Changing faces of a House tasked with building Delhi
The year was 1993. Held after a gap of 37 years of President’s rule, the Delhi legislative assembly elections had just concluded. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won by bagging 49 out of 70 seats. With 14 seats, the Congress was the main Opposition party.
Here was an elected House of lawmakers, which carried on its shoulders a task of building Delhi within the contours of its recently-attained special status – something which has since dominated discussions involving full statehood for the city.
After being governed by the Delhi Metropolitan Council since 1966, the Delhi Legislative Assembly came into existence and was formally known as the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi in 1993. BJP’s Madan Lal Khurana was sworn in as the first chief minister of the reconstituted assembly and PK Dave was the lieutenant-governor. Before Khurana, Delhi assembly in its previous avatar, between 1953 and 1956, had Chaudhary Brahm Prakash and Gurmukh Nihal Singh as chief ministers.
Even though the new assembly had both young and seasoned legislators brimming with ideas to govern the city, the first session of the House called on December 14, 1993, was marred by procedural lapses.
“The rules were borrowed from Uttar Pradesh which, unlike Delhi, was a full state. Also the Assembly there is a bicameral House (legislative assembly and legislative council) where everything was written in chaste Hindi. So, a lot was lost in translation. Then there was a division of power between the lieutenant-governor and the chief minister,” said SK Sharma, who was specially called from LoK Sabha secretariat after the first session to frame the rules of procedure and conduct of business, which are followed in all assembly proceedings till date.
“The idea was to make Delhi Assembly a model legislature in India,” he said.
A NEW HOUSE
From a member brandishing a liquor bottle on the floor of the house in 1995 to the passage of the Delhi Jan Lokpal bill described as the “strongest” anti-graft legislation in 2015, the Delhi Assembly has seen its highs and lows. Today, as the Delhi legislative assembly celebrates its silver jubilee, Hindustan Times looks back at the 25-year journey of the House through the eyes of those who have seen it all.
At 32, Ajay Maken, former Union minister, was a first-time MLA in the Delhi assembly. But, right on the first day of the session in 1996, Maken was suspended for three days from assembly proceedings.
“I jumped into the well right after L-G PK Dave finished his speech. Our senior Congress member, Jag Pravesh Chandra who was then the leader of the Opposition scolded me for disrespecting the House and also apologised to the Speaker Charti Lal Goel on behalf of the Congress legislative party to get me back in the House,” recalls Maken, the current president of Delhi Congress.
“I acted on the advice from a journalist who said it could make front page news and it did. I was young then. But, the incident taught me a lesson. That was the first and last time I was in the well of the House,” Maken, who served as speaker for eight months in 2003-04, said.
As for Maken, the Delhi assembly has been the stepping stone for many political stalwarts such as Jagdish Mukhi, currently the Assam governor; Madan Lal Khurana, former Delhi chief minister who became union parliamentary affairs minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee cabinet; Harsh Vardhan, who is now the Union minister for environment; and former CM Sushma Swaraj who is now the Union external affairs minister.
Delhi’s longest-serving chief minister Sheila Dikshit recalled how criticism from Opposition was mostly positive. “The objections by Opposition were seldom bad,” she said.
Her aides recalled a day in 2001 when Dikshit was perplexed on finding out that the BJP-led Opposition was planning to move a no-confidence motion against her government.
“That incident shows how politicians at times use the floor of the House to make headlines the next day. Sheilaji feared her government would fall with the no-confidence motion and tarnish her image. But one of the secretaries in the assembly advised speaker Chaudhary Prem Singh to go for head-count instead of voice votes so that the Opposition could be tamed. The motion was finally defeated by 34 votes. The next day the headlines read how Sheila Dikshit’s government came out even stronger,” said a close aide of the former chief minister.
Old-timers recalled how there used to be bonhomie among members of the House irrespective of the parties they belonged to. During the first assembly, for example, a group comprising BJP lawmakers Rajendra Gupta, Poornima Sethi, Congress’ Ajay Maken, Haroon Yousuf, among others would assemble either at Gupta’s house or over lunch at Maidens Hotel adjacent to assembly building for holding pre-session discussions.
“We would meet like a family get-together. While we chose the choicest delicacies, we would work out the agenda of House sittings in a most cordial manner. The Opposition would inform about their plans to corner the government by raising some issue and it used to be allowed. There was always a middle path, through negotiations,” said Ram Niwas Goel, the current speaker and AAP MLA who was also one of the members of the group back in 1993 as a BJP member.
The speakers in first two assemblies, Charti Lal Goel and Chaudhary Prem Singh, had kept an unwritten rule where an Opposition member would be allowed to speak after two members from the ruling party irrespective of the strength. There also used to be an award for the “best legislator”, which no longer exists.
“Things have changed a lot. I remember the relationship between the state and the Centre was cordial and most of the bills passed in Delhi assembly would be approved by Centre. Now we know how difficult it is,” said Goel, 70.
In 2016, Union ministry of home affairs returned 14 bills passed by the incumbent Delhi assembly. The bills, officials said, were returned when they came to the MHA for assent through the office of the then L-G Najeeb Jung as none of the bills was passed with his approval.
According to Ajay Rawal, the current secretary to speaker Goel, the Delhi assembly still does not have the power to discuss all issues in the House due to its union territory status. “Matters related to land, public order, services and police are directly under the L-G and cannot be taken up in the House. But, the Secretariat continues to get numerous questions from MLAs, especially on the matter of services,” he said.
It is because of this rule, Parliament, and not the Delhi assembly, was compelled to pass an ordinance in 2006 to stop the massive sealing drive that was being carried out against misuse of property and land in the national capital on the orders of the Supreme Court.
Rawal acknowledged that even the Vidhan Sabha’s secretariat is eagerly waiting for the verdict in the Supreme Court case on the subject of services — which involves transfers, postings and fixing accountability of bureaucrats.
“This year probably saw the maximum debates over the issue as bureaucrats refrained from answering questions on these subjects and MLAs alleging it’s a conspiracy to undermine democracy,” he said. During this year’s budget session in March, the L-G’s office had reminded the speaker that questions on reserved subjects cannot be admitted in the Assembly.
But, the House has seen some unpleasant scenes too, only to be handled well. In one of the sessions in 1995, Raj Kumar Chauhan, Congress MLA from Mangolpuri, was seen throwing books, which included a book on the Constitution of India. The Assembly Privilege Committee recommended Chauhan’s termination.
“The then leader of Opposition of Congress, Jag Pravesh Chandra went to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who then was the leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, to intervene in the matter. Vajpayeeji called up the then CM Madan Lal Khurana and the next day the decision to terminate Chauhan was not discussed despite being listed. This was done by asking the member, who was to move the motion, not to attend that day’s proceedings. The matter was never taken up after that and Chauhan got away with a warning,” said Sharma, who served as secretary in Delhi Assembly for close to 10 years.
On some occasions, the lawmakers didn’t just debate the issues plaguing the city they also faced them in the House itself. On July 14, 2002, the legislators got to experience the city’s poor electricity infrastructure when the Old Secretariat complex faced load-shedding for one full day during the monsoon session. The legislators had no choice but to brave the discomfort of working without fans and air conditioners as they had to vote for the 12th presidential elections.
Officials who have worked in the Assembly secretariat remembered how they once used to be flooded with applications from schools for allowing students to witness the House proceedings. But that has changed since. “When the school administrations saw that the debates in the House began turning abusive, they gradually stopped sending kids,” said a retired Assembly secretariat officer who did not want to be named.
THE AAP ERA
After hosting lawmakers from traditional political parties for more than two decades, the Delhi assembly, for the first time, had majority members from a fledgling party — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — in 2013. The activists-turned-politicians led by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal kept the momentum of assembly alive.
On February 14, 2014, Kejriwal surprised everyone by resigning on the floor of the House from his 49-day-old government. After a year of President’s rule, Kejriwal returned to the assembly with a brute majority of 67 MLAs.
In another unheard-of act on the floor of the House, party MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj, during special Delhi assembly session in May 2017, demonstrated how an electronic voting machine can be tampered with and votes manipulated.
Despite having just three seats in the 70-member House, short of the required numbers, BJP leader Vijendra Gupta was in April 2015 made leader of Opposition.
“The speaker (Ram Niwas Goel) offered legislative courtesy to BJP to have leader of Opposition in the House despite BJP having denied that right to the Opposition in Lok Sabha,” said AAP spokesperson, Saurabh Bharadwaj.
Vijendra Gupta, who says he has been marshalled out a “record” number of times, however, harbours grudges. “True that the AAP government has an absolute majority in the House, but that doesn’t mean they will bring up any issue under the sun for discussion. Most of the time is spent on criticising PM Narendra Modi and the office of the L-G,” said Gupta with a hope that the members will in future work cordially keeping aside the party lines.
“I look forward that the AAP MLA’s and the Opposition members will work cordially to maintain the decorum of the temple of democracy,” said Gupta, the BJP MLA from Rohini.
Delhi assembly meets again for a special session on December 20.