Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Power games for control of Delhi have hit rock bottom

The basic issue before us is the mega-chaos, confusion and conflict in the nation's capital due to the indigenous brand of dyarchy

The tussle over Delhi’s political status, for power and position in the nation’s capital, has been going on for many years between competing players. Today, unfortunately, it’s at its nadir. So much so that both the lieutenant-governor and the chief minister of what is officially known as the National Capital Territory have descended several notches from the accepted level of public decency to control the deployment of the IAS-dominated civil service, thereby giving the impression of a colonial mindset of the capital’s ruling class of the British Raj’s bygone days. The magic word is “control”. Control the personnel to control the capital and make one count in the club of VVIP culture of India’s democracy.

Indeed, as the issue of “control” of the bureaucracy now heads back to the Supreme Court, it’s time to revisit the bigger picture, rather than commenting on a distracting issue; of whether the fresh ordinance brought forward by the Central government constitutes “contempt of court” or not. The alleged contempt is a matter to be determined by the court itself, and not by the parties to the conflict.

The real question today is this: how far can the administration of India’s capital city be allowed to get dysfunctional? How long can the citizens of Delhi, and the nation as a whole, tolerate this juvenile political potboiler in front of the world, like a prime-time TV soap opera, full of melodrama, hysteria and histrionics, with dual control and overlapping jurisdiction creating an avoidable fracas. We can, in fact, go back to the British-created “dyarchy” system, set in motion 104 years ago, under the Government of India Act 1919, to usher in the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “dyarchy” as “a government jointly ruled by two people, such as William and Mary of England”. The 1919 Act marked the introduction of rudimentary democracy in the Raj executive, totally under British administration, by dividing the provincial executives into authoritarian and popularly responsible sections, which would consist respectively of councillors appointed by the British Crown and ministers appointed by the governor, responsible to the provincial legislative councils. It, however, emerged as a system of confusion, chaos and conflict which satisfied no one, and ended with the introduction of the Government of India Act 1935, which proved to be the prelude to a full-fledged Constitution of Independent India in January 1950.

The basic issue before us is the mega-chaos, confusion and conflict in the nation’s capital due to the indigenous brand of “dyarchy” that is harming the country. The seeds of confusion and confrontation were sown in the 1980s. No political player or party can claim innocence for this capital blunder. The earlier ruling and Opposition parties have swapped places in conformity with democracy in Parliament and local bodies. But under no stretch of the imagination can they be exonerated for their poor role in this political melodrama.

The slogans in the 1980s were “small is beautiful”, “small is conducive to development” and “Delhi should be a full-fledged state for the progress of its citizens”. Very soon, Delhi almost became a state. “Almost” because though Delhi officially remains a Union territory, it’s unlike other Union territories like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman, etc. “Special provisions with respect to Delhi” were carved out by the new Article 239AA in the Constitution.

“Dyarchy” came to India’s capital in December 1993, but most Indians forgot to take note of some important chapters in their country’s history which suffered for centuries due to internecine strife, power struggles and an inability to foresee things. The lack of far-sightedness inevitably did the Indian ruling class in. Even in the first week of August 1947, South Asia had 565 “princely states”, which all had different models of governance.

As Delhi became a “state within a state”, friction between the Centre and the city government was only a matter of time, given our multi-party democratic system. Honestly speaking, there’s still time for Parliament to do what it had done to state of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019. While it was not ideal for a proud, long-standing state to have its status reduced to that of a Union Territory and its stature diminished in the eyes of law; in Delhi’s case it could become an enlarged municipal corporation body. If an old state can be turned into a Union territory, Parliament should seriously consider changing the capital’s position too. A capital city can’t be allowed to be in endless conflict with the Central government. It can’t be claimed that one particular party will be running the national government till eternity. Today it’s X, tomorrow it may be Y; and the day after it could be the turn of Z.

As an apolitical professional, this writer has always maintained that at best Delhi’s chief executive should be a Cabinet Secretary-ranked official who could be designated the “chief commissioner or chief administrator” -- who could be either be a civil servant (serving or retired) or a seasoned political appointee, reporting to the President through the Union home ministry.

The chief commissioner/chief administrator could have five or six zonal commissioners with their respective jurisdictions. Somehow, the British (despite being bad in our collective perception) did allow room for different types of administrative systems in difficult and challenging stations. And, Delhi being the capital of the world’s largest democracy, needs to be run by a body that’s not eternally at odds with the national government, but one which is in tune with it.

For far too long, the wise men of India have tried to parcel out existing states or reshaped or re-modelled areas next to our vulnerable borders facing hostile neighbours, or changing their constitutional status, which in turn created more trouble. One sincerely hopes that the nation’s capital, at least, will be spared endless chaos and friction to enable its administrators to focus on issues which demand remedial action.

One would suggest that the powers that be avoid looking at how capital cities and other major cities around the world are run -- be it London, Paris, Washington, New York, Beijing, Shanghai or Tokyo. Indians need to remember that India’s problems are its own, and they cannot be compared or superimposed from imported models.

Indigenous issues need indigenous prescriptions. We have an amazing Constitution to deal with all kinds of situations. It’s better to make use of our own Magna Carta rather than look outside to bring about reforms within.

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