More power to mayor, less to AAP govt: Why BJP is pushing to reunite 3 Delhi municipal bodies

Polls for Delhi’s civic bodies have been deferred because of reunification proposal. BJP sources say internal survey & AAP's Punjab win behind party's alacrity to get this done.

Civic Centre, the headquarters of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Civic Centre, the headquarters of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

New Delhi: The central government’s push to reunify three civic bodies of Delhi the North, South and East Delhi Municipal Corporations — is not just geared to bring about greater administrative efficiency, but also to consolidate political power in the national capital, sources in the BJP have told ThePrint.

The erstwhile MCD was divided in 2012 by the Congress’ then-CM, the late Sheila Dikshit, with the North and South bodies receiving 104 wards each and the East 64 wards.

The last time the BJP was in power in Delhi was in 1998, under the chief ministership of Sushma Swaraj, but in the ensuing 24 years, it has been unable to win at the assembly level, with the Congress (1998 to 2013), and then the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), establishing themselves at the helm. Where the BJP did come to power was in the MCD and later the trifurcated civic bodies, which it has controlled for more than 15 years.

The AAP was hoping to put a stop to the BJP’s dominance in the next municipal elections, which were due in April, but the State Election Commission (SEC) last week deferred its announcement of poll dates, citing a communication from the Centre about the proposed reunification.

This led to immediate outrage from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who alleged that the Centre wanted to delay the civic polls, because the BJP feared defeat. Hundreds of AAP members also protested at the BJP’s Delhi headquarters Monday.

Speaking to ThePrint, Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, BJP’s national vice president and the party’s in-charge for Delhi, said it was quite confident of doing well and that Kejriwal’s party was suffering from “huge anti-incumbency”.

However, according to other sources in the BJP, a survey conducted internally by the party last October showed that the AAP was trending ahead of the BJP, triggering the need to reunify the three MCDs as soon as possible. AAP’s resounding victory in Punjab also increased the sense of urgency, the sources added.


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BJP’s case for reunification

The unified MCD was the second-largest civic body in the world after Tokyo, Japan, and provided services to 97 per cent of Delhi’s population. It had 272 wards distributed among 12 administrative zones, with 22 departments and a single commissioner.

With trifurcation, it had three commissioners, 66 heads of departments, and three mayor officers.

The trifurcation of the MCD in 2012 was seen as not only a way to “decentralise” the civic body, but also as a bid by the Congress to capture power in one or two bodies that the BJP had been winning for long.

Arti Mehra, a BJP leader who was mayor of Delhi from 2007 to 2009, said the BJP was against trifurcation from the get go.

“When Sheila Dikshit trifurcated the civic body, we were against it. The motive was political — to make inroads in at least one or two zones of the MCD and to cut BJP supremacy by diluting the power of the mayor. However, because of Sheilaji’s non-confrontational politics, problems of the kind we are seeing under the Kejriwal regime did not arise,” Mehra said.

“During my time, the post of mayor was a powerful one, but after trifurcation, its gravity and centrality reduced,” Mehra added.

Now, the BJP has a laundry list of complaints about how the AAP government in Delhi is hindering the functioning of the civic bodies, including blocking funds meant for them. According to BJP workers, many employees had not been getting their salaries as a result. Last year alone saw 10 strikes by employees, mostly over non-payment of dues.

“This affects not just the employees but their families,” a senior BJP leader, who didn’t want to be identified, said.

The AAP, on its part, has blamed the commissioners of the North, South and East bodies for not releasing funds. In December last year, the party also launched a campaign to bring badlaav (change) in the municipal corporations, alleging that they were rife with corruption and were responsible for mounds of garbage being left on the streets.

Notably, in the Swachh Survekshan (cleanliness survey) of 48 local bodies in 2020, the North Delhi body ranked a dismal 45th, while the East body came in at number 40. The South Delhi Municipal Corporation ended up 31st in this survey.

How BJP plans to ‘sweep’ polls

According to BJP leaders, the party will sweep the municipal elections by highlighting how the AAP came in the way of the bodies’ efficient functioning.

“If there are issues with the three civic agencies, then at the same time, there is a strong anti-incumbency against the AAP government too,” a senior BJP leader said.

“If the MCD is unified, we will take the message to the people that the AAP government has been a roadblock. It prevented employees from getting their salaries on time and ensured that the civic agencies didn’t prosper. In our publicity campaign, we will highlight how we intend to solve the problem of blocking of funds etc.,” the leader added.

Baijayant Panda, meanwhile, said the BJP was planning to target the AAP’s policies.

“Kejriwal’s party now has huge anti-incumbency. Our campaign against his liquor policy of three thekas (liquor shops) in every ward, including near schools and temples, has hit very hard. The results of the five states’ elections have come as a boost and there’s tremendous enthusiasm among party workers and ticket seekers,” Panda told ThePrint.

If the MCD is reunified, the post of mayor will once again become significant, Panda added.  “We are not intimidated by a mayor having a strong profile, which Kejriwal is afraid of,” he claimed.

Internal survey gave a push

The BJP has been advocating for the reunification of the MCD since 2014, but there was not much movement on this front until very recently.

“The move to unify the MCD gathered momentum in the last six months. The central leadership was informed of the pros and cons,” a senior BJP leader said.

According to sources, a party survey in October last year showed that AAP was ahead of the BJP in terms of prospects in the civic polls, leading to the idea gaining some urgency. The AAP’s huge victory in the Punjab elections also propelled the BJP to move faster, sources in the party said.

“A few months’ delay (in municipal elections) will serve our purpose. AAP euphoria will come down once they feel the heat of problem in Punjab, and we will be in a position to reduce AAP to rubble in Delhi,” a BJP leader said.

Boost for mayor, improved finances

With reunification, there are hopes that the MCD will be more financially efficient and the mayor will get more power.

East Delhi Mayor Shyam Sunder Aggarwal told ThePrint that trifurcation brought a number of financial problems.

“We (EDMC) are facing a deficit of Rs 800 crore after trifurcation. It tripled the number of officers, departments, committees, and the cost to maintain them — including cars, ACs, and so on,” he said, adding that resources and revenues were also unequally divided between the three civic bodies.

The SDMC, for instance, has within its purview far more upmarket neighbourhoods, where there is more property tax collection. North and East MCDs are home to many unauthorised settlements and many parts come under a lower taxation category. As a result, the revenues are lower and there are more financial issues, including in the payment of salaries.

According to figures released ahead of the 2017 civic polls, the SDMC has about 4.7 lakh taxpayers among its over 10 lakh property owners, while the NDMC has 3.3 lakh taxpayers for 10 lakh owners, and the EDMC has 2.2 lakh taxpayers among 4 lakh property owners.

A BJP source said the proposal under discussion is for the Centre to fund the unified MCD so that “dependence on the state can be reduced”. Further, the tenure of the mayor may also be increased from the current period of a year.

Satish Upadhyay, former Delhi president of the BJP, said a reunification could bring a much-needed overhaul in Delhi.

“The MCD needs and image makeover, more financial power, and more power for the mayor. We are in favour of a longer tenure for the mayor — of 2.5 to five years, like in other cities,” he said.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)


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