New Delhi: Full statehood for Delhi might be a major poll plank for Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the national capital, but its leaders have struggled to communicate it to the ordinary voters ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
On Thursday, at an all-women rally for Pankaj Gupta, AAP’s candidate from the Chandni Chowk constituency, the party’s main pitch was for women’s safety, better policing and full statehood, seeking to establish its prime objective of getting control of the Delhi Police, currently under the Union Home Ministry.
This was in line with the AAP manifesto, which is centred on the promise of “Poorna Rajya”, a slogan flashed across party posters ahead of 12 May when all seven Delhi constituencies go to vote.
“It is very important that we, as women, raise our voice to ensure the Delhi Police comes under Delhi government and Delhi gets the status of a full state,” Vandana Gupta, wife of the Chandni Chowk candidate, told ThePrint. She led the rally.
But most people present, including those wearing an AAP cap and wielding its broom symbol, said they didn’t know what the demand really meant or what its effects would be.
“I don’t know if Delhi is a state or a union territory,” said Pallu, a resident of Majnu Ka Tila who had come to the public meeting. “This is the first time I am hearing of ‘full-statehood’. I don’t know anything about this.”
Anita, another attendee at the rally, is a committed AAP supporter because of the work they’ve done for the poor. Full statehood, though, doesn’t figure among Anita’s concerns.
“They are the only party who serve poor people. That’s what matters to us. I don’t know what this full statehood plank is,” said Prem, a 52-year-old woman.
For AAP, this may not spell good news.
What full statehood is and why AAP cares
Delhi enjoys the peculiar status of being a Union territory with a state assembly. Under this arrangement, the Delhi government has legislative powers on all matters mentioned in the state and concurrent list of the seventh schedule, but some major issues — public order and police, municipal services, land and jurisdiction of court — don’t fall under the government’s jurisdiction.
Some of these contentious issues are handled by Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor, the administrator of the National Capital Territory of Delhi as the union territory is called. The LG is allowed by law to not follow the advice of the council of ministers on these issues, unlike other state matters.
The issue of full statehood has been a constant source of conflict between the Aam Aadmi Party, which came to power in 2015 winning 67 of the 70 assembly seats, and the Modi government at the Centre.
In 2016, the Ministry of Home Affairs took the state’s Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) away from the Delhi government, triggering a series of protests, demands and negotiations for full statehood by the AAP.
The ACB issue was resolved earlier this year when the Supreme Court ruled that the agency will remain with the Centre. Other issues, including the reins of the Delhi Police, remain contentious.
The grant of full statehood can be only made if the Indian Parliament pushes amendments to the constitution.
The AAP has little say in the Parliament with its four MPs but the party has been relentless in its demand. Last year, Kejriwal went so far as to say that he would campaign for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha elections if it grants full statehood status to Delhi.
Now, the CM says he will even back Congress president Rahul Gandhi for Prime Minister if his party will assure full statehood to Delhi.
In the party manifesto released on 25 April, AAP promised a number of things for Delhi, but a majority of them were contingent on Delhi being given full statehood. For instance, it has promised 33 per cent reservation for women in the Delhi Police — impossible in the current scenario.
‘Virtually no leverage’
According to brand historian Santosh Desai, the problem in AAP’s full statehood pitch to voters isn’t of messaging, but of the message itself.
“The idea of full statehood was something they plugged quite heavily in the early stages of campaign itself, but it’s not an issue that enjoys a lot traction, nor is it considered a very credible demand,” he said.
“There is virtually no leverage that state government has in making this a reality. So they either failed to communicate their strategy, or they realised they need a shift of strategy because this message doesn’t work.”
The AAP, however, feels they have communicated the complex concept of full statehood to the people of Delhi successfully.
“It isn’t right to say that the AAP has limited its manifesto and election pitch to full statehood. We are showing the people of Delhi everything we have done without full statehood, and everything we could do with it,” a senior AAP leader told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
Whether Delhi voters will go to poll keeping full statehood in mind is a different matter “but it has certainly captured everyone’s imagination”, said the leader.
“Had Balakot (strikes in February) not happened, Kejriwal was ready to go an indefinite hunger strike to fight for full statehood. Several such efforts are registered in people’s minds,” added the AAP leader.
BJP & Congress stand
In the past, Delhi was promised full statehood by both the Congress and the BJP as well.
The Congress, which had made the promise in the run-up to the 2015 assembly elections, now accuses Kejriwal of misleading the people.
Congress candidate from North East Delhi Sheila Dikshit told ThePrint, “Arvind Kejriwal knows he can’t get Delhi the status of full statehood. The constitution has to change for that, and that can only be done by the Parliament. Let him say what he wants to, he says so many things.”
The former Delhi CM also denied that the Congress ever promised full statehood for Delhi. “We didn’t promise it, we said we will look for it. We tried also but we didn’t get it.”
Senior Congress leader Ajay Maken has even said that the law and order in the city will become “as bad as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar” if Delhi was granted full statehood.
The BJP had also made a pitch for full statehood in its manifesto for 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Later, BJP veteran L.K. Advani introduced the State of Delhi Bill in the Parliament in 2003 to no result. The BJP again promised the same before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The then BJP Delhi president Vijay Goel had said, “Delhi’s growth is restricted in absence of full statehood and Congress has done nothing during the last 14 years on this issue.”
Now, Goel says “full statehood has never been a hindrance for the development of Delhi”.
Manjinder Singh Sirsa, BJP MLA in Delhi assembly, said Kejriwal’s demand in itself is not the problem. “Previous governments too have made similar demands. But the problem is the manner in which Arvind Kejriwal has exploited this demand. He has such an unpredictable nature that no central government can trust him with full statehood.”
“There could have been discussions on how powers should be shared. But Kejriwal doesn’t believe in discussions, he showed no respect for the LG. He has only weakened the demand for full statehood,” Sirsa said.