Musings from Chicago: Delhi Statehood, Let Federalism Win

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Chicago – Having lived through rules of Kings for centuries and then Britishers, it seems that feudalism has set in our genes. The tendency to power grabbing and not let it go also recurs time and again. The spirit of democracy and federalism suffers in the process. The issue of statehood for Delhi is a case in point. Elections for Delhi assembly are around the corner and this issue has come into sharp focus again.

Delhi, the national capital territory (NCT) of India, has a contorted situation. It is a Union Territory (by definition, a piece of land directly ruled by the Union or Central government), but also has an elected legislative assembly. Thus, It has an elected Chief Minister who runs the administration, while the lieutenant governor (LG) –appointed by President- acts as the head of the state.

But, paradoxically, three powers lie with Central government: security (police), babudom (bureaucracy) and control of land. As a result, Delhi police reports to Union Home Minister and not Delhi’s Chief Minister. The anomaly was amply highlighted when Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal – feeling hamstrung over control of law and order- decided to sit on a dharna against his own police!

Aam Aadmi Party (AAM), a major player in upcoming assembly elections, has from its inception advocated complete statehood for Delhi. Securing a complete statehood to Delhi has also been on the agenda of BJP since decades and Modi government after being sworn in last year had been actively mulling on this idea as a pre-poll gift to Delhi voters.

However, it seems Prime Minister Narendar Modi was advised to control the impulse, fearing that in case Arvind kejriwal becomes the Chief Minister of Delhi, the privileged control over Delhi will slip away from him. Kiran Bedi after being announced as the Chief Ministerial candidate (which obviously is very different than actually becoming a CM) by BJP immediately became non-committal on the issue of Delhi statehood, literally reversing local state unit’s stand.

Who would like to displease the masters at the center!

No one was better positioned than Congress to resolve the issue of granting full statehood to Delhi. Sheila Dixit was Congress Chief Minister of Delhi for 15 years along with Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Center for a good deal of 10 years. But in her case, neither the spirit was willing, nor was the flesh strong.

When Arvind Kejriwal exposed her duplicity, Dixit said that she had written letters to Home Minister, implying that it was a mere lip service.

Puducherry is another example that carries the dual burden of being a Union Territory yet having a state assembly. Its Chief Minister too has expressed the pain of carrying this burdensome dual legacy.

What is the trend in other parts of world? After all, this question does arise when it comes to ‘city capitals’! Let us look at the situation of Washington DC- the capital of USA. Like Delhi, it also is not a state. Washington comes under federal jurisdiction, thereby directly controlled by Congress. Statehood will give DC. the representation in Congress, which they lack currently (at least Delhi is represented in Parliament by seven Members of Parliament).

When American constitution was written more than 200 years back, they created a district (capital) that the federal government could administer itself for its convenience. The apprehension was that if a state owns it- under the federal system (which is very robust in USA) – the state could create hindrances.

It is bizarre that the most powerful Congress should decide on some of the local issues of Washington DC, which can be easily relegated to its local mayoral government. While residents of Washington DC too continue to aspire for a complete statehood, nevertheless, the police remain a state subject for them, meaning thereby, the local police are controlled by Mayor and municipality. However, the federal law enforcement agencies (example: United States Capitol Police) have jurisdiction in some parts of the Washington DC.

The concept of federalism gained traction in India in 1990s when coalition era started erupting. Before that union governments had very centralist attitude and public at large never found it odd.

Indira Gandhi is a prime example known for concentrating power and disregarding the federal spirit of our country. Imposition of emergency in 1970s is a valid proof of her tendencies. A hang over effect of centralist attitude is reflected in India by clamping president rule by dissolving elected governments in a whimsical manner.

The system of appointing district collectors (DCs) by state governments reflects the tendency of centralizing powers and goes against the spirit of boosting local governments. Delhi also has been a victim of these vagaries. It was granted a statehood status in 1951 and Brahma Prakash was the first ever Chief Minister elected in 1952. However, in 1955, Delhi was converted into a Union Territory and thus legislative assembly was dissolved. It was not until 1993, when the legislative assembly was re-constituted and Madan Lal Khurana (BJP) became the elected Chief Minister of Delhi.

The journey for Delhi is, however, still incomplete.

In next few days, Delhi will see a new Chief Minister. It needs a full-fledged Chief Minister and not a ‘lame duck’ Chief Minister. By acquiring full statehood, Delhi will have a Chief Minister who can administer law and order with police under his control and can make decisions on appointment and transfers of bureaucracy. Separate law enforcement agencies can be created to provide services in places where Union government operates.

A true ‘Swaraj’ will only prevail in Delhi when power is vested in the elected representatives. Let us not asphyxiate the principle of federalism by procrastinating the issue of Delhi statehood. Taking a cue, will Kiran Bedi stand up and declare that Delhi actually deserves a full statehood on a priority basis.

Dr. Munish Kumar Raizada
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Dr. Munish Kumar Raizada is a Chicago-based practicing physician (neonatologist) and a socio-political commentator

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