In a huge win for the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in a drawn-out tussle for power with the Centre, the Supreme Court today said the Delhi government must have control over services and that the Lieutenant Governor is bound by its decision.
The Delhi assembly is given powers to legislate to represent the will of the people, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court said in a unanimous verdict. In a democratic form of governance, the real power of administration must rest on the elected arm of government, said the bench, adding that the central government’s power in matters in which both the Centre and states can legislate “is limited to ensure that the governance is not taken over by the Central government”.
Disagreeing that the Delhi government had no power over services, the judges said only Public Order, Police and Land are excluded from its jurisdiction.
“If officers stop reporting to the ministers or do not abide by their directions, the principle of collective responsibility is affected,” Chief Justice DY Chandhrachud said, reading out the order.
The five-judge Constitution Bench tackled the question of who has administrative control over transfers and postings of bureaucrats in the capital.
The Lieutenant Governor, who represents the Centre in Delhi, is bound by the elected government’s decision on services, the judges ruled. The Lt Governor is also bound by the aid and advice of the council of ministers, they said.
While the Lt Governor has powers, they do not mean administration over the entire Delhi government, “otherwise the purpose of having a separate elected body in Delhi will be rendered futile”, said the Supreme Court.
“If a democratically elected government is not allowed to control its officers and hold them to account, then its responsibility towards legislature and the public is diluted. If an officer is not responding to the government, the collective responsibility is diluted. If an officer feels they are insulated from the elected government they feel they are not accountable,” said the Chief Justice.
Delhi’s ruling AAP celebrated its victory after years of bickering with different Lieutenant Governors since it came to power in 2013.
“This is a historic victory for Delhi. We have been fighting for eight years. They (Centre) stalled all our work deliberately using their appointees. Both my hands were tied and I was pushed into the river, but I kept swimming, by grace of God,” said Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi.
He announced that soon, there would be transfers to remove corrupt officers and bring in honest, hard-working officers. “Our work will now resume at 10 times the speed,” Mr Kejriwal said, promising a “lean, thin, responsive, passionate and accountable” government.
Arvind Kejriwal has often complained that he could not so much as appoint a “peon” without the Centre’s say-so. He alleged that bureaucrats didn’t obey his government’s orders as their cadre-controlling authority was the Union Home Ministry.
The Delhi Government approached the court in 2018, arguing that its decisions were constantly overruled by the Lieutenant Governor, that appointments were cancelled, files not cleared, and basic decision-making was obstructed.
In a landmark verdict in 2018, the Supreme Court said the elected government of Delhi is the boss and that the Lieutenant Governor has no independent decision-making powers under the Constitution, except for issues linked to land, police and public order.
The Lieutenant Governor, the court said, has to act on the aid and advice of the elected government and cannot function as “an obstructionist”.
In 2019, when the Supreme Court considered various appeals, a two-judge bench gave a unanimous verdict but was split on the question of powers over services. On the Centre’s request, the case was then referred to the Constitution Bench.
The Centre had earlier sought a hearing before a larger bench. The Chief Justice said the request should have been made at the beginning and had it been done, it would have looked at the matter differently.