One of the potentially most significant experiments in Indian politics for decades has been given a new lease on life with the country’s supreme court ruling that Narendra Modi’s national government should not interfere with, and attempt to undermine, the elected Aam Aadmi Party government of Delhi.
Since February 2015 when the fledgling AAP (“common man pay”) won an overwhelming state-level election victory in Delhi with 67 of the assembly’s 70 seats, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has worked through the capital’s lieutenant governor to block many key initiatives and decisions.
The court has ruled that, while the central government is responsible as it has always been through the lieutenant governor for land, law and order and the police, the elected government has the power in all other areas. The chief justice said that the lieutenant governor does not have independent decision-making powers and, while the government should consult him on decisions in other areas, he cannot interfere.
It now remains to be seen how much the central government continues to obstruct. BJP spokesmen have tried to dismiss the judgment as dealing with narrow legal issues, and a senior law officer said that “nothing has changed.” The lieutenant governor could still disagree with the elected government “for good reasons” and ask India’s president (which means the government) to take a call before a decision was implemented.
The AAP’s election in 2015 stemmed from the same frustration with the way that the country was being run that had led to Modi’s BJP sweeping general election victory in May 2014. The BJP expected therefore to win in Delhi, but it got just three assembly seats while the Congress Party, which had ruled for 15 years till 2013, won none.
This was a major political embarrassment for Modi eight months after he became prime minister and both the BJP and Congress were concerned about the AAP’s ambitions to field candidates in other states (which have not been successful so far).
Modi then set about undermining the AAP’s reputation through the lieutenant governor, currently Anil Baijal (below), a former central government official, who reports officially to India’s home ministry.
The emergence of the AAP has been a significant political experiment because it is a rare example of a new style of party. It was born out of a country-wide anti-corruption movement in 2012, and it promised a different form of government that would be less corrupt and more attuned to voters’ needs than the BJP and Congress.
Led by Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax official and leading anti-corruption campaigner, the party held power briefly with a minority Delhi government in 2013-14. Failing to establish a workable administration, the party’s instinctive reaction was to protest and stage demonstrations, which it continued to do even when it won its big 2015 victory.
Last month Kejriwal and other ministers occupied a waiting room in the lieutenant governor’s house and refused to leave for nine days as a protest against what they dubbed a strike by uncooperative bureaucracy. “It is obvious that your only intention is to paralyze the elected government of Delhi,” Kejriwal told Modi in a letter as the sit-in ended.
The problems stem from Delhi being a special sort of state with less power than India’s 29 states, but with a chief minister and a bigger legislative role than most other union territories. The powers have varied over the years, and Delhi governments regularly demand full statehood, which the central governments resist because, as in other countries, they want to have some control over how the capital city functions.
The BJP won a constitutional victory in August 2016 when the Delhi High Court ruled that all government decisions had to be approved by the lieutenant governor, who was not bound to act on the government’s advice. The freedom for the Delhi government’s anti-crime branch (ACB) to investigate central government officials working for it was also curtailed.
When the Supreme Court heard the case last November, the BJP’s government lawyers argued that there was nothing undemocratic about the central government and the president exercising complete executive power over the national capital through the lieutenant-governor, and that the “real power ” was vested with the president and the Union of India.
The decision overturns the Delhi High Court ruling and rejects the central government’s arguments.
Chief Justice Dipak Misra said in his written judgment that the lieutenant governor had no independent or executive power, and is bound by the aid and advice of the Delhi Council of Ministers. He could not work independently, nor be “obstructionist” but should “work harmoniously” with the government. With a dig at both the lieutenant government and the AAP, he added that there was “no room for absolutism or anarchy.”
Misra was presiding over a panel of five judges. One of the other four said that “nations fail when democratic institutions fail” and that a “society like India’s – one with a diverse culture – requires dialogue.”
The conventional view among Delhi’s middle class is that Kejriwal has lost sight of his original aims to introduce a new form of clean and efficient government and has been behaving irresponsibly, though he still has support among the poor. The Congress Party, which has held power in the past, is as critical as the BJP of the AAP because it fears an interloper in the former two-party system.
The AAP did badly last year in municipal elections when it won only 46 of 270 seats with the BJP winning 184, and it now needs to prove, especially to the poor, that it can provide continuity as an effective government.
AAP success in scopes and health
The upstart government has made significant improvements in the city’s health and education facilities, especially schools where it has expanded state schools and curbed overcharging by private establishments.
It claims it has been blocked in areas such as providing education loans and expanding mohalla (neighborhood) free health clinics for the poor, introducing home delivery of rations, strengthening measures to tackle chronic pollution, and introducing solar energy developments and anti-corruption governance measures.
It will now try to go ahead with these and other measures. Whether Modi allows that, or continues to tell the lieutenant government to interfere, will be a measure of whether the prime minister can rise above party politics for the good of the capital city.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.