Home COLUMNS It may be time to re-think the idea of Delhi

It may be time to re-think the idea of Delhi

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New Delhi: Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari at a polling booth during MCD polls in New Delhi on April 23, 2017. (Photo: IANS) by .
Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari at a polling booth during MCD polls in New Delhi on April 23, 2017. (Photo: IANS)

The Delhi area with 26 million people could be compared to Tokyo-Yokohama’s 38 million, Shanghai’s 35 million, Jakarta’s 31 million, or Seoul’s 25 million. But the ‘Delhi’ of 26 million is administrated by the governments of four states and a myriad of authorities and agencies. This could be the time to dismantle all of that and evolve a simpler and singular way of planning, governing and administrating a sprawling Delhi metropolitan area that transcends states, different authorities and, most important, politics….writes Mr Sanjoy Narayan, former editor of Hindustan Times

New Delhi: Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari at a polling booth during MCD polls in New Delhi on April 23, 2017. (Photo: IANS) by .
Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari at a polling booth during MCD polls in New Delhi on April 23, 2017. (Photo: IANS)

Over the past week, Indian media focused its attention on the municipal corporation elections in India’s capital city, Delhi, which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won and retained control of the three corporations that together cover the city-state’s municipalities.

The BJP has been in control of Delhi’s municipalities for a decade, defying the popular logic of an anti-incumbency vote even as the capital city’s civic status has perceptibly deteriorated. The condition of Delhi’s roads, the city’s cleanliness, the state of its parks, its sewage system, disease surveillance and other factors that affect a city’s liveability and are generally governed by its municipal authorities have little to show in terms of improvement. Yet, the BJP trounced both its rivals—the populist Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which two years ago swept to power with a brute majority (it won 67 of the 70 seats in the state assembly); and the Congress party.

BJP chief Amit Shah. (File Photo: IANS) by .
BJP chief Amit Shah (File Photo: IANS)

High media attention on a city’s municipal elections can seem disproportionate but in Delhi’s case it made news sense because many expected the AAP, led by its enfant terrible chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, to wrest control over the three corporations. The fact that it didn’t happen and that the victory of the BJP came after it won handsomely in three recent state elections in India, notably in the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, pointed to a trend that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party were closer to the stated objective of controlling as many of India’s 29 states.

For the record, the BJP or its allies today control governments in 17 Indian states and it is no secret that Mr. Modi and his party’s president Amit Shah would want to increase that further, by spreading his party’s influence in the east and the south.

In 2008, the BJP wanted to field a senior Delhi politician from the party (hint: he’s a qualified lawyer; is articulate, influential, and holds one of the most important porfolios in Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet today) as a chief ministerial candidate for Delhi’s state elections. He refused, commenting sardonically that he wasn’t interested in the job of a “glorified mayor”. He wasn’t joking. Delhi’s chief minister, as Mr. Kejriwal has realised the hard way, has an extremely constrained set of powers

Not suprisingly, Indian media grabbed the “news peg” of Delhi’s municipal election results to trot out analyses of what this could mean for Delhi’s AAP government or that party’s future prospects; whether it means a further decimation of the Congress; and, if this would lead to a bigger surge of the BJP in elections that are due in at least 10 states over the next year, including some which the BJP now controls but several others where it is wants a presence. Besides these analyses, many columnists trotted out advice (unsolicited ones as they are wont to) to AAP; to Congress, and to the BJP as well—much of it expectedly banal such as a tip to Mr. Kejriwal to refurbish his party’s connect with Delhi’s middle-class citizenry.

What runs the risk of getting lost in such opinionated debates over minutiae, is the status of Delhi, India’s capital city, which also happens to be a state. Of sorts, really, because to call Delhi a state would be stretching the definition of that word and making several concessions. In 2008, the BJP wanted to field a senior Delhi politician from the party (hint: he’s a qualified lawyer; is articulate, influential, and holds one of the most important porfolios in Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet today) as a chief ministerial candidate for Delhi’s state elections. He refused, commenting sardonically that he wasn’t interested in the job of a “glorified mayor”. He wasn’t joking. Delhi’s chief minister, as Mr. Kejriwal has realised the hard way, has an extremely constrained set of powers.

Unlike in other states, Delhi’s government has a limited jusridiction. Delhi’s civic agencies (such as the three that went to polls last week), the city’s police, as well as its urban development authority, all report to the city-state’s lieutenant governor, a person who is chosen by the government of India. After Mr. Kejriwal romped to power in 2015, he made more news with his acrimonious fights with the lieutenant governor, rather than with what he did for Delhi. And now, with a further emboldened BJP (Mr. Kejriwal is Mr. Modi’s and his party’s bete noire) in charge of Delhi’s civic bodies, the chief minister’s challenge of running Delhi will only get tougher.

Lucknow: Union Finance Minister and BJP leader Arun Jaitley addresses a press conference in Lucknow on Feb 14, 2017. (Photo: IANS) by .
Union Finance Minister and BJP leader Arun Jaitley addresses a press conference in Lucknow (Photo: IANS)

But what exactly is Delhi? Is it a city as defined by the jurisdiction of its civic bodies? Is it a state with a government that has wings that are clipped? Is it even defined by its geographical perimeters? Delhi is bordered by Haryana on three sides and Uttar Pradesh on the east. Defined by those boundaries, its population is around 17 million. But what if Delhi is not geographically defined as such in the minds of those who live and work there?

Urban centres have sprung up as satellites around Delhi—cities such as Gurgaon and Faridabad in Haryana; Noida and Ghaziabad in UP; and even townships in Rajasthan. For millions living and working means seamless movement between states—commutes to and from Gurgaon or Noida or Ghaziabad are done daily by millions.

Several years back the National Capital Region (NCR) was defined and a planning board was created. The NCR includes Delhi as well as several districts from neighbouring states—some of them urban but many rural as well. As many as 46 million people live in the NCR, of which 26 million are in the the urban areas. Politically, these habitats are in different states but as a state of mind of those who live and work fungibly across the NCR, it is one vast metropolitan area. The Delhi area with 26 million people could be compared to Tokyo-Yokohama’s 38 million, Shanghai’s 35 million, Jakarta’s 31 million, or Seoul’s 25 million. But the ‘Delhi’ of 26 million is administrated by the governments of four states and a myriad of authorities and agencies. This could be the time to dismantle all of that and evolve a simpler and singular way of planning, governing and administrating a sprawling Delhi metropolitan area that transcends states, different authorities and, most important, politics.