On this blog (here) we recently analysed the Supreme Court’s verdict in the NCT of Delhi v Union of India. Now that the dust has settled on the judgement and its immediate outcomes, it is worth considering where the judgement stands in our constitutional jurisprudence, the idea of democracy under the constitution.
The crux of the dispute in NCT of Delhi came down to an interpretation of Article 239AA. The article creates a legislature directly elected from the constituencies of Delhi, led by a council of ministers that are “collectively responsible” to the legislature This council will “aid and advise” the Lieutenant Governor (LG). Article 239AA(4) stipulates that in the event of a disagreement between the council and the LG “on any matter”, the LG can refer the disagreement to the President. As we know, the Supreme Court held that the “aid and advice” of the council of ministers is binding on the LG, whose express approval is not required for every initiative of the Delhi government. The LG can disagree on certain matters (we will discuss this later). In interpreting Article 239AA, the Supreme Court relied on certain “principles” that it used to justify its interpretation, chief amongst these was democracy.
In this post, I seek to examine the principle of democracy espoused by the court. The court’s judgement provides a defence of democracy that stems from the political legitimacy created by every individual having a vote, and thus a say in the running of government. The court uses this foundational principle to outline what it means to be democratic within our constitutional framework. Ultimately, in interpreting when the LG can disagree with the council of ministers, the court also highlights the limits of the political legitimacy that voting creates. In other words, the democratic nature of the constitution requires all citizens to be able to influence government. The views of the citizens form the inputs of the governmental decision-making process, and all views must be heard for the decisions of government to be legitimate. However, sometimes, the needs of the citizens must be balanced with the need for the continued existence of the government itself.
The political legitimacy of democracy
Broadly speaking, the constitution uses two methods to ensure the State does not dominate its citizens: (1) by ensuring government policies treat all citizens with equal respect; and (2) ensuring all views are heard when determining government policies. An example of the former would be a fundamental rights challenge under Article 14, while an example of the latter would be preserving democracy, free speech, and free and fair elections. It is this second limb that the court focuses on in NCT of Delhi judgement.
Without making the theoretical case for democracy, some context of the republican notion of democracy is necessary to appreciate the court’s observations. In a pluralistic society, the spectrum of ideas and needs of the citizenry is immensely wide. However, some amount of convergence or coordination is necessary to decide how society should function. If we acknowledge that all citizens are autonomous moral agents worthy of equal respect, then the decision-making procedure must respect the ideas and needs of all agents equally. Democracy through voting, permits exactly this. In the words of the political philosopher Richard Bellamy, it offers a process that “acknowledges the equal moral right of all citizens to be regarded as autonomous reasoners”. In the NCT of Delhi decision J. Misra espouses exactly this justification for democracy:
“The cogent factors for constituting the representative form of government are that all citizens are regarded as equal and the vote of all citizens, which is the source of governing power, is assigned equal weight. In this sense, the views of all citizens carry the same strength and no one can impose his/her views on others” (⁋50)
Similarly, when outlining the underlying principles of the Constitution, J. Chandrachud notes, “One of the essential features of constitutional morality, thus, is the ability and commitment to arrive at decisions on important issues consensually. It requires that “despite all differences we are part of a common deliberative enterprise” (⁋9). It is crucial to understand that arriving at decisions consensually does not necessarily mean everybody agrees with the outcome of the decision, rather that everybody acknowledges the inherent legitimacy of the process used to make the decision. What the court is recognising is that the equal respect for all views grants legitimacy to the decisions taken by democratic means. Irrespective of whether you agree with the decision or not, it is the outcome of a process in which you had as much of a say as the next person (we will examine limits of this later).
A second crucial facet of democracy that the court highlights is political accountability, or how reflexive the State is to the needs of the citizens. J. Chandrachud defines accountability as, “the criterion of responsiveness to changes in circumstances that alter citizen needs and abilities… In other words, accountability refers to the extent to which actual policies and their implementation coincide with a normative ideal in terms of what they ought to be.” (⁋35) If the role of democratic voting is to determine the “needs and abilities” of the citizens in a society at any given time, then there must exist a direct link between those who vote and those frame laws. This accountability allows citizens to inform political representatives of their “needs and abilities” and most importantly, reject those representatives who do not frame laws that track the citizens “needs and abilities”. Obvious examples of this are not re-electing a representative, or at an indirect level, a ‘no-confidence motion’ against the government. But as we shall see, the principle of accountability is far more widespread. As J. Chandrachud notes, “The ability of citizens to participate in the formation of governments and to expect accountable and responsive government constitutes the backbone of a free society.” (⁋11)
The democratic credentials of the council of ministers and the LG
Recall that Article 239AA creates a legislature elected from the territorial constituencies of Delhi, which is led by a council of ministers. By contrast, the LG is appointed by President on the advice of the Central Government. Also recall that the High Court ruled that all initiatives of the Delhi government needed the express approval of the LG. This conclusion of the High Court directly contradicts the view of democracy espoused by the court, as the LG neither represents the “needs and abilities” of the citizens of Delhi, nor is he accountable to these citizens. However, the LG is the appointee of a body that is answerable to the people, the central government. If the power exercised by every appointed official was considered unconstitutional on the ground that they were not elected or directly answerable to the people, the government would come to a halt. The court’s final holding is therefore not that the LG is undemocratic, rather than the council of ministers have stronger democratic credentials which cause power to vest in them.
The court argues that no power under the Constitution is conferred unless it is ultimately accountable to the people. How true this is, given the recent antics by governors is a debate for another day, but the court states,
“The omnipotence of the President and of the Governor at State level — is euphemistically inscribed in the pages of our Fundamental Law with the obvious intent that even where express conferment of power or functions is written into the articles, such business has to be disposed of decisively by the Ministry answerable to the Legislature and through it vicariously to the people, thus vindicating our democracy instead of surrendering it to a single summit soul.”
In other words, where constitution vests power in two posts, there exists a presumption in favour of the power ultimately vesting in and being exercised by individuals or offices directly responsible to the citizens. This presumption is based on two parliamentary doctrines that are based on the twin ideas of all voices being heard and political accountability. These are the doctrines of “aid and advice” and “collective” responsibility.
Aid and Advice
The first constitutional doctrine discussed by the court is that of “aid and advice”. The constitution stipulates that the President, Governor, and at the level of the Union Territory, the LG, shall act on the “aid and advice” of their respective council of ministers. The question in NCT of Delhi was whether the “aid and advice” of the Delhi council of ministers was binding on the LG. A detailed discussion on this doctrine can be found in an earlier post on the High Court judgement (here). However, in the context of our current discussion on democracy it is important to understand the role the doctrine plays in a parliamentary democracy.
J. Chandrachud notes, “The doctrine of aid and advice enhances accountability and responsive government – besides representative government – by ensuring that the real authority to take decisions resides in the Council of Ministers, which owes ultimate responsibility to the people, through a legislature to whom the Council is responsible.” (⁋43). To ensure that the unelected official in whom the Constitution appears to vest power (e.g. the President, or the LG) acts in accordance with the “needs and abilities” of the citizens they govern, this unelected official is bound to act in accordance the “aid and advice” of elected individuals. The legitimacy of the “aid and advice” of these elected officials comes from the fact that all citizens had an equal chance to choose these elected officials based on the interests the officials represented. (This raises the question, why have an LG at all? Which I address in the last section of the post.)
Collective responsibility means two things: (1) that every minister in government is responsible for her ministry; and (2) all ministers in parliament are collectively responsible for the policies of the government as a whole (the government here is not the entire legislature, but rather the ruling party or coalition). Thus, each minister is vicariously liable for the actions of all the other ministers in government. The reason why parliamentary democracy requires the principle of collective responsibility is best articulated by J. Chandrachud when he notes, “Collective responsibility governs the democratic process, as it makes a government liable for every act it does.” (⁋37) It makes the government, “continuously accountable for its actions, so that it always faces the possibility that a major mistake may result in a withdrawal of Parliamentary support” (⁋33).
By making the entire government responsible for the act of each minister, collective responsibility greatly enhances the liability of government. A single wayward act of a minister can potentially threaten a government’s rule, prompting a no-confidence motion. This results in both intra-governmental accountability, and accountability to the direct representatives of the citizens. As J. Chandrachud concludes, “Collective responsibility, as a constitutional doctrine, ensures accountability to the sovereign will of the people who elect the members of the legislature.” (⁋50). Similarly, J. Mishra states, “the ultimate say in all matters shall vest with the representative Government who are responsible to give effect to the wishes of the citizens and effectively address their concerns.” (⁋267)
This highlights the second aspect of democracy discussed above, that of political accountability. It is not sufficient that an office of power is vicariously answerable to the people. Democracy demands a direct nexus between those in power and the citizen’s whose needs and values they represent. The Central Government that appoints the LG represents the needs of the entire country, of which Delhi is a minute fraction. If the constitution demands democratic government for Delhi, it necessarily requires a government that is directly accountable to the citizens of Delhi. The council of ministers possess this accountability, and the LG does not.
The limits of democracy
This post has so far focussed on the legitimacy derived from the inputs to the democratic decision-making process. Democracy ensures that all citizens can voice their views equally prior to taking any decision that governs all citizens. However, as has been noted before on this blog (here) we also care about the outcomes of the democratic decision-making process. The discussion for whether democracy needs counter-majoritarian restrains is beyond the scope of this post. However, the NCT of Delhi judgement is notable in delineating the limits of political legitimacy within the constitutional framework.
This conflict is best highlighted by J. Chandrachud when he notes,
“The NCT represents the aspirations of the residents of its territory. But it embodies, in its character as a capital city the political symbolism underlying national governance. The circumstances pertaining to the governance of the NCT may have a direct and immediate impact upon the collective welfare of the nation.” (⁋55)
The conflict touched upon by the court is not merely about the distribution of powers between the elected government of Delhi and the Central Government. It is highlighting that for all the political legitimacy that democratic inputs generate, there exist certain areas of debate where the democratic process cannot be allowed to reign supreme. A common example of this is the denial of referendums and even popular government to areas that threaten to separate from the union. The court is alluding to the fact that the entire constitutional scheme is situated in a State-centric view of the world, and where the idea of democracy may be used to question the existence of the state itself, a delicate balance must be struck. J. Chandrachud articulately captures this tension when he notes, “Each of the two principles must be given adequate weight in producing a result which promotes the basic constitutional values of participatory democracy, while at the same time preserving fundamental concerns in the secure governance of the nation.” (⁋55). Despite Article 239AA granting a democratically elected government to Delhi, Delhi is still of crucial importance to India as a State, practically and symbolically. Thus, there are limits to the legitimacy generated by granting each citizen of Delhi a vote.
Earlier we noted that ensuring the voice of all citizens influences the government’s decisions, and the government is accountable to this influence, is a crucial method of restraining governmental power. Thus, the decision in NCT of Delhi should be considered on par with any landmark fundamental rights case in terms of securing freedom. By highlighting democracy as an underlying principle of the constitution and utilising it to interpret a provision that enabled representative governance, the court has restrained the ability of the government (in this case the Central Government) to disregard the “needs and abilities” of the people. How the principles of the equality that voting is founded on and accountability that parliamentary processes create will influence future decisions of the court will be interesting to see. For example, would the anti-defection law survive a basic structure challenge based on the principles articulated here? More realistically, one hopes that in future cases of electoral reforms/restrictions, campaign finance and parliamentary affairs, the court does not forget these principles.