Whatever a somewhat desperate-sounding pack of Bharatiya Janata Party spokespersons might say, the Supreme Court's judgment in the Delhi government's case against its Lieutenant Governor is a big victory for the people of Delhi - and, if only incidentally, for the Aam Aadmi Party. That this case even had to be brought is a disgrace. Any case titled "Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi vs Union of India and Another" is a sign of poorly working federalism; when the "Another" in question is the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, it suggests a full-scale constitutional breakdown. Thankfully, the Supreme Court, in a mature and forward-looking judgment, has managed to restore democratic accountability, which it has correctly pointed out is at the heart of Indian constitutional values.
The Aam Aadmi Party's brand of confrontational dharna politics is frankly unappealing. To most of us, it conveys a sense of immaturity and suggests the party is still not ready for anything but prime-time television. This bad behaviour overshadows whatever achievements it may have to its name when it comes to governance innovations in Delhi.
But AAP's political shortcomings are not the cause of the breakdown in the Delhi government. The fault for that can be laid squarely at the door of the Lieutenant Governor and his masters in the union government. The Union has from day one sought to hamper the Delhi government's normal functioning. The Supreme Court's judgment is not an defence of the AAP; it does not exonerate the Delhi government when it comes to its relationship with its bureaucrats, who famously went on an undeclared strike a few weeks ago. What the judgment is, in fact, is a searing indictment of the union government's dealings with the NCT of Delhi, and of the misuse of the Lieutenant Governor's powers. When Chief Justice Dipak Misra is forced to clarify that "The Lieutenant Governor has not been entrusted with any independent decision-making power", it reveals that the Lieutenant Governor has in fact been taking constitutionally improper, independent decisions. When the court has to explain that "any matter" on which the Delhi government acts does not mean "every matter" has to be referred to the union government, then it reveals that the union government has sought to rule the city-state through its proxy, the Lieutenant Governor. This undermines constitutional morality. It destroys trust. And it betrays a disdain for democratic accountability. Where does the responsibility for this bad behaviour lie?
Some in the BJP have sought to spin the court's unequivocal judgment as a defeat for the AAP - since the court has, in the words of Justice DY Chandrachud, declared that Delhi has "a constitutional status which falls short of the trappings of full statehood". Since the AAP has agitated for full statehood for the NCT, the BJP argues, the court has in fact reproved the Delhi government. This is a patently absurd argument. The court has simply reiterated that the law, as it stands, ensures that the government of Delhi simply does not have the powers that the governments of "full" states do. AAP wishes this legal position to change, but changing the law is beyond the powers of the court, which merely interprets statute and the constitution. It's up to the people of India now to decide whether they want to continue to partly disenfranchise the population of what will unquestionably be, for most of the 21st century, India's largest city. Absurdly, the BJP's own incompetence has led it to argue that Delhi's voters should not have the rights of voters in other states - a position for which it should rightly be punished by Delhi's electorate in the next elections.
Both AAP and the BJP should learn a few lessons from this lengthy episode. The AAP should recognise that any hope of salvation for its embattled Delhi government comes from those very institutions of state that it has long sought to disparage. No dharna would force the union government to back off - only constitutionally-mandated institutions can do that. It is now up to AAP to show that, with a freer hand in Delhi, it can govern the city-state responsibly and effectively. Now AAP has been handed a victory, the people of Delhi expect its government to stop fighting and start working. If it continues down the path of agitation and confrontation, it will be punished; the state Congress is already showing signs of life.
The lessons for the BJP are as deep if not deeper. The union government must learn to stop meddling in the affairs of states. Governors and Lieutenant Governors are not proxies for the current union government; they are representatives of the Union as a constitutional entity, not a political entity. The more that Modi Sarkar tries to make all non-BJP state governments into enemies of the Union government, the greater the impetus it gives to opposition unity - and the more likely it is to wind up burned, as it has been in this instance.
In this union government, all decisions are taken at the top; the Prime Minister himself must answer to the citizens and representatives of the National Capital Territory for those of the Union's actions that undermine the citizens' mandate. And he should be held accountable by the citizens of India more broadly for the effect the Union's actions have had on constitutional morality and the trust which must underlie any functioning federal system. And if the BJP loses Delhi and enables opposition unity in the process, it will have only its own leader to blame.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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