Is Delhi democratically enfeebled?

A bill approved by both houses of Parliament last week March  2021, will sharply reduce the Delhi’s Government’s ability to act independently of the Lieutenant Governor (LG), an appointee of the President of India (ergo the Union government). Every executive decision has now to be referred to the LG.

Similarly, whilst the Delhi Assembly can legislate, its ability to enforce the accountability of the executive through enquiry is constrained. This reverts the political architecture substantively to what it was,prior to 1991 when Delhi acquired a Legislative Assembly and the government executive powers, like other State governments, barring public order, police and land management, which were reserved for the Union government.

Kashmir and Delhi – Harbingers of a much needed slimming of the bulging middle of State governments

This dramatic reversal has riled the national and provincial level political class—existing Members of Parliament and Members of State Legislatures—numbering less than 10,000 including future aspirants. Those within the BJP are unable to vent but they too, read the tea leaves of a possible future diminution of the power of provincial assemblies nationally, by linking the earlier political developments in Kashmir.

On 17 October 2020, amendments to the existing enabling J&K Panchayati Raj legislation, created District Development Councils (DDC) whose members are directly elected. The DDC is grafted onto the top of the Panchayati Raj structures—directly elected village councils and Block Development Councils, indirectly elected by the elected village council heads.

The State Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir was dissolved in November 2018 prior to ending the special constitutional arrangements for J&K. It has yet to be re-constituted. When it is, some previously state government mandates, are likely to be delegated to the freshly minted DDCs.

To those intent on “preserving” the existing architecture of democracy—never mind that the spirit behind that architecture might have gone stale—Kashmir and Delhi seem to murder democracy. To others, more trusting of the Union government, both developments, whilst admittedly politically dictated, have the potential for good outcomes.

Kashmir – too emotive to be discussed technically

We will walk-around the case of J&K simply because the end of its special status on 31 October 2019—an emotive event—clouds the technical issue of the efficient distribution of powers between the assembly and the Panchayati Raj institutions. The latter gained constitutional salience in 1993 via the 73rd and the 74th amendment Acts under the UPA government of the late Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. But local government, generally, remain moribund because state governments are unwilling to delegate mandates, capacity and finances.

Delhi under AAP – A much needed political disruption which quickly became unworkable

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi, under Arvind Kejriwal, has worked hard and effectively to serve the citizens of this diverse and rather shabbily served metropolis. Starting as political disrupters, the AAP settled down to mature political management. The principles of meritocracy demand that performers be rewarded. And so, AAP was, with a second mandate to manage Delhi in 2019. The next elections will be held coterminous with the national elections in 2024.

The March 24 amendment cuts the AAP government down to size and that hurts. However, a larger issue, must be considered alongside. Is Delhi large enough to have a three-tiered political structure for its management—all crowded into its 1,484 square kilometers?

Delhi too packed with politicians in charge working at cross purposes

Five local bodies, a full State Government with a Legislative Assembly and the Union Government directly managing public order, police and land, seems like political overkill. Delhi has 342 elected representatives, including the Members of Parliament representing Delhi, Members of the Legislative Assembly and the municipal councilors/corporators. On average, each elected representative, has less than 5 square kilometres to care for.

A 2 kilometre morning and evening stroll, if they were to live amongst the people who vote for them, should be enough for these hard-working peoples’ representatives to know and deal with every problem brought to their attention, personally. In practice,wide public contact, is generally limited to the quinquennial vote. So why have so many elected representatives draining public finances?

The division of the erstwhile Delhi Municipal Corporation into three separate corporations in 2012, by the Congress government of the then Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, since deceased, did little to improve governance, thought it did proliferate the number of political and official positions available to be filled. All three elected municipal corporations now have BJP governments but with little to show in terms of results.

Oh! for an efficient, empowered Metropolitan Delhi as in London or New York

Delhi would do best as a mega-municipality of around 20 million residents. A directly elected mayor—several states have this provision—could provide the leadership needed to tackle the myriad problems ranging from poor air quality, dodgy water supply, hugely under provided public transport, and public sanitation services.

Sadly, in the topsy-turvy world of Indian politics, heading a municipality as Mayor has less political gravitas than being a minister in the state government. This needs to change. Mayors of the largest cities should be empowered CEOs (as Chief Ministers are), with comprehensive charge of all public utilities and services, including public law and order, police and land. Municipal staff should be recruited locally and remain in their positions for long periods to develop a bond between the servers and the served.

By 2040, India’s urban spaces will house half the population, up from 34.5 percent (2019). As urban spaces grow to a minimum economic size, they should graduate to the same “autonomous” status with enlarged mandates as is being advocated for the largest cities today.

Sorry AAP, it was good whilst it lasted but there is just no room between the Union Government and the Municipal Corporations – something must give.

Despite the many virtues of the AAP government in Delhi the fact remains that there is too little elbow room for the Union government and a state government to co-exist in its cramped confines. Far better then, that Delhi reverts to a single large, directly elected Municipal Corporationto work seamlessly within the stiflingly proximate embrace of the Union government. As for AAP, one hopes that it will remain a political force to reckon with, in other states and within the Delhi Municipal Corporation.

To prove murder, one needs a body. In Delhi, the state government could, barring a judicial intervention, be in rigor mortis and it will be mourned. But the democracy score card can yet be kept positive and the federalism score card improved, if its executive and legislative mandates are delegated to an empowered, unified Municipal Corporation, to build upon the many successes of the State Government—smart schools and Mohalla clinics, being just two examples.

This article first appeared in March 26, 2021

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