Uncertain advantage

Print edition : May 24, 2019

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal at an election road show in support of the Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate from East Delhi, Atishi Marlena, on May 2. Photo: PTI

At a BJP rally addressed by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh (not in the photograph) at Shastri Park in Usmanpur area in New Delhi on May 1. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, Delhi Congress president and party candidate from North East Delhi, with her supporters at the party office in New Delhi on April 25. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The Bharatiya Janata Party seems to have an edge in Delhi, but sections in the party fear tactical voting by anti-BJP voters.

On the face of it, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has an advantage in the elections to Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats, which will go to the polls in the sixth phase on May 12. The party suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Assembly elections of 2015, just a year after it swept all the seats of the State in the 2014 general election. But the party is confident that it has bounced back in the past four years. The AAP, goes the argument, is no longer what it used to be in 2015, and the faction-riven Congress has not been able to get out of the deep pit it was pushed into five years ago.

BJP supporters in Delhi say that the very fact that the Congress and the AAP considered an alliance was testimony to the weakness of both. That the alliance did not eventually materialise is also believed to be working in favour of the BJP. Notwithstanding such expressions of optimism, however, a section of the party believes that significant segments of the population remain thoroughly anti-BJP and are silently waiting to gauge which party would be a better bet to defeat the BJP: the AAP or the Congress. Such voters apparently form a sizeable chunk in some three seats and may spell trouble for the BJP if they get their calculations right.

The apprehension is broadly based on the voting pattern of the past few elections. In the 2014 general election, the BJP got a 46.40 per cent vote share, while the Congress got 15.10 per cent and the AAP got 32.90 per cent. In the 2015 Assembly elections in Delhi, the AAP’s vote share rose to 54.3 per cent, while the BJP’s fell to 32.3 per cent and the Congress’ to 9.7 per cent. Two years later, the BJP swept Delhi’s municipal election with 36 per cent votes against the AAP’s 26 per cent and the Congress’ 21 per cent. The point to note is that the combined vote share of the AAP and the Congress has always been higher than the BJP’s in the past five years. A section of the BJP fears that determined anti-BJP voters will resort to tactical voting, going beyond party loyalties in at least three constituencies.

Interactions at the grass roots seemed to substantiate such fears. This correspondent met many people who were not yet sure who they would vote for and asserted that they would vote to defeat the BJP. Intekhab Pathan, a migrant from Bihar who sells fruits and lives in Uttam Nagar in the West Delhi constituency, said: “Right now, we are not in position to decide whom to vote for. The AAP has done much good work, and we are getting the benefits. But the AAP candidate here, Balbir Singh Jhakhar, is not that influential. Mahabal Mishra, the Congress candidate, has come back here after a long time. The call is still not out on who is within striking distance of outsmarting the BJP. Had there been an alliance between the Congress and the AAP, it would have been much easier to go and vote. We will, therefore, decide only around May 12 on who to vote for.”

The septuagenarian Harbans Lal, a former businessman from Mehrauli in the South Delhi constituency, echoed the feeling. He will have to choose between the AAP’s Raghav Chaddha and the Congress’ Olympian boxer, Vijender Singh. Lal is anti-BJP because he believes that the Modi government made the Bania business community suffer through demonetisation and goods and services tax. He, too, will decide at the last minute and vote for whoever is more likely to defeat the BJP.

Apprehensive BJP workers worry about the unpopularity of sitting MPs and the way people complain about their “invisibility”. A senior BJP leader from South Delhi said: “Most of the MPs did not keep their promises. In almost all the constituencies, people rooting for the BJP are quite clear that they will vote not for the BJP candidates but for Narendra Modi. The refrain we hear is that though all the candidates and sitting MPs are arrogant, unsocial and poor in connecting with people, the people want Modi again and will vote for him.”

S.S. Tokas, a BJP supporter from Munirka in New Delhi constituency, said: “I can say that no one is going to vote for the candidate in Delhi but for Modi. I have not seen our MP in the area in the last five years. Even I can see that many in the village are not even aware or bothered about who is their MP, yet they voted for the BJP and will do so again. But one thing is very clear that if we talk about the candidate, then the equation will change and it will become a losing game for the BJP.”

Yet, the general sense within the BJP is that except in the North West Delhi and East Delhi constituencies, where the party ticket has gone not to the sitting MPs Udit Raj and Mahesh Giri but to Hans Raj Hans and Gautam Gambhir respectively, the party faces an anti-incumbency feeling against the sitting MPs. Issues relating to local government and civic activities are giving the BJP candidates a tough time in their door-to-door campaign, especially since the BJP controls the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The thrust of the BJP campaign is muscular nationalism and harps on how Modi’s strong hands are safe for the nation. This is followed up by propaganda on Hindutva that brands all opponents as Pakistan’s agents. The Union government’s schemes such as the Jan Dhan Yojna, community electrification projects and Swachh Bharat are also stressed.

AAP focus

The AAP focus is on the Arvind Kejriwal government’s achievements, especially in sectors such as water, electricity, public health and education. The demand for full Statehood is also very much an issue. The argument is that while the Kejriwal government has done a lot of good for the people, it could have done much better if it were not constrained by systems that limit its powers. Full Statehood would help to overcome the limitations. The AAP leadership feels that the issue is one that people would respond to in the Lok Sabha election. However, responses from the ground suggest that the issue is still to really connect with the people.

The party also faces an anti-incumbency feeling. In constituencies such as North West Delhi, South Delhi and North East Delhi, people are seen to be openly venting their annoyance with AAP MLAs. In popular perception, the AAP is also responsible for the collapse of a possible alliance with the Congress. The question of an alliance is a big issue. Even some BJP supporters say that they might have voted for such an alliance had it materialised. A resident of Sangam Vihar, Randhir Singh, said: “In Delhi there must be a balance. If Modi is there at the Centre, the AAP or the Congress should be stronger in Delhi. I am a BJP supporter, but I wanted the alliance of the AAP and the Congress. If it came about, my vote could have gone to the alliance.”

Still, some AAP candidates such as Atishi Marlena in East Delhi and Gugan Singh in North West Delhi seem to have a good chance on account of individual appeal and public appreciation for the work they have done as part of the Kejriwal government. Gurgan Singh has done considerable work to improve the lot of migrants in the slums that dominate North West Delhi. Atishi’s stellar contribution in improving the education sector, especially government schools, is widely appreciated.

Congress thrust

The Congress seems to be taking the 2019 general election as an opportunity to revive a base that it lost to the AAP. That it did not eventually go in for an alliance with the AAP and decided to contest all seven seats is a pointer in this direction. The party has chosen veterans as candidates, except in South Delhi, where Vijender Singh has been fielded. The party’s campaign has not however picked up momentum on the ground. Vishal Gupta, a resident of Dwarka, West Delhi, said: “This election will decide the future of both the Congress and the AAP. If the Congress loses, it will be very tough for it to revive itself in the near future. If it attracts a respectable share of the vote, it will be the AAP’s loss. Much depends on the Congress votes that shifted to the AAP in the 2015 Assembly elections. In the last four years, people have started thinking about the Congress, yet it is very difficult to say how many of them will actually return.”

Community equations

Community equations in Delhi are significant. The Jat and Gurjar communities form a vote bank for the BJP. But people hailing from Poorvanchal, who constitute about 40 per cent of Delhi’s population, are a big factor in all the seven constituencies. In some of the seats such as West Delhi, East Delhi, North West Delhi and South Delhi, voters from Poorvanchal are the deciding factor. Two candidates hail from Poorvanchal: the BJP’s Manoj Tiwari, the sitting MP from North East Delhi, and Mahabal Mishra, the Congress candidate in West Delhi and also a former MP of the area. It remains to be seen how far their individual status will work this time among Poorvanchal people as there is a qualitative change with the emergence of the AAP and the focussed work that its government has done at the ground level for the Poorvanchal community, especially in sectors such as water, electricity, education and public health.

Thus, while outwardly Delhi presents a picture of BJP dominance, there are pluses and minuses for all three major political players. While the BJP banks on the Modi factor, nationalistic fervour and Hindutva, the AAP is seeking votes in the name of good governance and the Congress is trying to rejuvenate its lost glory by fielding faces like former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, whose contribution to Delhi’s development is considered significant.

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