Opinion

Uncooperative federalism: Kiran Bedi bullying Puducherry’s elected government harms Indian democracy

Modi once called it the Delhi Sultanate. But today, he has become a mirror of the Congress' tendency to overcentralise power.

Former police officer and Bharatiya Janata Party member Kiran Bedi fought to be Delhi’s chief minister in 2015, only to be swept aside by a massive Aam Aadmi Party win. Instead, she was assigned to another Union territory by the Modi government. In May 2016, Bedi was appointed the lieutenant governor of Puducherry.

With a democratically elected government, one would assume being Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry would be a largely ceremonial post. Bedi, though, has made it clear she had other plans. The lieutenant governor’s role “is of an administrator,” she told the Press Trust of India in an interview. “And a functioning lieutenant governor. Not a figurehead, as they [Puducherry government] want me to be. For they said so in their last meeting. I told them please read my responsibilities as specified as an administrator”.

Bedi is legally correct. However, her actions might fall short of what is democratically ethical. Given that Puducherry has a duly-elected government, the fact that its government is run by a person appointed by New Delhi is a disenfranchisement of its electorate.

Delhi redux

If this case seems familiar, it is because it is. Ever since Arvind Kejriwal was elected chief minister, the Union government has been fighting a bitter battle with the Delhi government over how much power the territory’s elected Assembly enjoys over the affairs of the National Capital Territory. The legal question at the core of this was settled by a August, 2016 ruling of the Delhi High Court, which came down on the side of the Union government. The judgement made it clear that Delhi was still a Union territory – not a state – and the lieutenant governor was to act as the administrator. In effect, the Delhi High Court made it clear that the appointed lieutenant governor outranked the democratically elected government of Delhi.

In Puducherry, the tussle between the lieutenant governor and the chief minister started with the popular messaging app, Whatsapp. On January 2, Puducherry chief minister V. Narayanswamy had barred bureaucrats from using social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Twitter for official communication citing security concerns, since the servers were located outside the country. On January 5, Bedi overturned the order, arguing that using email over WhatsApp was “retrograde”. “WhatsApp comes right on your phone as an sms, while in e-mail, unless you open your account, you won’t be able to read the message,” wrote Bedi.

Both the chief minister and Bedi were making up excuses. Email is no more secure than Whatsapp, as the chief minister argued. and as anyone who has used a smartphone would know, it’s pretty easy to get push notifications for emails in much the same way as instant messages.

The real reason was a mirror of the one in Delhi: who would bureaucrats report to. Bedi has been communicating with officers using Whatsapp, even suspending one for accidentally posting an obscene video on an official Whatsapp group. By banning Whatsapp for official purposes, Narayanswamy hoped to hinder Bedi’s power. Bedi, of course, was quick to nip this attempt in the bud, making it clear that social media would be an acceptable medium to carry out official communication. To make the matter crystal clear, she even posted her decision on social media, tagging the prime minister (Modi did not reply).

Top-heavy power structure

In the next few days, Bedi would publicly underline her role as administrator, making it clear that it would be her prerogative to consult with Puducherry’s elected Assembly. She even claimed that the budget would see inputs from her. “I am not planning to run my office as a post-office,” she told the Indian Express.

That an appointed official has more power than Puducherry’s own legally elected representatives is a stark example of the overcentralisation that lies at the heart of India’s constitutional system. This includes examples like article 356 – President’s rule – and weak powers to states to raise finances.

Till the 1970s, the Union government would dismiss elected state governments at will, making short work of democratic mandates for personal political gains. It was only the rise of strong state-based parties and a shift in the legal meaning of President’s rule which means that the provision has been used more sparingly of late.

BJP’s u-turn on federalism

In fact, the BJP, which unlike the Congress came to New Delhi via the states, was on paper a strong votary of federalism. Unfortunately, Narendra Modi’s near-three year term has seen him renege on his promise of cooperative federalism. In, 2016, the Modi government imposed central rule on Uttarakhand as well as Arunachal Pradesh and it was only due to some strict action by the Supreme Court that democracy could be restored in both places.

Even as President’s Rule was shut off as an option, the Union government’s vast powers meant it could still curtail the rights of other governments by other means. This has meant the Prime Minister’s Office keeping a close watch on the Delhi government and the use of the Central Bureau of Investigation as a tool of political expediency (even as, ironically, the CBI has itself been declared unconstitutional by the Gauhati High court in 2013).

After nearly three years in power it seems quite clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party has gone back on its promise of cooperative federalism. When it comes to centralising power and ignoring democracy in India’s states and union territories, its quite clear that the BJP is simply no different from the Congress of Indira Gandhi.

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