Earlier this week, the Centre refused permission to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to travel to Denmark to participate in the C40 summit of leaders of mega cities to discuss climate change. Kejriwal was scheduled to board the flight on Tuesday afternoon but failed to get the statutory clearance from the external affairs ministry.
A ministry spokesperson told reporters that the decision to deny permission for Kejriwal’s trip was taken keeping in mind the designations of the other participants in the event: most of the other people attending the meet were mayors and the Indian government believed that Chief Minister Kejriwal was overqualified for the event. The Delhi chief minister was scheduled to talk about his city’s battles with severe air pollution.
As per the prevailing rules, chief ministers and ministers of state governments are required to receive approval from the external affairs ministry for foreign trips they are undertaking in an official capacity. This is ostensibly to ensure that India presents a united foreign policy message.
This arrangement between the states and the Centre is expected to function in good faith. When a chief minister requests permission to travel outside India, the decision on the clearance should be made without political considerations and based on merit. Else, the federal equation will be in tatters.
The reason proffered by the Centre to reguse Kejriwal permission to travel lacks credibility. On the one hand, the chief minister faces a domestic situation where his demands for Delhi to be given the status of a full-fledged state have been repeatedly denied. As the chief executive of India’s capital, Kejriwal’s powers are perhaps even weaker than those of mayors of some other major global cities. He is put at the mercy of a lieutenant governor, a representative of the Centre, to have many of his policies implemented. There is also an elected municipal structure that could bring projects to a standstill for political reasons.
While the external affairs ministry seemed to suggest that the chief minister would be demeaned by speaking at a conference of mayors, it has not taken into account is Kejriwal’s unique position as Delhi’s top executive to share his experiences of combating air pollution with other city leaders. Besides, if the Centre believed that the event wasn’t commensurate with Kejriwal’s position, the decision to participate should have been left up to him.
The Aam Aadmi Party has pointed out that former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was given permission to participate in the same event some years ago.
If the Centre is to avoid allegations that it has acted in bad faith, it should at the least offer reasonable explanations when it uses its veto powers on foreign travel.