Lieutenant-Governor Anil Baijal (right) and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal at the Delhi Assembly. Photo: The Times of India / Piyal Bhattacharjee

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Delhi’s locally elected government won a major victory against the Narendra Modi-led federal government on Wednesday as India’s Supreme Court weighed in their favor in a landmark judgment. A bench consisting of five judges ruled unambiguously that the federal government could no longer remote-control decisions, since the local elected government was the true representative of the people.

This judgment resolves a decades-old conundrum where New Delhi, being the national capital, was controlled by the federal government while the local state government was left to carry out largely ceremonial functions. This, the Supreme Court ruled, was against India’s democratic principles.

Interestingly, the judgment will also boost the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a maverick political group that came into existence just five years ago and managed to capture power in Delhi.

Led by Arvind Kejriwal, a former income-tax official who became an activist before transitioning into politics, the AAP has been locked into mortal combat with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Despite the wave that swept Modi into power in 2014 with the first majority government in 30 years, Kejriwal managed to hold his own.

In 2015, barely a year after Modi conquered New Delhi, the AAP won 67 seats in a state with 70 assembly berths. This stunned the BJP and gave rise to a series of bitter confrontations. The federal government used the office of the lieutenant-governor, a position it controls, to ensure that Kejriwal and his government were reduced to mere figureheads while most of their decisions were nullified by the lieutenant-governor.

The AAP went to the Delhi High Court, but lost the case. It immediately filed an appeal last year, and the Supreme Court, in a five-judge bench ruling led by the chief justice of India, Dipak Misra, reminded the litigants that the will of the citizens was supreme.

The 535-page judgment, which Kejriwal hailed as a victory for the people of Delhi and democracy, severely restricts the scope of the lieutenant-governor’s powers, and holds that the latter must act according to the aid and advice of the elected state government.

Wednesday’s ruling came on the Delhi government’s appeal against the Delhi High Court’s 2016 judgment that the lieutenant-governor had the power to act independently, and that his decisions would prevail over those of Delhi’s elected government.

An ecstatic Kejriwal called the ruling a “big moral victory for the people of Delhi … a big victory for democracy.” He immediately announced a meeting with his cabinet colleagues to review all the projects that had been blocked by the lieutenant-governor.

For the BJP, which faced a humiliating electoral defeat in Delhi nearly four years ago, this judgment comes as a major setback. It has been steadily losing elections in key constituencies, leading to a loss in numbers in Parliament.

Political observers are also predicting that the “Modi wave” of 2014 has not only dissipated, but is on a downward spiral as a lack of jobs and a sputtering economy have eroded Modi’s hold considerably. This judgment further erodes the BJP’s hold in the most symbolic state in India. This vulnerability opens up many possibilities for the opposition parties as they prepare for the general elections slated for 2019.

Significant ruling

For the last four years the AAP has attempted to change the rules of governance by ushering in fairly innovative schemes. It created health clinics in local communities that could provide primary health care at affordable prices. It changed the face of the public schools, making heavy investments in infrastructure and training of teachers. The results became apparent when children from government schools started posting impressive results in government-conducted examinations.

For the first time in India, publicly funded schools began to match the performance of expensive private schools. The Modi government hit back by dismissing consultants hired by the AAP government for implementing their health, finance and education schemes.

However, because of the state also being the national capital, the federal government will continue to have full command over the police and a few other key functions. This is due to provisions in the Indian constitution that accord a special status to the state. A month ago, after an altercation between elected representatives of the AAP and Delhi’s top bureaucrat, the chief secretary, all key officials declared a virtual strike.

For now, the Supreme Court and has also ruled that the BJP-led federal government can’t misuse the lieutenant-governor’s position for targeting the elected state government, and it will hear further details of the case later.

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