The Centre on January 18 surprised the Supreme Court by suddenly seeking a reference of the Lieutenant Governor versus Aam Aadmi Party regime dispute to a larger Bench of seven judges on what may be the last day of the hearing.
"We may not be remembered in history for having handed over the National Capital to a complete anarchy," Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre, told a five-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud.
The Centre's unexpected move came a day after it had completed oral arguments before the Constitution Bench. Mr. Mehta's request came as senior advocate A.M. Singhvi, for the Delhi government, was about to begin his closing submissions. The Bench reserved the case for judgment immediately after Mr. Singhvi completed his rejoinder in which he said the court should lay down in “black and white” the contours of power between the Delhi government and the Centre to avoid “overreach” by the latter.
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"A plea for reference to a larger Bench has to be argued at the very outset… You never argued it. Had you, we would have look at the case very differently… You cannot argue it now when Mr. Singhvi is in a rejoinder… We would have even finished hearing this case yesterday," Chief Justice Chandrachud expressed his surprise after hearing Mr. Mehta's request for reference to a larger Bench.
Mr. Mehta said all he wanted was to just submit a two-page note on the point. The case covered "issues of federalism between the Union and a Union Territory". "All the points were argued without mentioning the word 'reference'," the law officer said.
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The last few days of hearings in the case had seen the Centre face tough questions from the Constitution Bench, including one by Chief Justice Chandrachud about "the point of having an elected government in Delhi if the administration of the national capital is supposed to be carried out at the beck-and-call of the Centre".
Mr. Singhvi said the plea for reference by the Centre was an "ambush".
"This case came up before the Supreme Court at least 10 times in one year. Not once did the Centre mentions the need for reference to a larger Bench… This is just a dilatory tactic," Mr. Singhvi submitted.
"This is hardly dilatory. We are about the capital of the nation… My learned friend (Singhvi) may be in a tremendous hurry to do certain things… But we (the Centre) are more on the future course of action," Mr. Mehta countered.
Mr. Singhvi claimed the Centre's "two-page note" on the point of reference was actually about 150 pages.
“We cannot repeat the ‘capital’ mantra every time. Of course, it is the capital, and it is a capital with a legislature representing a democracy… It will be unprecedented for a Constitution Bench to consider the question of reference to a larger Bench at the stage of rejoinder,” he submitted.
The court however allowed the Centre to give its note on the point of reference.
Both Centre and Delhi governments are contesting for power over civil servants in the National Capital. Protests against the Lieutenant Governor had coincided with the hearings in the court, prompting the Centre to complain before the Bench that the Kejriwal government was resorting to “theatrics”.
This dispute over the control of administrative services is part of a long-standing power spat between Arvind Kejriwal’s government and the Central government.