BJP’s Fifteen-Year Rule: Time for Change in Delhi’s Civic Bodies?
BJP’s more than two decade long control of the civic bodies has generated a strong anti-incumbency against it as the party’s local governments face severe criticism for corruption in the bodies, mismanagement of resources and poor delivery of services.
On 9th March 2022, the Delhi State Election Commission (SEC) postponed the announcement of the dates for the Delhi municipal elections, due to be held in April 2022. According to the SEC, the postponement was aimed at accommodating the Centre’s move to unify the three corporations — South, East and North. Demands to merge the three separate civic bodies have been afloat since 2012 when the unified Municipal Corporation of Delhi was trifurcated by the Sheila Dikshit-led Congress government. While the SEC imposed the Model Code of Conduct in early March 2022, questions have been raised on the timing of the trifurcation proposal. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has launched a direct attack against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), calling out the Union government’s move “murder of democracy” and an attempt to save face in Delhi where the party is facing strong anti-incumbency of 15 years.
The move to unify the three directly elected bodies will involve the passage of a bill in the Parliament and is likely to delay the elections to the bodies beyond April 2022. In a game of political maneuvering while the AAP has accused the BJP of arm twisting the poll body to get its way, according to analysts, the BJP’s decision to propose the trifurcation so close to the elections is politically motivated. All three civic bodies, led by the BJP for more than 15 years, have repeatedly come under criticism for rampant corruption and mismanagement of finances. This has often led to disruption of public services and delays in the payment of salaries of municipal employees and workers. By proposing to merge the three bodies, the BJP aims to solve the financial issues of the municipalities, which were exacerbated due to the unjust distribution of resources at the time of trifurcation. According to many, the move is also aimed at presenting an alternative to the electorate, to send a message that if elected to power for a fourth term, the party has a viable solution to solve the problem of poor finances of the three bodies.
Political parties have often portrayed the elections to the municipal bodies of Delhi as a quarter-final, claiming that a victory in these elections will facilitate a win in the assembly elections (or the semi-finals) and then the Lok Sabha elections (or the finals). The three MCDs cover nearly 96 per cent of the about 1,485 sq km geographical area of Delhi. Over 95 per cent of Delhi’s population lives in these regions.
Previous Elections and BJP’s dominance
Of the five municipal bodies in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the BJP currently holds all three directly elected municipal corporations — North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) and East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC). The BJP has ruled these corporations for 20 of the past 25 years and is in control of the civic bodies since the trifurcation of the erstwhile unified Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) in 2012. The other two bodies — New Delhi Municipal Council, and the Delhi Cantonment Board — are partly nominated.
The last civic polls were held in April 2017 when the BJP won 64 of 104 wards in NDMC, 70 of 104 wards in SDMC and 47 of 64 wards in EDMC. AAP won 21 wards in NDMC, 16 in SDMC, and 12 in EDMC, relegating the INC to third place across the three civic bodies with its tally varying between 3 and 16 wards across the bodies.
In 2012, the BJP won 59 of 104 wards in NDMC, 44 of 104 wards in SDMC and 35 of 64 wards in EDMC. While it was comfortably placed to rule the NDMC and the EDMC, it allied with independents and other smaller parties to form a government in the SDMC. In the same year, when the AAP was yet to come into existence, the INC won 29 wards each in NDMC and SDMC and 19 in EDMC.
In 2007, when Delhi had one unified municipal body, the BJP won 164 of the total 272 wards and formed the local government in the union territory. The Congress managed to win 67 wards to come in second place.
Functions and Finances of the Civic Bodies
East, South and North DMCs perform functions similar to those of other municipal corporations across the country, mandated by the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act 1992 and the Delhi Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Act, 2011. They are in charge of providing healthcare and education services, water supply and drainage system, upkeep and maintenance of markets, parks and parking lots, and overseeing the construction and maintenance of roads and over-bridges, amongst other civic amenities. To finance the above mentioned functions, the DMCs generate their own revenue through various activities and taxes apart from receiving grants from the Delhi and the Union government. Tax revenue sources of the municipalities include property tax, tax on trade, profession & calling, advertisement, surcharges on taxes, service charges on central government properties etc. Non-tax revenue sources range from receipt from water supply, sewerage & drainage, municipal markets, land & estate clearances and license fees amongst others. However, availability of finances and grants to the DMCs has often been a point of contention between the municipalities (under BJP) and the Delhi government (under AAP).
While the trifurcation of the body was done to facilitate decentralisation of functions, according to senior MCD officials, it led to an unequal financial division of the three corporations and is the leading cause for the financial crisis in the civic bodies. The SDMC ended up with a lion’s share of high tax payers in Delhi leaving the North and East with unauthorised and lower taxation category colonies and trans-Yamuna areas respectively. Several residents in both areas pay less tax, or not at all. It has crippled the east and north civic bodies’ finances leading to huge deficits and has increased their dependence on grants from the state. Consequently, the past few years have witnessed a blame game over funding between the AAP, in power in Delhi, and BJP, in power in the municipal bodies.
Civic Bodies’ Repleting Finances: The Blame Game
The AAP-led Delhi Government has repeatedly accused the Centre of treating Delhi unfairly over Union Budget allocations. According to it, the grant in lieu of share in Central Taxes provided in the Union Budget 2021–22 was kept unchanged for two decades while the total grants, loans and transfers from Government of India to Delhi were reduced from Rs 1,116 crore to Rs 957 crore in the same period. According to the Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi Manish Sisodia, the Centre did not grant any funds to the three BJP-ruled municipal corporations in Delhi that would have helped them tide over a financial crisis.
Controversies surrounding the budgetary allocations and the financial condition of the municipalities have been an ongoing issue. In January, 2021 several employees of NDMC, SDMC, and the EDMC went on an indefinite strike against non-payment of salaries and pensions. Deputy CM Sisodia, who is also the Finance Minister of Delhi, blamed it on the BJP saying the party came to power in the civic bodies 14 years ago and had “completely bankrupted” them. He claimed that the NDMC had only Rs 12 crore left in its bank accounts while East MCD had Rs 99 lakh in its accounts. According to him, the MCD owed the Delhi government Rs 6,276 crore.
On December 13, 2021, in another series of protests, nearly 10,000 staff of NDMC went on a 24-hour strike to protest against the non-payment of salaries by the body for several months. Signaling the precarious financial position of the body, commissioner Sanjay Goel pointed out that the NDMC had more liabilities than its total budget for the next financial year. According to him, the liabilities of the corporation were over ₹8,800 crore, compared to last year’s ₹7,524 crore which led to a 4% reduction in the expenditure proposals in the 2022–23 budget. A similar condition exists in the other corporations as well.
Within the last year, the municipal staff in Delhi have gone on a strike on ten different occasions, protesting against the delayed salaries, even as the AAP alleged that more than seven million work hours were lost due to the strikes by the municipal staff. Protests have often led to disruption of municipal services in Delhi as the residents complain of garbage accumulation, and a lack of service in municipal hospitals and schools. This has often led to a blame game between the BJP-led civic bodies and the AAP-led state government. Several municipal employee unions appealed to the Union Ministry of Finance to bail-out the MCDs or reverse the trifurcation of the Municipal Corporation as several BJP headquarters saw protests by the employees over the last 1–2 years. AAP and Congress have banked on this issue to parade the voters against 15-years of BJP rule.
Anti-Incumbency Against the BJP
The BJP’s more than two decade long control of the civic bodies has generated a strong anti-incumbency against it. The party’s local governments have faced severe criticism for corruption in the bodies, mismanagement of resources and poor delivery of services. The BJP has had to face criticisms from all quarters regarding creaking infrastructure, water logging, illegal constructions, transfers of MCD land to kin of councillors, extortion for permits and mismanagement of the exchequer. In an embarrassment for the party, former BJP Delhi Chief Manoj Tiwari admitted to the deep-rooted corruption in MCDs and that his efforts to go digital for transparency and clean governance had been stalled despite his complaints to the party leadership. In September 2021, after facing pressure from within the Councils, the BJP suspended three of its councillors on charges of graft, one each from NDMC, SDMC and EDMC.
Controversies involving waiver of Rs 2,500 crore rent dues for using the premises of the Civic Centre in Central Delhi, a Rs 1,400 crore scam in property tax collection by the NDMC, irregularities in the construction of Rani Jhansi flyover, which took 24 years to complete even as the cost of construction ballooned four fold from Rs 175 crore to Rs 724 crore and the decision to rent trommel machines for waste processing, instead of purchasing them, have all put the BJP government in a spotlight. Even as this is the tip of the iceberg of allegations against the BJP rule, none of the above have so far been probed by the investigative agencies falling under the purview of the Union Government. However, a concerted effort by the opposition AAP and the Congress has opened up the issues for the electorate before the now delayed municipal elections and is likely to impact the incumbent BJP’s chances at another term in the civic bodies.
Damini Mehta /New Delhi
With inputs from Abhinav Nain, Huda Ayisha, and Uday Wadhwa, Interns at Polstrat.
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.