The Supreme Court has finally brought a halt to the tug of war between the AAP government and the Lieutenant Governor (L-G) of the national capital. While Arvind Kejriwal celebrated in a tweet calling the verdict a “victory of Democracy,” both the Congress and the BJP however, were not so happy. The five-judge constitutional bench made various observations in the enormous 500-page judgement. These include that the power of the L-G being confined to just three departments— police, public order and land. The bench pointed out that the L-G cannot act “independently” and has to abide by the decisions made by the cabinet. Only in “exceptional circumstances” can the L-G refer the matter to the President of the county; a hiatus that the office of the L-G had exploited to impede any little decision made by the Delhi government. Therefore, the Supreme Court has, in fact, kept the status quo of the National Capital Region (NCT) intact and denied any hopes of its full statehood. It is the uniqueness of the Constitutional status of the NCT under article 239AA that makes the role of the L-G not just of a regular governor but also a partial administrator. This was the bone of contention between the two sides that led to this public battle between an elected government and a centrally appointed administrator. In the end, it would not be egregious to agree with Kejriwal, as it indeed is a victory for democracy.
The legal jargon of this entire case is being debated at length on every news tabloid in the country. But it is not the only thing one should take out of this verdict, it is also its impact on the functioning of the democratic institutions in the country; specifically of the Union Territories and the NCT. The L-G was for the past two years trying to undermine the functioning of the AAP government in every method possible. The standoff reached its lowest point when an altercation turned physical, and allegedly an IAS officer was assaulted by an AAP legislator. To be honest, this is an excellent case of how quickly the bureaucracy bends down to the political class even at the highest level. The post of the L-G was relatively unknown to the ordinary people until the current BJP government at the centre and made it vogue. The L-G gained notoriety as it became a puppet appointed by the centre to undermine the functioning of an opposition party in Delhi. In 2015 a notice was issued which gave enormous powers to the office of the L-G, which were previously under the scope of the government of the capital. Later the High Court issued an order that justified the role of the L-G as an administrator in the unique setting of the NCT. The powers of the elected government of Delhi were mainly reduced to that of a municipality. It was then that multiple petitions by both the L-G and the AAP government to the Supreme Court compelled the matter to be referred to a constitutional bench.
The idea of checks and balances, as explained by Montesquieu in his work The Spirit of the Laws, categorically insists that each of the three branches can limit or check the other two to create a balance of power. This is vital for the sustainability of any democratic framework from slipping into absolutism. If the legislature is being undermined by an executive who is not accountable to the former, then the system is somewhat rigged. This concern was rightly pointed out by the judgement, that there was no room for “absolutism or anarchism” in the constitution. Which basically meant that none of the two branches had any absolute control over each other and had to work harmoniously.
Then why should Delhi’s government be entitled to the same privileges as any other state government? The most basic argument can be that it has an elected government that represents the will of the people. To undermine that the legislative branch is to undermine one of the most basic tenants of democracy. To have a governor that acts like a Viceroy makes a mockery of the people’s ambition that elects a government. A perennial problem that Indian democracy has historically faced is the abuse of the office of Governor to either undermine or to declare emergencies in states where the centre’s party is not in rule. This art of imposing president’s rule on states was perfected by Indira Gandhi. After which, multiple Supreme Court verdicts brought more transparency to the system of declaring emergencies. Henceforth, the centre has been forced to think twice before imposing President’s rule in any state. The situation was different in the case of Union Territories that were directly administered by the centre. The position of Delhi and to some extent Puducherry is precarious because while both have a legislative assembly like a regular state, they also have a powerful office of the L-G as they are still a UT. This means that unlike a regular state where the governor just acts as a figurehead, the L-G has some amount of administrative functioning. This grey area is what has become the battleground of this conflict between the AAP government and the centre.
What has made the matters more unfortunate is the politics behind the issue. While both the BJP and the AAP celebrated the court’s verdict, it’s redundant to assume any winners per se. The very next day after the judgement, the L-G denied transfers orders by the AAP government; citing individual issues like that of the control of the services still awaiting a hearing at the Supreme Court. In the end, this embarrassment continuous without the hope of any compromise. Petty politics, as usual, has denigrated the working of a healthy democracy. In this case, both the Congress and the BJP have ganged up against the AAP in Delhi, and the biggest victor of all this publicity is Kejriwal in particular. He had become politically irrelevant by now— all thanks to his autocratic hold on the AAP and its functioning which had cost the party the assembly elections in Punjab and Goa. Today, he has rejuvenated his image as a crusader against the powerful for which he should thank BJP’s high command. In the end, behind this unrelenting muddy politics, is the lack of concern for the people of Delhi. They do deserve a system where their elected government is independent of any interference by an appointed authority. The power to do that lies in the hands of the parliament. So under the present situation, that possibility seems gloomy.