Kerala Bharatiya Janata Party leader KJ Alphons’ phone did not stop ringing on Wednesday. The former bureaucrat gave dozens of telephonic interviews to media persons and received several calls from his BJP colleagues congratulating him over his appointment as administrator of the Union Territory of Chandigarh.
The decision had come as a surprise, given that for 32 years now, the governor of Punjab has also functioned as the administrator of Chandigarh, which is the state’s shared capital with Haryana. But even as its pros and cons were being evaluated, the news came later on Wednesday that Alphons’ formal appointment had been put on hold following objections raised by Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal, which is in an alliance with the BJP.
Alphons, who had earlier told the media that Singh had personally informed him to be ready to take over as administrator as early as possible, had to later announce that he had received a call from BJP President Amit Shah telling him that the decision had been put on hold. And on Thursday evening, it was announced that VP Singh Badnore, the governor-designate of Punjab, would be given additional charge of Chandigarh as well.
Hue and cry
The uproar over Alphons’ appointment, coming as it did just six months before next year’s Assembly elections in Punjab, was hardly surprising. Predictably, the Congress, which is the opposition party in the state, and the Aam Aadmi Party, which is contesting the elections here next year, lost no time in attacking the Akali Dal for not being able to protect the interests of the state.
This compelled the Akalis to pressurise the BJP, their junior partner in the Punjab, to revoke the appointment. Chief minister Badal was said to have registered his protest with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, claiming that the appointment of an independent administrator for Chandigarh would dilute his state’s claim over the union territory.
This contention, however, is a little far-fetched. Badal's claim that the union territory had traditionally remained under the control of the Punjab governor and is its “legitimate right” that will be "diluted" is a distortion of facts.
When Haryana was carved out of Punjab in 1966, it was proposed that Chandigarh would be the shared capital of the two states until Haryana builds its own capital city – something that it has been unable to do so far, owing shortage of funds.
Since then, the two states have been frequently locked in dispute over their claims on Chandigarh as well as sharing of resources, including water. The disputes are pending for half a century and are now only used as political rhetoric before elections.
What Badal chose to ignore was that the decision to give the Punjab governor additional charge of Chandigarh was taken under peculiar circumstances and much after the reorganisation of the states in 1966.
The rise of militancy in Punjab in the 1970s and ’80s, which spilled over to Chandigarh, prompted the Centre to give the additional charge of the union territory to Punjab in June 1984. The idea was to have a common authority in both administrative areas to deal with violence through quick and seamless operations. Prior to that, the union territory had been under the direct control of the Centre, with a senior IAS officer, preferably someone from the union territory, as chief commissioner.
The system of chief commissioner was abolished just before Operation Bluestar was launched on June 6 – when the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government ordered the army to enter the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, and oust militants led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Prior to that, in the light of increasing militancy, the Centre had, in 1983, implemented the Disturbed Areas Act and Armed Forces Special Powers Act in in Punjab and Chandigarh.
Therefore, the decision to give the charge of Chandigarh to the Punjab governor was not owing to any kind of traditional hold that the state enjoyed over the Union territory – it was taken purely because of to particular circumstances and for administrative convenience.
Conversely, taking the charge away from the Punjab governor does not dilute the state’s claim over the union territory – because it never had any claim, so to speak, and the state continues to be the shared capital of Punjab and Haryana. However, it had all the ingredients to be made an election issue, giving AAP and Congress the chance to paint the Akali Dal as inefficient and incapable of upholding the interests of the state, and cornering the ruling party into saving face by blocking the appointment.
In all this, the concerns of the residents of Chandigarh, who would prefer an administrator who is accessible and has the time and inclination to take up responsibility of the city have been forgotten. Even the Chandigarh unit of the BJP had been demanding an independent administrator and its chief, Sanjay Tandon was among the first to congratulate Alphons when news of his appointment came.
The outgoing Punjab governor Kaptan Signh Solanki, for instance, is also the governor of Haryana and has additional charge of Chandigarh. And with the announcement that Badnore will function as Punjab governor and Chandigarh administrator shows that status quo will be maintained – possibly, to the disadvantage of India's "City Beautiful."