As the administration of Delhi plunged into another cycle of uncertainty following the Supreme Court order, a retired bureaucrat mentioned an interesting anecdote to this writer. “Sheila ji would address officers as sons and make them work much harder than ever their fathers could have done,” he said.
Sheila Dikshit’s success story in Delhi was largely based on her ability to galvanise city bureaucracy to implement her vision for the city’s development. Not to be forgotten that during her time too, the bureaucracy was under the supervision and superintendence of the Centre.
The fight which current Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is waging over the Ordinance, issued by the Centre, restoring control of bureaucracy to the lieutenant governor (LG), is at best just of academic significance and to score some brownie points in a politically surcharged atmosphere. The Ordinance was issued after a Supreme Court order following a decade-long legal battle, which said that the elected government had control over transfers and postings of officers in the absence of any specific law. The Ordinance has restored the status quo ante and reinstated powers to the LG.
The SC, in its wisdom, gave such powers to Arvind Kejriwal which were never enjoyed by any of his predecessors — Sheila Dikshit, Sushma Swaraj, Sahib Singh Verma and Madan Lal Khurana. These seasoned politicians did not ever have any serious problems with the bureaucracy. One cannot recall them bringing any charge against officers working at the behest of the Centre.
In 1998, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost and the Congress came to power in Delhi, there was some discomfort in bureaucracy regarding how their association with the previous government would be viewed. On taking over as chief minister, the first thing Sheila Dikshit did was to appoint S Reghunathan, an important functionary in the outgoing government, as her principal secretary. Reghunathan was to remain a very strong bureaucrat for the large part of her tenure, rising to become the chief secretary.
Later during her tenure, she appointed Shakti Sinha, a private secretary to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as her government’s powerful principal secretary of finance and power. When some people asked why a ‘BJP-dyed’ bureaucrat was being given such a high position, Dikshit had an interesting point to make. “He (Shakti Sinha) had tremendous exposure working in the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) and why should I lose out on utilising his experience when I am getting the opportunity?” Dikshit, who had herself worked as a minister in charge of the PMO during Rajiv Gandhi’s term, had said. Despite the cadre control of the officers with the Central government and the LG, their loyalty to her remains legendary.
At no point of time since Independence it has been envisaged that Delhi would ever get the status of a full-fledged state and that its administration would be outside the control of the Centre. During the Constitution Assembly debates, Dr BR Ambedkar had mentioned, “So far as Delhi is concerned, it seems to us that as the Capital of India, it can hardly be placed under a local administration. In the United States, Congress exercises exclusive legislative power in respect of the seat of the government; so too in Australia. No sufficient reasons for departing from these precedents.”
Administrative arrangements in Delhi in the subsequent years have never departed in spirit from the enunciations made by Ambedkar. Keeping with this spirit, in 1991, when the Congress government led by Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao sanctioned the present form of governance for Delhi with a cabinet and assembly, it still withheld powers to transfer and post officers with the LG. This was provided for under the ‘Transactions of Business Rules.’
Even in the period between 2004 and 2013, when we had the Congress-led government both at the Centre and in Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, despite being a very tall political personality, appreciated her official position being insubordinate to that of the LG’s office. During those days too, the LG met the Chief Secretary independently, largely to take stock of governance, as he would meet the Commissioner of Police for a brief on law and order.
The current chief minister of Delhi is doing his best to project the whole issue through a political prism. He is making it into an issue of shrinking space for federalism in the country. However, as explained above, no liberal federal space was ever envisioned for Delhi and the present Ordinance is in the same spirit as was delineated by BR Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly deliberations.
The Congress has made the right moves by not immediately committing to oppose the Ordinance in the name of Opposition unity. There is still some time before the placing and passing of the Ordinance in the Parliament.
Politically too, the weakening of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would help the Congress retrieve its lost political space. The most recent evidence of this being Karnataka, where a weakened JD(S) added sinews to the Congress helping it emerge much stronger politically. Lastly, given the seriousness of corruption charges against the AAP dispensation, with ministers languishing in jail, the Delhi government, through the issue of the Ordinance, may be trying to deflect from these cases.
The writer is an author and president, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice. Views expressed are personal.