed by the AAP as a victory.
A big victory for the people of Delhi...a big victory for democracy...— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) July 4, 2018
In delivering the verdict, the court stated in part, "There is no room for absolutism and there is no room for anarchism also." With regards to the Lieutenant Governor, who is appointed by the President, the court said this person cannot be obstructionist.
The AAP has lobbied for Delhi to get be granted statehood; on this the Supreme Court refused. The Times of India editorial stated that now is the time for the Delhi government to start working and deliver –
"A consequence of the brinkmanship by both sides has been that Delhi’s governance has suffered and ambitious election time promises made by AAP to Delhi voters were stalled."
The tussle between the AAP and Lt. Governor's office first began in 2014. It started when the AAP registered cases against Reliance Industries Ltd, Mukesh Ambani, and UPA ministers M Veerappa Moily and the late Murli Deora for allegedly fixing gas prices. Reliance moved the High Court by challenging a 1993 notification of the centre that gave power to the Delhi government's Anti-Corruption Branch in probing union government employees. Since then, there has been a back and forth on the powers that both sides claim to have.
"Much dirty linen has been washed in public and all the protagonists – the Centre, Delhi government and LG Anil Baijal – must heed the Supreme Court's call which also happens to coincide with the interest of Delhi’s hapless citizens, forgotten amidst BJP-AAP warfare" - The Times of India noted.
In May 2015, the Lt. Governor appointed senior bureaucrat Shakuntala Gamlin as acting chief secretary of Delhi which Kejriwal objected to. In the first major confrontation, the government locked the office of the then Service Secretary Anindo Majumdar, who had issued notification of Gamlin's appointment. In December 2015, Delhi's bureaucrats went on mass leave for a day protesting the decision of the AAP to suspend two special home secretaries.
Things came to a head when Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and three of his cabinet colleagues held a sit-in protest last month at the Lt. Governor Anil Baijal's office urging IAS officers to call off a strike. The strike in reference, which began in February, was in response to allegations of AAP lawmakers assaulting Delhi Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash. The sit-in was eventually called off after nine days.
The verdict in essence means that the Lt. Governor has limited powers except when it comes to matters on land, public order and police.
Former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit stated that the verdict didn't change anything, citing Article 239 (AA) of the Constitution, which terms Delhi to be a union territory and not a state.
Ms. Dikshit was the Chief Minister from 1998–2013 and stated that her government did have differences with the Lt. Governor, but not to the extent that has been seen in the past couple of years. She also stated that Delhi could only become a state through an act of Parliament. The passing of any resolution by the Delhi assembly will not be wise, she felt.
Ms Dikshit said she was also someone who advocated statehood for Delhi and outlined its pros and cons, particularly that of the government not having police and land under its control. However, she also said that full statehood wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite for good governance.
She cited the example of the Delhi Metro, which was started under Prime Minister Vajpayee, saying in part, "I went there, met Mr. Advani and then met Mr. Vajpayee. The L-G had been appointed by them and we worked very well together." Given the stalling of many projects, she advises the current Chief Minister to not take the approach of conflict and work with his colleagues to ensure the people of Delhi get the best government they can that works for them.
The Hindu editorial stated that the verdict appealed to a sense of constitutional morality –
"The basic message is that an elected government cannot be undermined by an unelected administrator. The larger one is that the Union and its units should embrace a collaborative federal architecture for co-existence and inter-dependence," - the paper noted.
This verdict could set a precedent. Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy threatened contempt proceedings if the judgment was not followed in the Union territory saying in part, "I welcome the verdict, and it is totally applicable for the government of Puducherry, which is also a Union territory." Narayanasamy has been in a tussle of his own with Lt. Governor Kiran Bedi accusing her overreach and interfering in the day to day functioning of the administration.
Going forward, for Delhi this means that the Lt. Governor cannot disregard the elected government and must work with those in power. For the AAP, it cannot continue to complain about the centre not taking up initiatives and interfering in its functioning. Ultimately, with a large multi-faceted city like Delhi being the capital of the country, it's imperative, as Sheila Dikshit put it, for the two parties to reconcile with each other and get to work.
More columns by Varun Sukumar