Delhi and Washington D.C. : The Two Capitals’ Pursuit of Self-Governance

19 May 2023

In a unanimous verdict, a 5-Judge Bench upheld the powers of the Delhi government to control civil servants and oversee the day-to-day administration of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (henceforth ‘Delhi’). The Supreme Court ruled that the democratically elected Delhi government cannot be stripped of its legislative and executive powers by the Union. However, merely a week later, the President of India took a dramatic step by issuing an Ordinance that effectively undermined the judgment, thereby sparking another round of conflict between the Union and the State regarding the control of Delhi.

The issue of self-government for Delhi has persisted for a significant period. Deshbandhu Gupta passionately told his fellow Constituent Assembly members that ‘…Since 1927, from every nook and corner of Delhi, the cry is being raised that Delhi should have a separate administration of its own…’  Longstanding conflicts over the control of a nation’s capital city between national and state governments are not exclusive to India. This piece draws parallels between India and the United States, examining the historical debates and current developments surrounding self-government their capital cities.

During much of British rule, Delhi functioned as a Chief Commissioner’s province (later renamed as a ‘Union Territory’), directly governed by the Governor General of British India, despite significant demands for reform and representative institutions. As the Constituent Assembly embarked on drafting India’s Constitution, the question arose as to whether Delhi should be granted its own legislature. To address this issue, a Committee was appointed. The Committee firmly believed ‘that the people of the province which contains the metropolis of India should not be deprived of the right to self-government enjoyed by the rest of their countrymen living in the smallest of the villages.‘ Consequently, it recommended the inclusion of a legislature for Delhi in the Constitution.

However, the Drafting Committee disagreed. In a cover letter to the President of the Constituent Assembly, B.R. Ambedkar said,  

“…So far as Delhi is concerned, it seems to the committee that as the capital of India, it can hardly be placed under a local administration. In the United States, Congress exercises exclusive legislative power in respect of the seat of the Government… 

Ambedkar was referring to Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution that gives the U.S. Congress the power to ‘exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over’ the capital of the United States which will become ‘the Seat of Government’. Effectively, the Constitution gave U.S. Congress complete legislative and executive authority over the capital.  

In Federalist Paper 43, James Madison defended this provision by arguing that ‘The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government carries its own evidence with it.’ Madison asserted that such authority is crucial for ensuring the seamless functioning of the government and safeguarding it against potential ‘insult’ or ‘interruption’ from the state government. He further contended that without this authority, government officials of the federal government would be reliant on the state authorities for protection which could give rise to allegations of undue influence, and compromise the national government’s autonomy. 

Ambedkar did not elaborate on why he wanted Union government control over Delhi though his invoking of the U.S. example signals that he may be inline with Madisons’ arguments. But Gupta, a member representing Delhi scoffed at Ambedkar’ U.S. example alleging that:  

‘…great injustice is being done to the citizens of Delhi by dismissing the whole question in a few lines by saying that, since it is not done in the United States and in Australia, therefore nothing can be done likewise in Delhi. I would like to ask whether it is not a fact that Moscow has a separate province and a provincial administration of its own. If Moscow, being the Capital of U.S.S.R., can have a separate administration, why can’t Delhi have one?…’ The Assembly sided with Ambedkar’s views.

Nehru’s intervention in the debate sealed Delhi’s fate, insisting that self-government for Delhi was a bad idea due to the city’s special circumstances—partition and the accompanying refugee crisis. In the end, the Assembly passed Article 239 of the Constitution of India, which stated that the administration of Union Territories, including Delhi, would be handled by an administrator appointed by the President. The Union Parliament however had the the power to introduce self-government institutions in these territories in the future.  

In both the United States and India, the decision to maintain federal control over their respective capitals sparked resistance from residents, who organized politically and demanded concessions. In the case of the District of Columbia (D.C.) in the United States, when it was placed under Congress’s authority in 1801, its residents lost voting representation and the right to govern themselves. This led to protests and grievances about being taxed without representation. In 1973, the District of Columbia Home Rule Act was passed, establishing a popularly elected mayor and council. Though, to this day, this Council remains under close supervision of the U.S. Congress that veto any decisions. Similarly in India, after decades of protest and political mobilisation, Delhi gained its own legislature in 1991 through a constitutional amendment. Article 239AA created an elected Legislative Assembly with the power to make laws, except in the areas of public order, police, and land.

In India, as in the U.S., the newly established self-governing bodies continued to operate under the influence of their respective federal executives and legislatures, leading to ongoing political controversies and power struggles between the capital governments and their state counterparts.

In Washington, D.C., residents have actively advocated for statehood, as a means to achieve self-government and eliminate the interventions of the U.S. Congress in their daily affairs. A significant milestone was achieved in June 2020 when the H.R. 1, The Admission Act, became the first bill for D.C. statehood to pass the House. However, the journey towards statehood still faces hurdles, as the bill awaits passage by the Senate, with opposition and uncertainty surrounding its outcome. Similarly, in India, the recent Judgment affirming the primary control of the Delhi government over its affairs encounters a formidable obstacle in the form of an Ordinance that effectively circumvents the Judgment.

These parallel struggles in both capitals underscore the tantalizing proximity to achieving full self-government, only to encounter persistent obstacles. The tensions between federal and local authorities over the control of capital cities persist, despite the recognition of the need for self-governance and the establishment of some self-government institutions. The destiny of these capitals continues to be shaped by the influence wielded by federal governments.

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