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Lessons for Centre-State relations

Najeeb Jung resigned as lieutenant governor (LG) of Delhi on Thursday, 18 months before his term ends. Reports indicate that there was no pressure on Jung to leave his post. The former LG told a news channel that “there was no politics” behind his resignation. In fact, Jung went on to say that he had offered to resign earlier, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi had urged him to continue. In hindsight, it has been a turbulent tenure marked by controversies as he tussled with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal over a range of jurisdictional issues. His reignation as LG was characterised by the NDA government’s inability to adhere to its slogan of ‘cooperative federalism’. Policymakers should take note of the lessons coming out of Jung’s tenure for Centre-State relations. The public spat between the Delhi government and the LG, with the latter proclaiming his authority, has left the functioning of an elected government in a state of near paralysis. While Kejriwal wished him the best for the future, back in October, he went on a tirade. Kejriwal’s comments against Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung were a timely reminder of the costs the city-state's citizens have incurred from the Centre's constant interference. The Chief Minister said the decisions that have been taken by the Delhi government in the last one and a half years are being rendered “null and void”, leading to complete chaos. “This will have serious ramifications for the city, and it will send Delhi back by almost two years. But unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening in Delhi. If a few decisions related to public welfare were taken without informing him (LG), they should not be reversed. Governance is a very serious business,” he said. Jung’s authority in the national capital was established on August 4 when the Delhi High Court ruled that the LG is the administrative head of the National Capital Region. The court dismissed AAP’s contention that the LG must act on the advice of the Delhi Cabinet. With the lone exception of appointing special public prosecutors, the Chief Minister cannot exercise his authority without the consent of an overbearing executive appointee. The High Court’s order is under review in the Supreme Court.

Supporters of the Delhi government have accused the LG of working at the behest of Centre, which seems determined to keep the Delhi government in check. There has been a whole host of orders passed by the former LG that pointed the finger to such suspicions. Examples include his decision to appoint Shakuntala Gamlin as acting Chief Secretary against the wishes of the political executive in Delhi and the setting up of the Shunglu Committee, which examined over 400 files for “infirmities” and “irregularities” in critical decisions made by the AAP government. Nonetheless, Delhi isn’t the only the case where the Centre has been accused of using Governors as instruments to destabilise democratically-elected governments. The NDA government’s non-compliance with the idea of ‘cooperative federalism’ was also on show during the Constitutional crisis it fomented both in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh earlier this year. In both states, the Apex Court overturned the Centre’s decision to impose Article 356 of the Constitution. Even Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has spoken out against the NDA government’s habit of interfering in the affairs of State governments. ‘Cooperative federalism’ does not just stop at the mere disbursement of funds. It includes the elected state government’s ability to function independently on subjects under its jurisdiction, which includes concerns about land use and law and order, among others. Moreover, the principle goes beyond the domain of party politics. On this front, the Modi government stands accused of trying to run “parallel governments” through its appointees (Governors or Lieutenant Governors). Considering Prime Minister Modi was once a Chief Minister and faced the same kind of interference from previous ruling dispensations at the Centre, it is an unfortunate scenario.  

It is true that Delhi remains an exception among States. The distribution of powers between the LG and the executive has become a bone of contention. A legal battle on the subject is ongoing in the apex court. Under the current arrangement, the Union government controls land located in the vicinity of the national capital, besides policing and public order. Barely any executive business is conducted without their prying eyes, which works through the LG. This issue brings to fore the contentious issue of statehood for Delhi, which if granted would not only give autonomy but would also lend greater clarity to the roles and responsibilities of the executive. It would also nullify the Centre’s role in affecting policy outcomes in the national capital. In a column for this newspaper, Atishi Marlena, advisor to the Delhi Deputy Chief Minister, wrote: “Governance of the national capital is always a complex issue, and most countries across the world have struggled to find appropriate solutions for it. On the one hand is the ‘national’ dimension of a capital city, as it houses all national institutions of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary; it hosts international embassies and diplomats, and often ‘national’ monuments. The capital city often has great symbolic value for the image a nation and its government wish to convey to the larger world. And these are the reasons why national governments wish to retain control over the governance of the capital city. However, the ‘national’ dimension is in contradiction with the needs of the citizens who live and work in the city that need well-functioning essential amenities, public transport and security. It is these latter needs that often suffer neglect when national governments govern capital cities.” The current arrangement has been blamed for standing in the way of efficient administration. It is about time a debate on full statehood for Delhi came to the fore once again.  
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