What Washington D.C’s Statehood Means for Delhi

 Sahil M Parsekar

In November 2016, the residents of the capital district of the United States of America went out to vote in a referendum held on the question of whether Washington, D.C. should be recognized as a state. The results came out overwhelmingly in favour of granting statehood, with a majority of 86% voters voting for the motion. On June 26, 2020, the House of Representatives was faced with the legislation on the same question. The House, which is currently dominated by the Democrats, voted largely on party lines, passing the legislation to recognize Washington, D.C. as the 51st State in the country. The bill is yet to go through the Senate, where it will likely be defeated by a Republican majority. But the proposal for the statehood of Washington, D.C. reminds me of a similar debate back home.

In India’s national capital, the Central Government and the Government of NCT (National Capital Territory) or Delhi State Government, as it is commonly referred to, engage in a constant struggle for authority over local matters. Their long-running feud has often made its way to newspaper headlines and prime-time debates. The last update on the issue came a year ago when the Supreme Court set up a two-judge bench consisting of Justice AK Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan, and gave a divided verdict. Since then, the re-elected Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has sought to use a co-operative approach, by reaching out to the Ministry of Home Affairs more often than not. However, police violence against students in the capital, subsequent communal riots followed by the latest issue of rising cases of Corona patients has precipitated the power conflict between the Centre and State government. This conflict manifests mainly between the Delhi Chief Minister and a Central Government-appointed Lieutenant Governor (L-G).

This is why the demand for granting statehood to Delhi is often discussed as an alternative. If Delhi becomes a state, the Chief Minister could exercise more control over legislative and executive decisions without having to wait for the L-G’s consent. The argument for granting statehood to Delhi has a long history and the points raised in favour as well as against it, have a striking similarity with that of Washington D.C.

Territorial Jurisdiction

Unlike other states, the problem of granting statehood to a region which is also the seat of the national government is unique to the two capitals. In Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the US Constitution, the size of the seat of the federal government is advised to not be “exceeding ten miles square”. This problem is tackled by the supporters of a full state for Washington, D.C. by crafting out a smaller district within itself which will be under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government. This smaller district is referred to as federal enclave or ‘Capital’ as mentioned in the proposed legislation. Since the new Capital is less than ten miles square, it does not violate the constitutional principle. The federal buildings – legislative, executive, and judicial – along with federal monuments are reserved under the Capital.

Delhi is eight times larger than D.C. A similar arrangement is therefore very much possible in it. Delhi has three statutory urban regions – Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), New Delhi Municipal Council and Delhi Cantonment Board. The New Delhi Municipal Council and Delhi Cantonment Board could fall under the authority of the Central Government while the rest of Delhi could enjoy the status of being a full-fledged state.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement has been one of the most contentious points in Washington, D.C. and Delhi. The opponents in both cases have used this argument frequently, to distance the statehood of the capital regions from actualization.

In both cases, there has been backlash over recent protests in the capital region. In Washington, D.C., the Black Lives Matter protests reached the gates of the White House, while Delhi witnessed a massive student-led movement against the Citizens’ Amendment Act, 2019 in different pockets of the city. President Trump’s handling of the situation was criticized by Mayor Bowser. In an address to the media, Trump said, “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them”. While he was addressing the media, the riot police and military police deployed outside the White House used tear gas to clear protesters. Subsequently, Mayor Bowser accompanied the protestors to show her solidarity. She also condemned the deployment of the out-of-state National Guard despite Washington, D.C. having its own law enforcement agencies. The primary local police force called the Metropolitan Police Department, legally falls under local administration, but as Mayor Bowser pointed out, Congress has the authority to change that. The proposed constitution for the new state makes the Governor of the State the commander-in-chief of the local police force and gives the Mayor greater control.

To imagine a similar proposal in Delhi is difficult but for the same reasons as D.C, it is desirable to have a greater regional control over executive enforcement agencies here too. The students’ protests over CAA saw the Central Government turning hostile and reacting with abundant force. The Delhi Police which falls under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs is often the foremost agency in enforcing the Central Government’s orders. In January 2020, following the violence by right-wing goons against the students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Delhi Police did not make a single arrest of the identified perpetrators. A month later, the Delhi Police itself led a violent attack by marching into Jamia University’s library to round up innocent students while others harassed girls in their dormitories. The Delhi Police is also accused of being involved in the communal riots that occurred in Delhi in the same month. The investigation by the same police force is attempting to target students, activists, and sympathizers that took part in the anti-CAA protests. Time and time again, Delhi Police has been accused of being partisan. Therefore, the question arises whether the local police force should be made accountable to the people of Delhi, by falling under the authority of the Delhi Government.

Legislative Powers

The fight for D.C.’s statehood will allow more legislative powers to the local administration. Presently, the District of Columbia Home Rule Act empowers the Federal Government to review any act passed by the local council. In 1988, Congress blocked the law which would have allowed D.C. to spend local public funds to cover for abortion services. In 1992, Congress blocked the Healthcare Benefits Expansion Act which allowed registration of homosexual couples as domestic partners. In 1998, Congress again was at a crossroads with the local council on the issue of legalization of marijuana. Since all these issues are primarily partisan issues, the statehood of Washington, D.C. comes forth as a sole solution to the problem.

The Delhi Government has comparatively more powers. It can make laws on all matters except land, police, and public order. The fundamental loophole however is that the L-G, the administrative head of the state, is an appointee of the Union Government. Article 239AA of the Indian Constitution provides that the State’s Council of Ministers and Chief Minister will “advise” the Lieutenant Governor. This is a little ambiguous as to who has the final authority; however, the same article also mentions that it is the Legislative Assembly which has the power to make laws. Now whether these laws need prior approval from the L-G was contended. On 4th July 2018, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court finally ended the debate by declaring that the L-G has no independent powers, and has to take decisions on the advice of the Cabinet. However, the tussle between the two constitutional positions still persists. A full-fledged statehood will give Delhi’s elected Chief Minister, immunity against any such hurdles possibly imposed by the L-G.

Legislative and Political Approval for Statehood

The New Columbia Statehood Commission under Mayor Bowser which is fighting for the statehood of Washington, D.C. adopted something called the “Tennessee Plan”. It was used to gain statehood for Tennessee and six more states in USA. The Tennessee Plan opts to have a referendum in a proposed state, followed by ratification of a state constitution before an act is passed by the Congress. The Commission also completed its unique obligation of underlining the new district’s boundaries within the State. It pledged to establish a republican form of government before finally approaching Congress.

However, the hurdle for D.C.’s statehood is not so much legal or procedural as it is political. Washington D.C. is a Democrat bastion, with the Republicans gaining less than 20 percent of the vote for the past five decades. The African American population forms the majority of the electorate. The present mayor Muriel Bowser is herself a black woman and has been elected twice. A Republican Senate is unlikely to allow a Democrat stronghold to be recognized as a state. The passing of the statehood bill will grant D.C. two Senators and will also allow the only D.C. Representative in the House to vote on bills. The Republican Party knows that D.C. will elect all Democrats in these positions. President Trump did not attempt to conceal this fact. In an interview, he said, “You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic – Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No thank you. That’ll never happen”. The bill maybe defeated in the Senate but is likely to come up again next year when the Democrats are predicted to have control over both the House and the Senate.

Delhi in contrast has support across party lines. The Congress and the BJP have committed themselves to the issue of statehood in their manifestos. The Aam Aadmi Party which is the ruling party in Delhi and leads on this cause has made several attempts at gaining more autonomy through the judicial process. A referendum in Delhi on the matter is not conceivable since any attempt in that direction will be seen as a challenge to national security in the current political atmosphere. Therefore, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Delhi Government will have to rely on Supreme Court judgements before channelizing their efforts to legitimize Delhi’s statehood. The BJP which rules the Centre may find it disconcerting to have its seat in the heart of a city-state governed by a party which is electorally and principally in opposition to them. Therefore, despite being theoretically in favour of granting statehood to Delhi, the BJP will position its cadre against the motion. Moreover, Kejriwal’s political thrust has roots in anti-corruption activism; an agenda that lends a new lens to him losing control over Delhi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau to the Union.

That is why the battle for Washington, D.C.’s statehood can open a new avenue for Delhi. That debate should be considered in its widest ambit without limiting it to the United States. For if D.C gets recognized, Delhi will have a good argument in its arsenal and greater autonomy in future governance.

Sahil M Parsekar worked as a psephologist for the Aam Aadmi Party during the Delhi 2020 state elections. He graduated in political science from Ruia College, Mumbai.

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