Sharing sovereignty

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BEHIND the ongoing ugly, no-holds barred spat between the Union government and a state/Union Territory (UT), in this case National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, are two factors. The first relates to the changing contours of the party system in India, presently marked by a decisive decline of the Congress and an unprecedented emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which since 2014 has obtained an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha and emerged as the sole party in power in seven states. Further, it is sharing power in two states as a National Democratic Alliance ally, is in coalition in one, and has emerged as the main opposition in five states and a UT. A buoyant BJP in power at the Centre, and with a prominent presence in sixteen states, is looking at its challenges rather aggressively.

The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from a shrill anti-corruption movement and its bellicose arrival on Delhi’s political stage has upset the BJP’s calculations twice. Moreover, its pugnacious politics of claiming a larger politico-administrative share and role for the Delhi regime than Delhi’s UT status assigns it has created a quotidian cantankerous relationship with the Union government and the BJP, since in order to deride the BJP, the AAP regime keeps overstepping its constitutional and statutory limits.

Second, this federal squabble also raises questions about the phenomenon called the UT, which has mutated since the six – Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Laccadive, Minicoy and Aminidiv Islands, Manipur and Tripura – were created in 1956. The US, Canada and Australia too have federally administered territories, but since some of the Indian UTs have been given the status of full states and two of the existing UTs enjoy limited autonomy, India’s project and framework on sharing sovereignty deserves interrogation.

Initially declared a Chief Commissioner’s province after it became the capital of the British Raj in 1911, and a Part ‘C’ state after independence till the States Reorganization Commission (SRC) made it a UT, Delhi has seen occasional campaigns for statehood. The politics of the demand is rooted in the weakening of the Congress since 1967 and emergence of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh as a strong contender for power since. Following its reincarnation as BJP in 1980, and even more since its ascendance with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the BJP has not only created alternation in the city’s power and party systems, but has also been an integral part of the discourse on Delhi’s statehood with a degree of political expediency thrown in.

India’s eternal city has faced a governance conundrum ever since the decline of the Mughals. Reduced to being a district town of the Punjab following the revolt of 1857, municipality and civic amenities were introduced in 1863, in part because the British troops and officials were stationed in and around Shahjahanabad. Delhi charmed the British sufficiently to be selected to hold a durbar on Queen Victoria assuming the title of the Empress of India in 1877. It then pipped Calcutta, the imperial capital, a second time to host Curzon’s Viceregal durbar in 1903. Unsurprisingly, the shifting of the capital of the Raj to Delhi in 1911 merited a third durbar. The construction of New Delhi contributed to a governance structure marked by a strong central control.

A Chief Commissioner’s Province from 1912 to 26 January 1950, Delhi was made a ‘Part C State’ under the Constitution of India, with decision-making powers vested in the Chief Commissioner appointed by the central government. The SRC did fear that since ‘law and order, local self-government institutions, the Improvement Trust and other statutory boards regulating certain public utility services in Delhi and New Delhi’ were not within the purview of the state legislature, this could lead to a deterioration in administrative standards. Nevertheless, the SRC recommended UT status for Delhi. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi evidently did not satisfy the urge for a representative government. Thus the Metropolitan Council, a powerless institution with only recommendatory responsibilities, was created in 1966. All these created agencies with overlapping responsibilities. The mulitiplicity of institutions and confused accountability structures have always been blamed for failure to resolve Delhi’s chronic ailments.

The status of the municipal government in Delhi has variously moved from confusing to confounding, as the Union government appears cagey about permitting an effective self-governing municipal corporation. Thus, while the elite New Delhi is governed directly by the national government through the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), the executive wing of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) remains under a bureaucrat with the elected representatives constituting the deliberative wing. In 2011, the Sheila Dikshit government split the MCD into three, further adding to the confusion.

Delhi’s competing parties – the Congress and the BJP – have handled its status with a tunnel vision, demanding statehood from the opposition benches and ignoring Delhi’s status when in power. This tussle gave Delhi a diarchy in 1993 – a 70-seat legislature and an elected government with limited powers, first governed for five years by the BJP and then by the Congress for fifteen years till the AAP emerged in 2013 and 2015. The contradictions sharpened each time Raisina Hill and the Delhi Secretariat had different governments.

The first major tussle emerged in 2002, when Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani announced the central government’s decision to clip the wings of the NCT Delhi’s Congress government by reimposing Section 48 of the Transaction of Business Rules, which had earlier been removed for the convenience of the Sahib Singh Verma government (BJP); this has since been omitted from the Rules. Three interrelated issues at stake in this context – partisanship, autonomy and governance – raise moot questions regarding an ever-growing capital city in a situation wherein the Union government and the UT governments run by different parties embarrass each other.

The roots of the current strife can be traced to the politics of AAP supremo, Arvind Kejriwal, who favours an agitational mode as his politics of governance, though somewhat more nuanced and moderated in his second avatar, in his search for a national status. Evidently, the idea is to push the Union government so as to expose the BJP as being against the people of Delhi while simultaneously portraying the AAP as pro-decentralization. In the process, the politics of governance has become bereft of constitutional civility. Finding itself pushed into a corner, the BJP (and the Union government) is playing a belligerent game, using the LG as a tool.

Two factors about the constitutional design, relevant in this case, deserve scrutiny for resulting in contentious claims and debates on redesigning the units of the Indian Union and their spheres of power: first, the Constituent Assembly’s perception of the Union’s role in redrawing the boundaries within India and second, the creation of UTs.

The discussion in the Constituent Assembly on Articles 2, 3 and 4 of the Constitution – that define the Indian territory and empower the Indian Union to create new states, alter boundaries of the states, merge and/or separate them, rename them – reflects a consensus. The debates and the emerging constitutional provisions reveal that in reorganizing India’s internal map, region, ethnicity, language, and an interplay of all these feelings as well as giving villages a prime space, were considered vital. Two crucial points were made by Thakur Prasad Bhargava (Punjab). First, in stressing that the non-Punjabi regions of ‘Hariana’ should have the option to opt out of the Punjab, he highlighted the significance of language. Second, when discussing whether regions and villages should have a choice regarding which state to join, he used the word ‘secede’. Since after independence the provinces and (Princely) states were provisionally organised as ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ with varying autonomy under the provisional constitution based on the Government of India Act, 1935, there was confusion about how much power the new states would have to advise the Union Parliament on this matter.1

But how did the concept of the UT that is causing so much stress in Delhi, emerge? It certainly did not figure in the Constituent Assembly. The SRC recommended a twofold classification: one of ‘States’ and the second, of ‘"Territories" which, for vital strategic or other considerations, cannot be joined to any of the states and are, therefore, centrally administered.’ The SRC recommended their representation in the ‘Union legislature’, but clarified that ‘(D)emocracy in these areas should take the form of the people being associated with the administration in an advisory rather than a directive capacity.’2 The SRC based its recommendation of ‘federally administered’ areas on international experience, particularly that of security considerations in other federations and of national capitals such as Washington DC, Ottawa, Canberra, and so on.

The emerging flexible framework, most often, has been used with political expedience, resulting in the emergence of more than double the number of states created in 1956, while bringing the number of Union Territories to seven, following reorganizations in the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s. Since independence, Delhi has moved from being a Part ‘C’ state (one with virtually no autonomy) to a UT in 1956 and was given partial autonomy in 1993.

Article 239AA, first inserted in the Constitution of India through the 69th Amendment Act, 1991, has created a government of NCT Delhi that has control of practically all the subjects in List II of the Seventh Schedule, except the police and criminal justice system, including courts and court fee, and land. Second, Article 239AA (3c) gives the Parliament parallel, though overriding, powers over all the subjects, even over the laws already enacted. Third, clause IV gives the LG discretionary powers over the elected government as well as the powers to refer the government’s decision for presidential consideration, giving the Union government an edge in politically sensitive situations. Fourth, the LG under Article 239B has the powers to promulgate an ordinance in case the Assembly is not in session, though subject to the Assembly’s approval within six weeks. Finally, under 239AB the LG can recommend to the President to suspend Article 239AA. Obviously, the cards are stacked against the elected government of the NCT, though it does have room for autonomy, thereby reducing reason for conflict in day-to-day functioning, if the Transaction of Business Rules are properly followed.

The current tussle between the Delhi government and the LG, a proxy for the Union government, thus relates mostly to the Transaction of Business Rules, which formally tilt the balance of power in favour of the LG. To be fair, there is sufficient room for the CM and the Cabinet to carry on their business in regular consultation and cooperation with the LG. This means coordinating on the LG’s powers to call for any file (s. 19), matters on which the LG is mandated to be informed by the CM through the Chief Secretary (s. 23) relating mostly to the excluded subjects, the CM’s mandatory role to furnish details on demand (s. 25), and section 42 that obligates the proposed bills to be examined and cleared by the LG before being presented in the Assembly. Chapters IV (relating to the LG’s executive functions) and V (relating to the central government) also create a powerful presence for the LG’s office.

Thus, the controversies on transfers and postings, inviting police officers from Bihar in the Anti-Corruption Bureau, posting of a Delhi cadre IPS in the ACB, etc., are nothing more than cussed expressions of political power. Sheila Dikshit has rightly reminded that despite all the brouhaha it was possible and preferable for the two to sit together and work in cooperation.

Beyond the tussle, the real question is about how India’s capital of 18 million can be governed in a just and fair manner for all citizens, rich and poor. Capital cities across the world have received the attention of their respective national government’s for creating governance structures befitting their dignity and the needs of the people and the Indian genius too can design one. Berlin has a structure that is autonomous of the federal German government. Washington DC, London, Ottawa, Amsterdam, Canberra, Paris and so on too have traditionally been looked upon as city governments with urban service functions. In most of them the Mayor, elected either directly or indirectly, remains the most visible face of the city government. In many of them the police, which has been at the centre of controversy in Delhi, reports to the city government without this creating any controversy.

Here is an opportunity for the Narendra Modi-led NDA government to invest in future goodwill and take on the claims of the AAP government in Delhi with a modicum of constitutional deftness and political finesse. It should call for an all-party meet with constitutional experts to put an end to the ongoing unseemly controversy.

Ajay K. Mehra



1. (accessed on 8 June 2015).

2. Report of the States Reorganization Commission, 1956, p.79.


‘Coming together’ of two Bihar leaders

THE coming together of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, the two political stalwarts of Bihar who have dominated the politics of the state in the post-Mandal era, has brought back the focus on their starkly different leadership models. No observer of Bihar politics can fail to notice the contrasting picture they present in terms of their language, actions and leadership styles. ‘Seeing’ the two leaders in public life makes one aware that while Nitish Kumar appears as a prosaic orator, who relies mainly on facts and figures instead of rhetoric, Lalu Yadav comes across as a ‘natural’ orator gifted with a sense of humour and repartee. Unlike Lalu who excels in theatrical and popular mode of street politics, Nitish Kumar has consciously cultivated an image of a reserved and thinking leader, one careful with his words.

There are, however, important similarities in terms of the political career of the two leaders, political friends turned foes. Both were for a long time co-travellers in the state as leaders of the Janata Party/Janata Dal, before parting ways in 1993. As student leaders in Patna University, leading the Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti that launched the Sampoorn Kranti Movement of 1974, both were inspired by the Lohiate socialist ideology. Belonging to the two different, numerically strong upper-backward peasant castes, they emerged in politics at a time when Bihar was undergoing a process of transition and social churning, waiting for ‘Mandal’ to happen. Until their ascent, political leadership in the state had remained strictly with the ‘twice-born’ upper castes. Whatever limited mobility in leadership roles at the top that was available for lower castes members (Ram Sunder Das, Karpoori Thakur, Daroga Rai, and Bhola Paswan Shastri, the first and last being Dalits) was mainly due to the efforts of the upper caste Congress factional leaders (S.K. Sinha, A.N. Sinha, K.B. Sahay, to name a few) looking primarily to strengthen their own positions within the party as patrons of the lower castes. Even in the post-Congress era, Karpoori Thakur, an OBC, had to resign as Janata Party chief minister despite his popularity and honest image, after he apparently tried to cultivate backward castes by announcing reservations for them in government jobs.1

Arguably, if the traditional social power structure in the state has been effectively challenged in the form of the politicization and empowerment of the hitherto dormant backward castes, considerable credit goes to these two leaders, especially Lalu Yadav, though there were other important political and economic factors that contributed to the process, like transfer of land to the peasant OBCs, spread of education, affirmative policies and also a growing realization on the part of numerically strong OBCs of the importance of numbers in an electoral democracy. Yadav, a sitting MP at the time, after becoming chief minister in 1990 with the tacit support of Devi Lal, consolidated his power base by playing the Mandal card while also projecting himself as a secular leader by arresting L.K. Advani and ‘assuring’ the Muslims protection from communal violence in the aftermath of the Bhagalpur massacre in 1989 under a Congress regime. All through this phase, Nitish Kumar, even though playing second fiddle to Lalu Yadav (his Chanakya), was registering a slow and steady climb in the leadership hierarchy within the Janata Dal (Nitish lost his first two elections, that too from his home turf, Harnaut) effectively becoming number two. Both leaders, using the ‘social justice’ plank as an electoral ploy, not only consolidated their social support base as lower-caste/minority community leader/saviour but also successfully made a dent in the ‘twice-born’ upper caste dominance in a state notorious for its entrenched feudal social order.

The turning point in Lalu Yadav’s political career was the fodder scam which saw him getting into dynastic politics, propping up not only his wife as chief minister but also his kinsmen despite their dubious reputations. Lalu Yadav not only broke the Janata Dal by creating his ‘own’ party, the RJD, but also allowed the administration of the state to fall apart as his entire focus was on ensuring political survival. With Lalu Yadav losing political ground as a result of not pushing any developmental agenda or providing a fresh vision for the state while allowing it to lapse into lawlessness, Nitish Kumar, then in Samata Party, astutely seized the opportunity to emerge as a credible alternative for the newly mobilized lower castes. Nitish Kumar not only ‘consolidated’ his OBC support base, especially the non-Yadav votes, as a ‘developmental’ chief minister, but was also able to broaden his support base even among the upper castes and a sizable influential Bihari middle class as well as non-resident Biharis who were fed up with the negative image the state had acquired under Lalu’s proxy ‘jungle raj’. The coalitional arrangement of the Janata Dal (U) with the BJP also enabled Nitish Kumar in his effort to become a broad-based secular leader, as evident in the massive victory for the alliance in the 2010 assembly elections. The BJP as a junior ally allowed Nitish Kumar a free hand in his governance efforts even as some of his most efficient ministers came from the BJP.

The slide in Nitish Kumar’s political career can be traced to his unilateral decision to break the long-standing alliance of the JD (U) with the BJP in 2012. The ‘stated’ reason was to retain the sizable Muslim vote with him, following the elevation of Modi as the BJP prime ministerial candidate. However, the fact that Nitish Kumar had remained with the BJP as a Union minister in the NDA government even after the anti-Muslim riots in 2002, made it apparent that his decision was more to do with a hurt ego (he had opposed Modi candidature) as well as his personal ambitions at the national level in case of a hung Parliament, a distinct possibility at that time.

The break-up, even if eventually inevitable, was disastrous for a state slowly recovering from economic crisis. As governance suffered, Nitish Kumar’s hold over the government became shaky despite the fact that now only the JD(U) was in power. Not only did he lose the services of competent ministers from BJP, but he also had to compromise with the unscrupulous elements within his own party to fight the rebel factor. His image as a broad-based leader suffered as, unsure of receiving upper castes votes, he took recourse to the age-old mode of ‘social engineering’ by nurturing ‘new’ voting categories like atipichda, pasmanda Muslims and mahadalits.

A reversal in the 2014 elections2 saw Nitish Kumar seeking an electoral alliance with his bête noir, but arguably a past master of caste-based politics, Lalu Yadav. As a result, a politically marginalized Yadav, convicted and unable to fight elections and get his family members elected to either the assembly or the Lok Sabha, got a new lease of political life and relevance in Bihar politics. A desperate Nitish Kumar, in a cynical attempt to boost his image as ‘not a power hungry leader’ (though in reality to consolidate mahadalit – read non-Paswan dalit vote – support base), handed over chief ministership to one of his mahadalit ministers, again without asking his party.

The electoral gains in the assembly by-elections in recent months seem to have further convinced Nitish Kumar of the effectiveness of an alliance with Lalu Yadav, despite the reluctance of the RJD leader over the chief ministership issue. His failed Manjhi experiment that may well cost him dalit votes in the forthcoming elections, may also have firmed up his resolve to go for a seat-sharing arrangement with not only Lalu Yadav’s party but also the Congress and the left, though details have still to be worked out and post-election scenario remains uncertain even in the case of victory.

Why Nitish Kumar chose not to seek a fresh mandate on the promise of going back to his developmental agenda at the time of the Manjhi fiasco and instead stay on in power, clearly shows that he believes that only a OBCs-Dalit-minorities vote bank politics can ensure victory. Equally that in the forthcoming elections, Bihar citizens will revert to their old ways of voting predominantly along caste, kinship and community. Stitching an alliance with the other OBC/ ‘secular’ leader like Lalu Yadav, he is hoping, will result in an electoral windfall.

What does the coming together of these two leaders, facilitated by Mulayam Singh staring at a BJP challenge in his own backyard, augur for the BJP? The party, hoping to win elections on its own with possibly a little help from LJP led by Ramvilas Paswan, is certain to go for Narendra Modi as the party’s face during the campaign, even though it has a competent state level leader in Sushil Modi, deputy chief minister in the coalition government. Possibly this is because the party is afraid of losing its upper caste vote as Sushil Modi is from backward caste or maybe because for a long time he was seen as a loyal ally of Nitish Kumar?

Notwithstanding the political calculations of the concerned leaders and parties who remain convinced that elections in Bihar are all about getting the caste arithmetic right, both the 2009 and 2010 elections3 in the state showed that the people of Bihar can transcend parochial considerations, provided that they can trust a leader and his party to bring a turnaround in the fortunes of the state. Otherwise, going by the politics of numbers based on caste and community, the RJD-LJP alliance should have defeated the JD(U)-BJP alliance in 2013.

As of now, it is more than the political fortunes of Nitish Kumar or his new found electoral ally Lalu Yadav, or the impact of their tactical alliance on the eventual electoral outcome, that matters. The real questions that haunt the electorate of the ‘republic’ of Bihar are: Will the state go back to caste/community-ridden vote bank politics based on patronage once again? Why does even a well meaning/effective leader like Nitish Kumar revert to time-tested identity based politics the moment he finds himself even slightly vulnerable, despite knowing how such politics has ruined the state in the not so distant past? And finally, would Bihar once again become a favourite case for cross-regional studies of crisis of governability and governance?

Ashutosh Kumar



1. Ashutosh Kumar, ‘Development Focus and Electoral Success at State Level: Nitish Kumar as Bihar’s Leader’, South Asia Research 33, 2013, pp. 101-121.

2. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, out of 40 seats allotted to the state, BJP won 22 seats whereas its allies, LJP and RLSP, won 6 and 3 seats respectively. The RJD and JD(U) fighting alone won from 4 and 2 constituencies. In the 2009 elections, the JD(U) had won 20 seats, whereas its ally, the BJP, had won 12 seats. RJD was reduced to low 4 seats.

3. Out of 243 seats in the assembly elections in 2010, the JD(U) and BJP contesting as allies won 115 and 91 seats respectively, whereas the RJD and LJP and Congress won 22,3 and 4 seats respectively.