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The Trouble With Kejriwal's Referendum Proposal

13/07/2015 12:20 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A supporter flashes a victory sign as New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, center, announces calling off a demonstration against the police in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Kejriwal, who created and leads the Aam Aadmi, or Common Man's Party, had accused the police force of targeting the poor for petty offences and refusing to combat serious crime. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

India's constitution does not provide for an issue-based referendum. Elections to legislative bodies and a few executive posts are the only form of mass public opinion exercise sanctioned by the Constitution of India. The only time India mulled an extra-constitutional polling exercise was for the rather infamous agreement to a 'plebiscite' in Kashmir by the Nehru administration. Apart from this, the various examples suggested by AAP leaders are ill-informed as the referendums in Sikkim, Goa or even Pondicherry are out of context for the simple reason that these areas were not part of British India or Independent India as on 15th August 1947. Even for the referendum 'Opinion Polls' in Goa and Sikkim, the Parliament of India had to pass a special act to amend the constitution for each one of them independently.

"22% assessed that both parties are busy politicking and fighting each thus wasting people's time."

The AAP leaders forgot to mention the famous referendums of Junagarh which Indian leaders happily accepted as ground for integration with India after Partition; or the referendum in Nagaland which they refused to accept as the 'official' version as the results went against the Indian integration. But, as a matter of fact, even these were out of the constitutional gambit as they happened before India adopted its formal constitution. The much quoted 'proposal' to amend the constitution in 1978 as proposed by Janata Party Law Minister, Shanti Bhushan (father of ex-AAP leader Prashant Bhushan and one of the founders of AAP) was also in context of fundamental rights under the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. To put the record straight; even that 'proposal' was shot down in Rajya Sabha, which was still under Congress control in 1978. So, we are back to square one. The fact remains that there is no constitutional provision for referendums in India at the moment. And if at all Arvind Kejriwal tries to conduct a referendum, it would be against the constitution and will result in Constitutional breakdown. At best, the AAP government can go for an all inclusive 'Opinion Poll' that too at the expense of Public Exchequer just to score a political point. This is why CVoter India undertook this Referendum Opinion Poll; which is very much pointing the Public sentiment for complete statehood to Delhi.

"Empowering the masses to elect their leaders is qualitatively different from allowing them to take the decision themselves."

Now that 81% in this polls have said resounding "Yes" on referendum question, the AAP leadership is free to score the political goals on this issue. Hopefully they will spare the wastage of public money on this exercise and use the same for some better public welfare projects. In comparison, Arvind Kejriwal's call for a referendum in Delhi on the issue of full statehood for Delhi seems a minor point of conflict. However, any move to put executive decisions to public poll may open a pandora's box. For example, if put to a democratic test by referendum, many states within United States may want to upturn their Supreme Court's decision to allow gays the right to marriage. In other words, what is popular and has mass support may not always be feasible or correct. Tomorrow, one may have court trial in a controversial case and a state or community or interest group may start demanding a referendum over it. Similar pressure would be brought to bear upon legislative and executive decision making. Empowering the masses to elect their leaders is qualitatively different from allowing them to take the decision themselves. Democracy is rule by the fiat of masses and not per se direct rule of the masses. This is a very serious question regarding direct democracy and we can just hope that AAP leadership does not make it too pedestrian to discuss just for few brownie points.

A referendum in the absence of constitutional sanction is merely an exercise in compilation of mass sentiment. In layperson's terms, such a 'referendum' will be no more than an elaborate opinion polling exercise. To save the public exchequer from a potential re-invention of wheel and the people of Delhi some time, Cvoter undertook an opinion poll of a representative sample of over 3000 Delhiites regarding the issue of referendum and the question of full statehood for Delhi. If the idea behind the proposed referendum is to convey a sense of support for full statehood of Delhi amongst people of Delhi, then it risks becoming an academic exercise. There is overwhelming support for full statehood of Delhi. 81% of people of Delhi profess support for full statehood for Delhi in the proposed 'referendum'. Only 19% want to vote against full statehood. However things become interesting when people get to rate the potential impact of the full statehood.

"When asked whether Aam Aadmi Party was pushing for this 'referendum' in view of the recent controversies that the party finds itself embroiled in, 59% replied in affirmative while 41% believed otherwise."

While 46% of Delhiites believe that full statehood would resolve all law and order plus governance lacunae, 54% of Delhiites profess that it will solve issues to an extent only or it may have no impact at all. Despite an overwhelming support for Delhi's full statehood and mixed assessment of its implications on governance, people of Delhi are highly astute when it comes to assessing the politics behind this debate. When asked whether Aam Aadmi Party was pushing for this 'referendum' in view of the recent controversies that the party finds itself embroiled in, 59% replied in affirmative while 41% believed otherwise. A highly split nature of the electorate is suggestive of a split of public opinion along party lines. The electorate's split is carried over to people's assessment of state and central governments. 48% Delhiites assess that AAP government is doing more for Delhi while 30% aver that Centre's BJP government is doing more for Delhi. 22% assessed that both parties are busy politicking and fighting each thus wasting people's time.

Certain important takeaways emerge form these numbers that not only help frame the wider issue of public support for full statehood but also their assessment of the idea itself. First, there is a deep and abiding sentiment in favour of full statehood for NCT of Delhi. So if the purpose of the 'referendum' was to express the same, it stands fully expressed in sample opinion poll too. Second, while people may favour full statehood, they are split in assessing the efficacy of the same when it comes to alleviation of governance and law and order concerns. In other words, the support for full statehood is not entirely born out of an acute functional need or empowerment deficit. The difference between the figures for those who support full statehood and those who assess it as a panacea for Delhi, merits deeper study. The support versus assessment gap is further substantiated by a sentiment that reads AAP government's acute push for this 'referendum' as a knee jerk reaction for reclaiming lost political ground on account of various controversies plaguing the government in recent past. Such an assessment of AAP's political move, however, does not make for a good situation for Team BJP. Despite an adverse assessment of AAP's urgent and sudden push for a controversial move, 48% Delhi electorate still believes that AAP government is doing the most for Delhi compared to only 30% of electorate who credit the BJP-led central government for the same. The writing on the wall is clear with regards to sentiment of the people - beyond that the picture is a bit convoluted.

"[W]hat this idea will definitely achieve is a constitutional crisis that will cost the nation significant amount of money, time and energy over discussing and debating various pros and cons."

Given the legal and monetary arguments against it, a 'referendum' by default is an exercise that is non-starter in our country. Arvind Kejriwal will be unable to discover or showcase anything that is not known to the establishment or people at large. However, what this idea will definitely achieve, is a constitutional crisis that will cost the nation significant amount of money, time and energy over discussing and debating the various pros and cons. An easy way out is to use the figures from myriad opinion polls that may reflect the unflinching support of Delhiites for full statehood to trigger public debate. In governance, one has to remember the adage "what is popular may be different from what is right". Delhi is a city that has to look out for interests of the nation at large and the uncomfortable truth is that its strategic importance does elevate its administration beyond the paycheck of a state government. In order to reconcile the public sentiment with realities of governance and administration of a capital, both central and state administrations need to talk with each and not talk at each other. Anything short of it is mere politicking.

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