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All quiet on Delhi front: Why Kejriwal & Modi govts have avoided conflict since new law came in

Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Act, 2021, was notified in April. Law essentially says 'government' in Delhi means 'lieutenant-governor',

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New Delhi: It has been nearly nine months since Parliament passed a law that essentially says the “government” in Delhi means the “lieutenant-governor”, giving overarching powers over the capital’s daily functions to the Centre-appointed official.

Despite the skewed power equation between the lieutenant-governor (L-G) and the Delhi government, these last nine months have witnessed both stakeholders interfering little in each other’s business and avoiding confrontations, with a few exceptions. Senior officials called this a “strategic move” on both sides. 

The reason? Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sources said the Arvind Kejriwal government wants to get things done on the development and welfare front without much hassle, especially ahead of next year’s municipal polls, and does not see much incentive in confrontations.

Meanwhile, central government officials said the Centre has often refrained from using the disproportionate power that lies with the L-G to prevent the AAP and other Opposition parties from reviving their protest over the new law, which they say strips the elected government of its powers.

Also Read: ‘Let’s respect democracy’, says Arvind Kejriwal after L-G holds Covid review meet

What the law changed

The Union government introduced the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021, in the Lok Sabha on 15 March to amend the 1991 Act.

The bill said the “government” in Delhi will mean the L-G in the context of all legislation, and makes it mandatory for the Delhi government to seek the opinion of the L-G before any executive action.

“…Before taking any executive action in pursuance of the decision of the council of ministers or a minister, to exercise powers of government, state government, appropriate government, lieutenant-governor, administrator or chief commissioner, as the case may be, under any law in force in the Capital, the opinion of lieutenant-governor in term of proviso to clause (4) of article 239AA of the Constitution shall be obtained on all such matters as may be specified, by a general or special order, by lieutenant-governor,” the law read.

It also made the L-G’s approval necessary for legislative affairs that concern the day-to-day governance of Delhi.

The bill was passed in the Lower House on 22 March, the Rajya Sabha on 24 March, and eventually notified as an Act on 29 April.

The AAP had protested against the law. Party sources said it directly affects their prospects, despite winning the Delhi elections with a thumping majority for the second time in a row. Opposition leaders such as All India Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee had also stood in support of the AAP and criticised the central government for the law. 

Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said that, with this law, the Centre “had crushed” Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s vision.

“Babasaheb Dr B.R. Ambedkar had envisioned in the Constitution to ensure rights to people to elect a government in order to avail welfare and development benefits. He also gave adequate rights to elected governments to provide all welfare and development benefits to people within constitutional limits,” he added.

“It is unfortunate that we have a government in the Centre that has crushed Babasaheb’s vision. They are least respectful towards the Constitution and the rights of an elected government in a democracy. They have deliberately misinterpreted judgments of the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court just to establish a dictatorship. Such betrayal with the Constitution and vision of Ambedkar is shameful,” he told ThePrint.

Three flashpoints in nine months

Since the passing of the law, there have been three prominent instances of conflict between the two parties, said senior officials.

Firstly, the central government, through L-G Anil Baijal, did not let the Delhi government roll out its ambitious plan of doorstep delivery of rations.

Secondly, the L-G dismissed the public prosecutors appointed by the Delhi government to argue cases related to violence during a 26 January rally organised by farmers protesting against the three now-repealed farm laws.

Thirdly, the L-G, on the recommendations of a committee he set up, cited “procedural lapse” to force the AAP government to scrap a 12-year annual maintenance contract worth Rs 3,412 crore awarded by the Delhi Transport Corporation.

Also Read: In fresh Kejriwal-Baijal row, Delhi govt & L-G in tussle over lawyers in farmers’ protest cases

Conflicts avoided

There have also been instances where both parties chose to stay on the backfoot over issues that have earlier stoked tussles.

The AAP government and the L-G have for years had tussles over sending of files to the latter’s office, especially those concerning decisions taken by the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi cabinet. The parties had moved court over the matter.

In July 2018, a Supreme Court judgment said Delhi’s L-G is bound to listen to the Union territory’s democratically elected government and cannot act independently, except for matters related to public order, police and land. The verdict put an end to the tussle, though not entirely.

The new law essentially overturns the Supreme Court judgment. The Delhi government has moved the apex court against the law.

“But the AAP government currently sends all files to L-G without any protest. They are letting the court case take its own course, but not investing additional time and energy on such day-to-day issues,” said a senior government official on condition of anonymity.

“As an elected government, the AAP government’s focus is on ensuring that benefits of good governance and welfare measures reach each and every resident of Delhi. So, on our part, we will make sure that we adopt strategies and engage with the central government in a way that we do not fail the people of Delhi, like they did,” said deputy CM Sisodia.

The L-G has been on a strategic backfoot too. Senior officials cited as example the Delhi government’s new excise policy which is supposed to help the government augment revenue. The government in September earned around Rs 8,900 crore through auction of zones under the new policy.

“Earlier, conflict over approval on policies and schemes was very common on technical grounds. The most prominent example is the CCTV scheme, for which AAP leaders were forced to hold a sit-in protest at Raj Niwas,” said another senior official on condition of anonymity.

In May 2018, Kejriwal along with his cabinet colleagues and several AAP MLAs, sat in protest near the office of the L-G after the latter refused to meet him over a difference of opinion concerning a scheme to install CCTV cameras. Earlier this month, Kejriwal announced the second phase of the scheme. “There was no resistance from the L-G,” the official said. 

“The (new) law allows the L-G to dismiss legislative committees that hear administrative issues concerning air pollution, Delhi riots etc. and were formed without his approval. But he has not done so,” added the official.

BJP leaders have, however, challenged these committees, saying similar panels have already been set up in Parliament and by the central government.

The AAP government, too, has refrained from intervening in affairs related to civil servants beyond a point. Earlier this year, the government and the L-G had a brief exchange of letters with the former claiming that the latter was calling meetings of civil servants without its knowledge. “But after the L-G countered the allegations, the AAP decided not to stretch the matter any further. That was a wise move. Similarly, the government did not protest over the transfer of bureaucrats in the last few months,” the senior official said.

Despite virtually having disproportionate power over not only executive and administrative but also legislative affairs concerning the governance of the capital, the central government has refrained from interfering on several matters through the L-G where it did not see any urgency, added a senior official.

“The Opposition parties have been protesting against the law, calling it unconstitutional. The L-G intervened whenever it was needed. But too much interference would have unnecessarily generated noise and favoured the AAP and other parties in Opposition. So, this diplomacy is definitely strategic,” the official said.

After initial protests, the AAP started focusing on taking on the BJP, but refrained from getting confrontational with the L-G over matters that concerned Delhi’s governance, said a senior AAP leader.

“There is not too much political incentive in such confrontations. There has been too much friction in the AAP government’s first tenure, but we still went on to win another election. But we have also realised that such conflicts take too much time and energy and stop us from investing full time on development work,” the leader added. “Delhi goes to municipal polls in a few months and we cannot take any risks in that regard. People want their work to get done in the end. We have to have strategies to ensure that,” the leader said.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: Ex-civil servants support bill on Delhi L-G powers even as AAP calls it Centre’s ploy


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