Is this Delhi’s tyranny of the unelected?
Fortunately for politicians, public memory is short. If that were not the case, then the many inconsistent stands they take on important moments in history – based simply on their party’s self-interest – would surely rob them of the last vestiges of their credibility.
Consider for instance, the shifting and diametrically opposite stances struck by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress on the much talked about ‘tyranny of the unelected.’ The stark inconsistencies revealed by both parties at different points in their respective political trajectories suggest their singular lack of belief in and commitment to the basic principles of electoral democracy.
Such periodic and cynical reversal of stands has now manifested itself in the latest (of many) face-offs defining relations between BJP and its bête noire – the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), ever since the latter came to power in Delhi two years ago. The latest trigger is a recent court decision that severely limits the administrative powers of the elected state government. BJP leaders have been crowing with delight over Thursday’s Delhi High Court ruling certifying Delhi as a Union Territory, subject to the administrative control of the Lt. Governor above the Delhi legislator.
In a clear rebuff to the AAP’s bid to claim its powers as an elected government, the court ruling has nullified all its major decision-making powers. That the AAP is not willing to let the matter rest here is hardly surprising.
Informing the public that his party intends to take the dispute to Supreme Court, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia has said: “This is not a battle of the Lieutenant Governor versus the Chief Minister. This is a battle of ‘we the people’. It is a battle between the selected and the elected.” He has correctly pointed out the redundancy of elections itself, if legislators chosen by the electorate, are stripped of powers to take decisions of any significance.
Since Delhi’s Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung is a nominee of the central government and not elected by the people, the court decision draws attention to the contentious problem of a ‘tyranny of the unelected’ in the National Capital. The present controversy provokes a simple question: why have elections in Delhi at all? And if the answer has anything to do with the recognition that, as the country’s Capital, Delhi holds a status distinct from other Union Territories, then by that same argument, Delhi should be granted full statehood. Moreover, it’s democratically elected government – no matter from which party – should be allowed to function without being superseded by a non-elected state functionary.
Is Delhi then witnessing a ‘tyranny of the unelected?’ Strangely (or perhaps not to strangely in our fickle political culture,) Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had, not very long ago, strongly criticised the very same concept he today disregards in a Facebook post. This was after the Supreme Court rejected the National Judicial appointments Commission (NJAC) and the 99th Constitutional Amendment as “unconstitutional and void.” In his post titled ‘The NJAC Judgement – An Alternative View’, Jaitley, wrote: “A constitutional court, while interpreting the Constitution, had to base the judgment on constitutional principles. There is no constitutional principle that democracy and its institutions has to be saved from elected representatives. … The Indian democracy cannot be a tyranny of the unelected and if the elected are undermined, democracy itself would be in danger.” And yet, what does Jaitley say today?
Equally paradoxically, we should remember that before the inception of the AAP as political party, the Congress – then heading a coalition at the Centre – blasted anti-corruption activists for unleashing a ‘tyranny of the unelected.’ Senior party leaders described the architect of the movement, Anna Hazare, as a ‘tyrant,’ and Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said: “If this country and democracy has any threat, it is from the unelected tyrants. If democracy faces its greatest peril, it is from the tyranny of the unelected and unelectable.”
And now consider the turmoil unfolding in Delhi today. Unsurprisingly, the Congress’s position has flipped. Following the Delhi High Court ruling, Congress leader Sharmistha Mukherjee told IANS, "Kejriwal has wasted 18 months of his governance in a standstill mode and in this duration he has only manufactured conflict with the LG. It is just Kejriwal’s desire to have more power than what has been given to him by the Constitution.”
Although both the BJP and the Congress once exhorted Arvind Kerjiwal and his fellow travellers to join the fray of electoral politics, jettisoning a ‘tyranny of the unelected,’ today it is convenient for both these national parties to forget their own stand on the issue. Perhaps this is because neither national party has a stand, but only uses these opportunities to score political points against the rivals. The ongoing fracas in Delhi is therefore a good illustration of the sad state of the Indian political class and its abandonment of principles for political one-upmanship.