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(This is a guest post by Vasudev Devadasan.)

We have already discussed on this blog (here) the long delays that the Delhi v Union of India case has been subject to. With the hearings due to commence this Wednesday, this post will provide a recap of the constitutional issues raised by the Delhi Government’s tussle with the Centre, and the Delhi High Court’s decision in favour of the latter.

Soon after being elected, the Delhi government had taken issue with a Home Ministry notification that allowed the Lt. Governor to make appointments relating to ‘services’ (under this, the Chief Secretary had been appointed without the Chief Minister of Delhi being consulted.) The dispute escalated when several initiatives of the Delhi government (including commissions of inquiry set up to investigate corruption in certain sectors) were attacked on the grounds that they hadn’t received approval of the Lt. Governor. The controversy stemmed from Delhi’s unique position under Article 239AA and centred around the role of the Lt. Governor of Delhi (a central government appointee).

Barring a few exceptions (e.g. police and land) Article 239AA gives the legislative assembly of Delhi competence to pass laws on matters in List II and III of the seventh schedule. Notably, the appointment of the Chief Secretary fell under Entry 41 of List II (‘services’). The Delhi government argued that on matters which it was competent to legislate on, the Lt. Governor was bound to act on the ‘aid and advice’ of the elected government. Additionally, as he was a ‘rubber-stamp’ authority, there was no need for the Delhi government to secure the Lt. Governor’s approval on these matters. Thus, the Home Ministry notification empowering the Lt. Governor to make appointments was ultra vires, and the initiatives taken by the Cabinet were valid irrespective of whether it received the Lt. Governor’s approval.

The central government contended that Article 239AA did not take away the legislative supremacy of parliament to pass laws with respect to Union Territories (the default position under the Constitution) and the Lt. Governor, as an appointee of the central government, was the executive head of Delhi. Thus, the Lt. Governor was not bound to act on the ‘aid and advice’ of the Delhi government and every decision passed by the Cabinet was subject to the Lt. Governor’s approval.

The relevant provisions of Article 239 and 239AA are as follows:

  • Article 239 (1): Save as otherwise provided by Parliament by law, every Union territory shall be administered by the President acting, to such extent as he thinks fit, through an administrator to be appointed by him with such designation as he may specify.
  • Article 239AA (2a): There shall be a Legislative Assembly for the National Capital Territory and the seats in such Assembly shall be filled by members chosen by direct election from territorial constituencies in the National Capital Territory.
  • Article 239AA (3): Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the Legislative Assembly shall have power to make laws for the whole or any part of the National Capital Territory with respect to any of the matters enumerated in the State List or in the Concurrent List in so far as any such matter is applicable to Union territories except matters with respect to Entries 1, 2 and 18 of the State List and Entries 64, 65 and 66 of that List in so far as they relate to the said Entries 1, 2 and 18.
  • Article 239AA (4): There shall be a Council of Ministers consisting of not more than ten per cent. of the total number of members in the Legislative Assembly, with the Chief Minister at the head to aid and advise the Lieutenant Governor in the exercise of his functions in relation to matters with respect to which the Legislative Assembly has power to make laws, except in so far as he is, by or under any law, required to act in his discretion

Provided that in the case of difference of opinion between the Lieutenant Governor and his Ministers on any matter, the Lieutenant Governor shall refer it to the President for decision and act according to the decision given thereon by the President […]

Determining the scope of this Article, the Delhi High Court (the correctness of which will now be argued this week) effectively threw the book at the Delhi government, upholding all the principal submissions of the Centre and holding that the Lt. Governor is the executive head of Delhi. Let us examine the crux of the High Court’s reasoning.

Constitutional Position of Delhi

The High Court spent a notable amount of time emphasising that Delhi continues to be a Union Territory and not a “state”. The Centre was also understandably keen to highlight this narrative, because Article 246(4) grants parliament plenary power to legislate on all three lists of the seventh schedule for union territories, and Article 239(1) vests the administration of union territories in the President. Thus, it stands to reason that if Delhi were a ‘union territory’ simpliciter there would be no question of whether the Lt. Governor did or did not have complete executive powers.

However, Delhi is not a ‘union territory’ simpliciter. To provide some context, when the Constitution was originally enacted India was divided into Part A states, Part B states, Part C states, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Delhi was a ‘Part C’ state alongside the likes Coorg, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura. The States Reorganisation Commission ultimately removed the very conception of a ‘Part C’ state as ‘neither financially viable nor functionally efficient’. Thus, the Constitution, after the Seventh Amendment, came to recognise only two types of territories: states and union territories.

However – and this is the bone of contention – with the insertion of Article 239AA, Delhi entered a unique constitutional phase. The statement of objects and reasons attached to the bill inserting Article 239AA notes that while Delhi continues to be a union territory, it must be given an elected government capable of responding to the concerns of its citizens.

In its judgment, the High Court quoted extensively from the case of NDMC v Punjab to conclude that while Delhi has a unique setup for a union territory, ‘it is certainly not a state’ and is thus governed by Article 246(4) (which allows Parliament to make laws for any area included within a “state”). However, to acknowledge that the Constitution itself creates a legislature accountable to the people of Delhi, and yet argue that because Delhi continues to be a union territory parliament must retain plenary power on all matters, is attempting to push a square peg into a round hole. One has only to look at the other territories that were originally ‘Part C’ states to recognise that there exists a certain fluidity in the classification of territories. Article 239AA itself acknowledges the unique situation of Delhi by providing both parliament (Article 239AA (3)) and the President (proviso to Article 239AA(4)) a stake in the administration of Delhi. Thus, the contours of Article 239AA are a better place to look if understanding the constitutional position of Delhi is what is required.

‘Aid and advise’

Delhi has three political players: the elected legislative assembly, the council of ministers who are accountable to the legislative assembly, and the Lt. Governor, in whose name all decisions regarding the governance of Delhi are taken. A similar setup exists for Presidents at the national level and Governors at the state level. In examining the interaction between these actors, the Supreme Court in Shamsher Singh held that the President and the Governor are legally bound to act on the ‘aid and advice’ of the council of ministers.

One might have argued that the Lt. Governor is akin to a Governor of a state with respect to a union territory, and that would have been the end of the matter. However, there are slight differences between the President, the Governor, and the Lt. Governor. Article 74 states that the President ‘shall act in accordance with the advice tendered’ by the council of ministers, foreclosing the debate on its binding nature. Article 163 notes that at the state level, the council of ministers shall ‘aid and advise’ the Governor, except where he is required by the constitution to act on his own discretion. In the case of Delhi, Article 239AA (4) (above) lays out an arrangement whereby the council of ministers shall ‘aid and advise’ the Lt. Governor, except where he is required by statute to act on his discretion. The article also allows the Lt. Governor to, in event of a disagreement between him and the council of ministers, refer the matter to the President.

According to the High Court, these differences demonstrate that the relationship between a Governor and a state council of ministers, and the Lt. Governor and the Delhi council of ministers are materially different. Firstly, the Lt. Governor’s discretion extends to instances permitted by ordinary statute (as opposed to the Constitution, like the Governor), and secondly, the Lt. Governor can reference a ‘difference of opinion’ between himself and the council of ministers to the President. The fact that such a difference can exist was enough for the High Court to hold that the Lt. Governor was not bound by the ‘aid and advice’ of the council of ministers, who had to secure his approval on all matters.

Effectively, what the Court was doing was engaging in is a structural reading of the Constitution. Rather than focus on the text of specific provisions, it used the arrangement of several provisions to determine the ‘institutional arrangements’ that the Constitution contemplates. The reasoning of the Court, however, runs into several obstacles.

Firstly, it is understood that the exercise of discretion by a state Governor is not limited to instances where the constitution expressly authorises it but extends to situations where ‘by necessary implication’ he must exercise it. Secondly, an exhaustive list of when the Lt. Governor of Delhi can exercise his discretion is provided in Section 41 of the GNCTD Act. Importantly, Section 41 of that Act limits his discretion to ‘matters which fall outside the purview of the powers conferred on the Legislative Assembly’. Thus, while an instinctive resort to a hierarchy of authorities (where the Constitution is sacrosanct vis-à-vis ordinary legislation) might lead one to think that the Lt. Governor has been provided more discretion, an actual examination of the relationship shows that he is in a materially similar position to that of a state governor.

The Delhi government had also used structural interpretation to contend that because Delhi has an elected legislative assembly and a council of ministers, the Lt. Governor was no different from a state governor and, under the Shamsher Singh decision, was bound by the decision of the council of ministers. The power of this argument comes not only from similarities between a full-fledged state and Delhi but also from the idea that the Constitution promulgates a conception of democracy, the working hypothesis of which requires that executive power is given to representative bodies. In Ram Jawaya Kapoor the supreme court recognised this when it noted that: ‘executive power inheres in those which are collectively responsible to the legislature’. The constitutional text creates a legislature to be elected from the population of Delhi, and the council of ministers is accountable to this elected assembly. To vest the executive power of Delhi in an appointee of the central government over and above this elected body is an interpretation that goes against this working hypothesis and raises anti-democratic concerns.

The High Court also noted that the Lt. Governor had the power to refer a matter to the President if there was a ‘difference of opinion’. Does the mere fact that the Lt. Governor can have a difference of opinion with the council of ministers, and the fact that a procedure is laid out to resolve this dispute, lead to the conclusion that the advice is not otherwise binding? An interesting place to look is Article 74, which outlines the relationship between the President and his council of ministers. The proviso to Article 74(1) allows for the President to disagree with a decision of the union council of ministers. In the event of such a disagreement, the matter will be passed back from the President to the council of ministers. The council of ministers may choose to modify the proposal or resubmit it as it (in which case it would be binding on the President). However, the crucial takeaway is that allowing for disagreement doesn’t detract from the binding nature of the ministers’ ‘aid and advice’. This, of course, begs the question: why allow for a difference of opinion if the minister’s views are binding? Consider a situation where the Delhi government tabled a proposal that the Lt. Governor considered to violate a constitutional provision. Under his duty to protect the constitution he would likely be under an obligation to disagree and bring the matter to the President’s attention. However, to argue that because the Constitution permits a difference of opinion, the ‘aid and advice’ of the council of ministers is no longer binding is an understanding that runs contrary to the institutional arrangements created to operationalise democracy through a cabinet style of government.

Initiatives of the Delhi Government

The High Court’s reasoning in striking down the initiatives taken by the Delhi government was two-fold. Firstly, it noted that under the General Clauses Act the ‘appropriate government’ for a Union Territory was the central government. Secondly, it concluded that: if the Lt. Governor could differ with the views of the council of ministers, and the Lt. Governor was the executive head of Delhi, then it stood to reason that his consent was needed on all proposals before they could be put into action. As the proposals for the setting of commissions of inquiry and other initiatives had not been approved by the Lt. Governor, they were deemed to be invalid.

Using the General Clauses Act to determine the ‘appropriate government’ encounters the same difficulties that trying to determine the exact constitutional of Delhi position does. The statute only recognises the power of parliament and the state legislature. Looking at Article 239AA and the institutional practice of the constitution (a functional interpretation) however reveals while the first schedule only recognises states and union territories, there exists a wider spectrum of arrangements in the governance of territories.

The second argument accepted by the High Court is an extension of the conclusion that the ‘aid and advice’ of the ministers is not binding on the Lt. Governor. While suffering from the same infirmities relating to democracy, it also begs the question as to what the role of the Delhi government is if it can be overridden at any point in time. This is best exemplified by Article 239AB which allows for the President’s rule to be imposed in Delhi. If the Lt. Governor (a manifestation of the President’s authority) must approve all matters in the governance of Delhi, why does Article 239AB allow for the imposition of President’s rule in Delhi? Why would the President need to impose his rule in a territory, the governance of which is vested in him?

The Home Ministry Notification

Through a set of notifications in 2014 and 2015 the Home Ministry had declared that (1) the Lt. Governor was empowered to make appointments under Entry 41 of List II (‘state public service’) and, (2) that the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) of Delhi had no jurisdiction against central government employees.

The Delhi government had contended that Article 239AA (3) gave the Delhi legislature competence to make laws on List II, and the notification was an infringement on the legislative competence of Delhi which could only be achieved through a constitutional amendment. The High Court, however, sided with the Centre, noting that as Delhi did not currently have a state public service commission, the central government was free to legislate on the matter. This argument has two implications: firstly it effectively allows the central government to legislate on any matter in List II where a state (or in this case Delhi) has not yet acted upon. There is no constitutional bar on Delhi having a state public service commission, and one wonders how the High Court’s reasoning would have changed if Delhi already had such a commission. Secondly, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that given the nature of the cabinet system where legislative and executive power are collapsed, the Chief Minister must have a say in the appointments of key civil servants. This is essential to achieve the legislative goals of the elected government and ensure smooth governance. To grant the Lt. Governor this power is to throw a spanner in the workings of an elected government.

The exclusion of central government employees from the ACB’s jurisdiction was characterised as a ‘simple direction to a police station’ traceable to Entry 1 (‘police’) which the central government can legislate on under Article 239AA (3). Interestingly, the notification was challenged under both legislative competence (the Delhi government arguing that it was a matter under ‘criminal law’ in List III) and as violative of Article 14 because it created a separate class of citizens in Delhi. This latter challenge was completely ignored by the Court which limits its analysis to the issue of legislative competence.

Conclusion

The dispute between the Delhi government and the Centre is undoubtedly political at its core. But it is precisely within these circumstances of politics that the constitutional text and doctrine can provide some de-minimus level of consensus on how Delhi is to be governed. The crux of the debate centres around the place of Delhi in the constitution, and the fact that it has a legislature elected by the people of Delhi. In evaluating the institutional arrangements that govern Delhi, the High Court was faced with an interpretation of Article 239AA that granted legislative and executive supremacy to the elected government of Delhi government while also granting the central government a say in certain issues. The interpretation ultimately favoured upon by the High Court however cuts the legs out from the elected legislature of the territory.