AMONG the world’s megacities, Delhi, India’s capital, has a good claim to several dubious distinctions: foulest air, hottest summer, most precarious water supply. It is currently in the running for a new distinction, too: the world’s most dysfunctional metropolis. As a dust-storm swirled earlier this month, its chief minister and other elected officials held a sit-in and hunger strike at the residence of the lieutenant-governor, who is appointed by the central government. The main opposition leaders held a similar protest at the chief minister’s office. And the city’s top-ranking bureaucrats pursued a work-to-rule boycott of their elected bosses.
Considering the way Delhi’s government is set up, it is a wonder that the city functions at all. Like India’s 29 states, Delhi is run by a government drawn from an elected assembly. In contrast to the states’, however, the powers it exercises are severely restricted. The unelected lieutenant-governor must sign off on nearly any appointment or expenditure. Delhi has no police force of its own: its finest answer not to any local official but directly to the national government. Unlike Indian states, Delhi cannot run its own civil service: the city’s administrators are appointed, transferred or sacked at the whim of the (national) home ministry. Yet the city government is expected to provide schools, health care, water, sewage and other services.
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This unfair division has created trouble for decades. But the fallout has been limited because the party running the capital has often happened to be the same as the one in charge of the national government. For ten of the 15 years before the last election in Delhi, in 2015, for instance, the Congress party held sway in both.
In that election, however, the Aam Aadmi party (AAP), an upstart anti-corruption group, swept out the Congress and all other rivals, capturing an unprecedented 67 of 70 seats in the Delhi assembly. An equally dramatic sweep the year before had seen the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win power at the centre. The stage was set for a test of wills.
The clash between the parties was not so obvious at first as the AAP, fired by reformist zeal, focused on local affairs. The party is widely acknowledged to have brought rapid improvements to local services. Delhi public schools now produce some of the country’s best exam results for state institutions. A network of local clinics for the poor has won praise as a model for public health. Ordinary Delhi-wallahs say petty corruption in services provided by the city has been drastically curtailed.
But as the AAP and Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, showed growing ambitions in national rather than local politics, the BJP has grown more hostile. “Every instrument of central government control has been used against us,” says Atishi Marlena, a former adviser. “We are outsiders, we don’t represent business as usual, so they are determined to stop us.”
Delhi police have routinely blocked AAP events, arrested its workers, and charged its members of the assembly with petty offences. The home ministry, say AAP supporters, has handicapped the city administration by serially declining to appoint bureaucrats to vacant posts, transferring those judged sympathetic to the AAP and installing BJP loyalists instead. Under the BJP the city’s lieutenant-governors have routinely cancelled appointments and vetoed proposals, even for projects vetted by the bureaucrats appointed by the home ministry.
Ms Marlena, who claimed a token salary of just one rupee, was among nine experts dismissed in April on the grounds that the home ministry had not approved the creation of their posts, several of which had existed under previous governments. In another instance the lieutenant-governor cancelled a carefully conceived project to improve the distribution of medicines with the terse note, “I am not sure this is a good idea.”
The AAP’s riposte is to agitate for Delhi to gain full statehood. That campaign, of course, will be another alluring target for the saboteurs in the central government.