The catalyst for the Narendra Modi government’s late-night ordinance on Friday, 19 May, may have been the 11 May Supreme Court verdict declaring the control of the elected Delhi government over transfers and postings (services) of officers.
But the ordinance is not a knee-jerk reaction and is a result of eight years of painstaking deliberations among the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) top brass and its friendly bureaucrats in the capital.
The very idea of dismembering the elected Delhi government was set in motion soon after the BJP suffered its worst-ever election defeat in the Indian capital in the 2015 Assembly elections.
Look Back: Some Credit to Najeeb Jung
The Congress-appointed Lieutenant Governor (LG) Najeeb Jung (himself a former bureaucrat), who was among the rare appointees of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to continue in his post for two and a half years in the Modi regime, till he lost his utility in December 2016, must be credited with evolving the idea of how to strangulate the elected Delhi government.
Jung was a perfect fit in the BJP scheme of things since he could be dispensed with easily.
Thus, Delhi became a crucible for the Modi regime to test the waters on how far the non-BJP governments could be arm-twisted using grey areas in the Constitution, and the stick of the Concurrent List to override the Opposition governments.
Surprisingly, when Jung began unleashing his powers as the Centre’s nominee over the Delhi government to virtually stall its functioning, other non-BJP governments across the country chose to largely remain indifferent.
The Congress saw this as an opportunity to possibly weaken and hopefully get rid of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which the grand old party hates for having taken its primary space in Delhi. Other non-BJP parties were of the view that the AAP, being a new kid in the bloc, lacked the maturity to run a government.
BJP's Rampant Misuse of Governor's Office
All these views, however, quickly evaporated when the BJP juggernaut set its sight on other non-BJP governments, misusing the governor's offices at will.
A year later, the Modi government dismissed the Uttarakhand Congress government in 2016 and followed it up by installing its friendly government in Arunachal Pradesh, dislodging the Congress government from there too.
It took interventions from the Supreme Court in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh to restore the Congress governments. But, having tasted blood, the BJP was not to keep quiet for long.
The next target was the Congress-ruled Union Territory (UT) of Puducherry, where Kiran Bedi was appointed as the LG, a reward for having agreed to become BJP chief ministerial face in Delhi earlier, though she led her party to its worst drubbing.
Such was Bedi’s ferocity against the UT government that Chief Minister V Narayanasamy, a veteran leader, almost spent his five-year term either sitting on dharnas against the LG or fighting cases in courts.
Governors Run Riot in non-BJP States
The BJP-led central government-appointed governors and LGs became more aggressive after the Modi government won a second term in 2019 and were competing to outdo each other in making life hell for non-BJP governments.
The political manipulations to get rid of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra were actively matched by the governors to ensure the desired results for their political masters.
Not to be left behind are the governors of West Bengal, Rajasthan, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu have been seen as competing with each other to please the top bosses in Delhi.
The elevation of Jagdeep Dhankar from West Bengal governor to vice president of the country has ignited the hopes of many governors and LGs across the country.
Centre vs Delhi
While all this was happening across the country, the Delhi crucible was being tested with lethal political chemicals all along.
The Modi government was first checked by none less than the Supreme Court (SC). A five-judge Constitution bench of the apex court on 4 July 2018 curtailed the LG’s powers by declaring him bound by the aid and advice of the council of ministers.
Not to be deterred, the Modi government amended the Government of National Capital Territory (GNCTD) Act, during the peak of the COVID delta wave in 2021 and gave the LG sweeping powers over the elected government, negating the 2018 Constitution bench judgment.
The issue of Services remained pending before the SC for seven years till it was finally decided by another Constitution bench on 11 May this year by a categorical judgment, which has now been undone by the late-night ordinance.
No one should be very surprised by this.
The Battle Over Services
The broad idea of not allowing the elected government to function was conceived immediately after Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP to an unprecedented victory in 2015.
Three months after his government took its oath, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification on 21 May 2015, by which it took away Services from the elected government and put it in the category of prohibited items for the elected Delhi government – like police, land, and public order.
The question was – could the Constitution have been mysteriously amended through an executive notification? This has now been answered by the Constitution bench and the verdict has been undone by the ordinance.
Next question: why is the Centre so keen to retain control over Services?Because it helps the Modi government keep the Delhi government paralysed by holding control over the transfers and postings of officers. This way LG can run the government the way he wants.
The way forward for the AAP government looks far from smooth and for non-BJP parties, the situation can be best summed up in the words of Martin Niemoller:
First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
(Nagender Sharma is currently the executive editor of leading podcasting platform earshot.in. He was the Delhi Chief Minister’s media advisor between 2015-20 and has earlier worked for BBC World Service and Hindustan Times. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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