Three cities in one

Print edition : January 24, 2014

AAP supporters at the party's victory rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on December 11. The party's success has blurred previously defined electoral categories. Photo: PTI

THE elections to Delhi’s Assembly have always attracted attention disproportionate to the National Capital Region’s size. It is said that the Assembly election in Delhi is the surest way to judge the national political mood. The first elections to the State Assembly were held in 1993, after Delhi was granted partial Statehood. Yet, the level of curiosity it generates is remarkable, and perhaps rightly so. From the anti-Emergency movement in the 1970s to the Mandal agitation in the early 1990s, Delhi has always been the epicentre of people’s movements, irrespective of their political leanings. Recently, it also became the centre of the separate nation-wide agitations against corruption and gender injustice.

However, despite the attention the State elections receive, there is a lack of scholarly writing on the composition of Delhi’s electorate and the political factors that are responsible for the way a political party performs in an election. Many a time, political observers and academics have expressed interest in pursuing a concerted empirical study of Delhi’s politics, but nothing has materialised so far.

It is this gap that Sanjay Kumar, a Fellow in the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), tries to fill with his book on Delhi’s politics. Titled Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi: From Caste to Class, it tries to map Delhi’s election journey from 1993 to 2008 on the basis of a changing electorate. Relying completely on empirical data collected from voters across the 70 constituencies of Delhi and statistics of the four previous elections, it tries to analyse voting preferences in the Assembly elections.

The book is not just about electoral arithmetic. The author also uses the data to introduce the reader to prevailing income inequities and demographic variations in Delhi. To do this, he briefly recounts Delhi’s history. He views Delhi as a city of migrants and documents the two waves of migration to Delhi: one during Partition, when many Hindu families migrated from the western borders, and the other in the last few decades when people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have migrated to Delhi seeking better opportunities.

It is within this framework that Sanjay Kumar differentiates the political preferences of the people of Delhi. Unlike in the other States in the so-called cow belt, the people of Delhi, according to Kumar, vote according to class and not caste. He divides Delhi into three different cities: one of the rich, one of the middle class and one of the poor. He writes: “These three cities are spread across Delhi and do not have clearly demarcated geographical boundaries, but have sharply demarcated social and political boundaries.”

Studying the elections held in 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008, he says: “Though voters belonging to different castes like Punjabi Khatri, Jat, Dalit, Brahmin, or the OBCs [Other Backward Classes] have their political preferences and sizeable numbers of them vote for one or the other political party, they seemed divided more on class lines. The lower-class Punjabi Khatri and the upper-class Punjabi Khatri vote differently. The lower-class Jat and the lower-class Punjabi Khatri vote similarly, while the upper-class Punjabi Khatri and the upper-class Dalit vote in a more or less similar manner….”

Since Kumar is a professional psephologist, the chapters in the book follow an orthodox methodology. The first chapter analyses how Delhi’s demographic profile has changed during the past few decades as a result of large-scale migration. He explains how Delhi receives the largest flow of migrants anywhere in urban India. According to him, this aspect of the city has played a crucial role in building the political landscape of the capital. The anonymity provided by cities like Delhi allows a poor, upper-caste person to work as a rickshaw puller and gives opportunities for a lower-caste person to rise up the economic ladder.

Changing profile

The second chapter deals with the constantly changing demographic profile of the constituencies, because of which the social and economic profiles of the voters are always in a state of flux. He explains how recent migrants to the city are in a position to influence the electoral battle because of their numerical strength. While he does not dismiss caste as a non-factor, he says it will only be a marginal factor in future.

This conclusion of Kumar’s will be seen as a highly radical one by political observers. In their understanding, Delhi has always been a city where Punjabi Khatris, Brahmins and Kayasthas exercise a tremendous influence on politics.

The third chapter uses empirical data to prove that class is more central to the social cleavage in Delhi than caste. This is the first time that any scholarly work has used such extensive data that focus on the electoral politics of the city. In this chapter, he asks: “Is caste-based mobilisation missing in Delhi?” While foregrounding his argument, he writes that parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Janata Dal (United) or the Samajwadi Party, known for their caste-based mobilisation, could not make a mark in Delhi and this proves that caste mobilisation in a metropolis like Delhi may not work for political parties. He says it is because of this that Delhi elections have been more or less bipolar until now, despite the fact that new caste-based parties have mushroomed in the adjoining States.

Voting preferences

The fourth chapter analyses the performances of the two major parties in Delhi: the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It goes into the details of their vote shares in the last four elections and how the vote share has varied because of many factors. It also analyses the voting preferences in Delhi, using numbers and percentages culled from electoral statistics. The last two chapters discuss the personality cult of Sheila Dikshit, former Chief Minister of the Congress, and the problem of homeless people, who do not have voting rights. He says that the Congress enjoyed the support of the poor, the majority, which helped it retain power for three successive terms. The BJP could not provide a solid alternative even in terms of a leader who could challenge Sheila Dikshit.

The book will surely have to be re-edited after the success of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Kumar’s work is surely an important contribution to understanding Delhi’s politics and cannot be ignored. However, the spectacular showing of the AAP in the recently concluded elections throws up new questions.

People in Delhi voted on unorthodox lines for the one-year-old AAP. It dented, to a huge extent, the categorisation that Kumar uses. The rich, the poor and the middle class—all of them voted for the AAP, helping it win 28 seats in the Assembly. The strict categories that Kumar proposes while analysing his data seem to have blurred with the success of the AAP. Perhaps, a chapter dealing with the effect of political contingencies like anti-incumbency or a national disaster on elections would have been helpful to understand the dynamism of electoral politics. While the book splendidly documents the differences between the various classes of the people of Delhi, it could also have discussed issues like corruption which have appeal across class lines.

Despite such minor limitations, the book is of immense help in understanding Delhi’s politics. It makes the reader experience Delhi in a way that no other book has done. Along with electoral statistics, it also uses surveys done by the CSDS in which people from different classes were asked about their opinions on various issues ranging from the privatisation of utilities to public transport to labour issues. And not surprisingly, the results differ widely from class to class.

That Delhi is actually a composition of three cities, as Kumar says, is an experience that any resident of Delhi can identify with. Kumar’s attempt to theorise these experiences is, therefore, commendable. Kumar has rightly included the two most important issues in Delhi—inequality and migration—in his study of electoral politics. The book also reasserts, by explaining in detail, the fact that only those political parties do well which are inclusive and are guided by people’s preferences.