It’s government vs government in Delhi

The only way accusations and rebuttals between states and the Centre will end is when court decides on the distribution of power between the two bodies


Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

New Delhi: In India, the government is the biggest litigant or party to a lawsuit. Often cases are slapped against it and the ones in which the government moves court to file a fresh suit or appeal takes years to come up.

But Delhi is witnessing a rare scenario: here it is government versus government, or the Delhi government versus the Centre. No wonder then that the Delhi government led by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has beefed up its legal team to 15 standing counsels from seven in the Delhi high court.

“When two constitutional authorities are fighting to exercise power over what they believe is their domain, then (it) needs to be heard. At least they’re adopting legal recourse while doing that,” a high court division bench said in May 2015, while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) which said that the constitutional powers (state and the Centre) are “callously” fighting for control, ignoring the public.

It all started on 21 May, when a ministry of home affairs notification was issued, replacing a 1998 notification.

The 1998 notification said that in matters of public order, police and services, the lieutenant-governor (L-G) of Delhi would consult the chief minister, and in cases otherwise, the reasons be recorded. The new notification, however, said that in police and other service matters, the L-G could decide independently.

For the Delhi government, this was a major setback. When a head constable, who was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) of the Delhi government, approached the court for bail, a flurry of litigation landed at the court’s doorstep. A member of the state police, who is under the central government’s control, cannot be arrested by the ACB, the Centre told the court.

Justice Vipin Sanghi, emboldening AAP’s argument, ruled that ACB can exercise jurisdiction over a subject in Delhi and denied bail to the policeman. The court was shut for summer vacation, but the Centre-state drama continued.

An impatient Centre rushed to the Supreme Court seeking reversal of the order. Justices A.K. Sikri and U.U. Lalit then directed the case back to the high court. Senior advocate Dayan Krishnan appeared for the Delhi government, while Sanjay Jain, who was appearing for the Centre, was replaced by Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar.

Meanwhile, AAP had other battles to fight in court. One of them was its case against Reliance India Ltd (RIL). The Centre challenged a first information report (FIR) filed by the ACB against RIL chairman Mukesh Ambani, and former petroleum ministers Veerappa Moily and Murali Deora for alleged corruption in gas pricing.

In August, the Centre also decided to challenge an inquiry by ACB into an alleged scam involving the issuance of compressed natural gas, or CNG, fitness certificates to vehicles. Several key officials from the previous Sheila Dikshit government were under the scanner in the case.

As the state and Centre continued to fight over control on ACB, another dispute erupted over the appointment of ACB chief. In June, L-G Najeeb Jung appointed A.K. Meena as the Delhi ACB chief in spite of the chief minister’s opposition. The Constitution was debated and the Centre was duly accused of malice in a court battle led by senior advocate Indira Jaising.

Jaising pointed out that the L-G had not even considered the government’s proposal and acted unilaterally. Sanjay Jain, then counsel for Centre, said that the L-G need not consider the government’s proposal because the government does not have powers to make a proposal in this issue to begin with.

The Centre is relying on the 1989 Balakrishnan commission report that recommended an elected legislative assembly but not full statehood for Delhi. The commission report also prompted the incorporation of Article 239AA of the Constitution which grants statehood to Delhi. Sanjay Jain has referred to the capital models of Paris, London and Tokyo which the Balakrishnan commission recommends.

But the Delhi government is relying on the Sarkaria Commission report that came in 1983 on the Centre-state relations. The commission recommends greater autonomy to the states.

The Centre however has consistently held the stand that Delhi enjoys a special position and the L-G here performs an executive role as against a governor of state, who performs mostly ceremonial functions.

There have also been disputes over AAP government’s decision to nominate new directors to the boards of the three power distribution companies and its three-fold increase in the circle rates of agricultural land. The alleged irregularities in the Delhi and District Cricket Association could be another addition to the court cases as the inquiry progresses.

The Centre-state tussle is on, but the good news is that these cases are moving at a faster pace. Sanjay Jain and Krishnan have been quick to file their affidavits and ask for early dates for hearings. It is clear that the Delhi high court has assigned high priority to these cases as it has tagged together all Centre-state cases and moved them to the bench of justices G. Rohini and Jayant Nath.

The only way that accusations and rebuttals between the state government and the Centre will end is when the court decides on the distribution of power between the two constitutional bodies. Till then, we can only try to get used to the melee.

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