For years, the Delhi unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party campaigned for the national capital to be declared a full state, rather than a Union Territory with an elected assembly. Since Arvind Kejriwal has taken over as chief minister, that demand has not only been dropped – it has also led to an effort to take power away from Delhi’s elected leadership.

On Monday, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre tabled the National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in Parliament. The proposed law would significantly expand the powers of the Centre-appointed Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, at the cost of the elected assembly. Among other things, the Bill proposes that the term “government” in the law that underpins the functioning of Delhi refers to the Lieutenant Governor and not the elected leadership.

The Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government has criticised the Bill calling it “dangerous”. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said that it sought to “drastically curtail powers of the elected government”.

BJP leaders from Delhi had various explanations for the move.

One Member of Legislative Assembly said it had nothing to with granting or revoking full statehood to Delhi. “There is nothing new in this,” claimed Vijendar Gupta, a BJP MLA from Rohini in North West Delhi. “If there was something new then there would be a constitutional amendment,” he said.

Another, however, said Kejriwal’s actions had prompted the BJP to drop the statehood demand entirely.

“There is no denying that full statehood was our demand,” said Praveen Shankar Kapoor, a BJP spokesperson. “After 2014, with the onset of Arvind Kejriwal, and his autocratic behaviour, we have realised that the national capital has to be a Union Territory whatever the cost may be,” he said.

Kapoor said that Kejriwal had “damaged the concept” of full statehood.

“There were clashes [between AAP and the Lieutenant Governor] everyday,” he said. “We would’ve surely tried for the long standing demand for statehood in Delhi but you cannot misbehave with authorities.”

Another MLA said that the aim of the Bill was to clarify the powers among various authorities in Delhi. “The powers between LG and CM should be clear,” said Abhay Verma, the BJP MLA from Laxmi Nagar in East Delhi.

“It is better than fighting,” said Verma, referring to the tussle between the Lieutenant Governor and the Delhi government. “No one’s powers will be lessened. It is not a big deal. It is just a technical thing. It just resolves governance issues.”

Statehood or Union Territory?

Delhi has an elected assembly, which has been dominated by the Aam Aadmi Party for six years now. The party posted consecutive landslide victories in 2015 and 2020, with the BJP in a distant second place both times.

This has meant, however, that AAP’s tenure since 2015 has been marked by constant tussles between the government and the Centre, primarily through the office of the Lieutenant Governor. In addition to that, the tensions have continued as the Centre controls of land, public order and the Delhi Police.

At the core of the issue is Article 239AA of the Indian Constitution, which gives Delhi the special character of a Union Territory, with a Legislative Assembly that has a lieutenant governor as its administrative head.

In 2014, Harsh Vardhan said that the Bharatiya Janata Party had supported Delhi's statehood demand for five dcades. Credit: Harsh Vardhan via Twitter

In 1993, Chief Minister Madan Lal Khurana had advocated full statehood for Delhi. While in power in Delhi, both the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998 and Congress governments from 2000 till 2015 demanded full statehood.

During the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the BJP’s Delhi unit prepared a manifesto specific to the capital and listed full statehood as one of its election promises. As the party released its manifesto that year, Harsh Vardhan, who is now Union Health Minister, had said that the party had stood by the demand for five decades, according to an Economic Times report.

“A Bill in this regard was introduced in parliament when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, but it could not be made into a law after a report was not filed on time by the select committee,” said Vardhan, according to the report.

“This election which is being fought to make Narendra Modi the prime minister of the country, the first thing we will demand from him is to give the status of full statehood to Delhi,” he said.

Since AAP came to power, however, the tug-of-war between Kejriwal and the Centre led the BJP to give its former support for statehood a quiet burial. AAP in turn, used full statehood as its primary election agenda in the Lok Sabha polls of 201, but it did not resonate as much with voters, and the party lost all seven seats in the capital.

After the Aam Aadmi Party decided to take the judicial route, the Supreme Court in 2019 delivered a split verdict on the issue. The court referred question of who controls the bureaucrats to a larger bench, while asserting that some powers – like appointing special public prosecutors, making electricity reforms and revision rates for agricultural land – would lie in the hands of the Delhi government.

J&K vs Delhi

Meanwhile, as the ruling Aam Aadmi Party continues to criticise the Bill, many Twitter users pointed out that the party had supported the BJP-led Centre’s abrogation of Article 370, which hollowed out the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019. Crucially, the BJP at the time also downgraded Jammu and Kashmir from a state into a Union Territory, taking powers away from the state’s elected representatives and giving it over to leaders at the Centre.

But Aam Aadmi Party members insisted that it was unfair to draw a comparison – and lashed out at those asking the question.

“It is a border state and there is a lot of difference between J&K and Delhi,” said Saurabh Bharadwaj, an MLA from Greater Kailash in South Delhi.

“Those who are bringing up this issue are Congress-leaning journalists,” he alleged. “What we can compare is Puducherry to Delhi.”

Bharadwaj claimed the Bill was being brought in to “cripple” the Delhi government. “They created the whole Shaheen Bagh issue [during Assembly elections] and lost,” he said. “They lost the MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi] polls and are now demoralised. They feel that they will not come back to power in Delhi.”