Assembly Elections - Delhi

A third contender

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal visiting a constituency on October 13. Photo: Monica Tiwari

Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit with Haroon Yusuf, Minister for Food and Civil Supplies, after a meeting the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar on the spiralling onion prices in New Delhi on October 24. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Harsh Vardhan, the BJP's chief ministeral candidate, and Sushma Swaraj, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, at the launch of a revised edition of his "A Tale of Two Drops", in New Delhi on November 7. Photo: Monica Tiwari

In just over one year of its formation, the AAP has projected itself as a formidable player in Delhi’s politics. With constant comparisons between Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP’s posters have targeted the middle class.

WITH a new political party in the fray as a serious contender, an unprecedented anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress party, and an organisational crisis in the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Delhi is going to witness the most tightly fought Assembly elections in its 20-year history as a half-State. The entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its growing popularity in the streets of Delhi will clearly change political equations in Delhi, which has seen only the Congress and the BJP as serious participants in the electoral fray ever since it was granted partial statehood in 1993. In just over one year of its formation, the AAP has managed to project itself as a formidable player in Delhi’s political landscape.

The political ferment during last year’s anti-corruption agitation in India gave birth to the AAP. A section of the India Against Corruption (IAC) leadership, defying Anna Hazare, who preferred remaining apolitical, formed the party with a single-point agenda of providing a corruption-free government. In doing so, it broadened its understanding of “corruption”. It viewed corruption as a system comprising various methods of the powerful to sustain inequality and implicated not just individuals and governments but also multinational corporations in the nexus.

It is this maturing of the anti-corruption movement that distanced the BJP, an avid supporter of the IAC, from the AAP. With Arvind Kejriwal at its helm, the AAP put both the Congress and the BJP on the same level and exposed many scams under their respective regimes. Its political campaign touched a nerve with the common man. The educated middle class became the chief campaigners of the party. Its cadre came up with unique campaigns. “Is baar chalegi jhadu,” says the AAP slogan, referring metaphorically to wiping off the corrupt Delhi government with a broom, which incidentally is the party’s election symbol. It mobilised public carriers like autorickshaws and cycle rickshaws to carry the party’s posters that campaigned against high electricity tariffs, the Commonwealth Games scam and the water scarcity. With constant comparisons between Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP’s posters targeted the anxieties of the middle class, which forms a sizable part of the population in Delhi.

At the same time, it relied on door-to-door campaigns and membership drives. It targeted many unauthorised colonies, where more than half of Delhi’s population lives. The party claims that it has covered 4.5 lakh households in barely a year. The AAP has brought politics to the streets of Delhi again as opposed to parties such as the Congress and the BJP, which concentrate on forging favourable caste and community equations before the elections. However, its obsession to be seen as “non-controversial” has also prevented it from addressing pertinent problems of many sections of the electorate. For example, the AAP has not been openly criticising communalism and the rise of Narendra Modi in the BJP despite its ideological opposition to Hindutva. “This is ironical as the AAP is opposed to all forms of communalism. It aims to become a pan-Indian party. Yet, there is no substantial criticism from it on the rising incidences of communal violence across the country,” says a Delhi University professor who refused to be named.

Its soft approach towards communalism, perhaps, is to reap benefits in the Delhi Assembly elections, its only focus at the moment. Some observers say that the AAP hopes to be seen as the only anti-Congress alternative in Delhi and make inroads into the traditional BJP votes since the State unit of BJP faces an organisational crisis. “Kejriwal in Delhi and Modi at the Centre,” says Parshu Ram, a BJP supporter and a resident of Arjun Nagar, an unauthorised colony where the AAP has been campaigning for the last six months. This sentiment is echoed by many in Delhi.

It is for this reason that a significant section of the Muslim population of Delhi is wary of the AAP, despite its secular stance. “The AAP is good but I do not know whether it will be able to contain the BJP,” said Md Iliyas, an autorickshaw driver. Clearly, the most immediate concern of the Muslim community in Delhi is to prevent Modi from becoming the Prime Minister. It may be a political blunder on the part of the AAP not to criticise Modi, who also seems to have gained considerable traction among Delhi’s middle class.

While riding only on the anti-corruption rhetoric, the AAP has also been promising structural reforms in governance. However, its promises attract mostly the middle class. The poor are unsure about the party as it has also failed to address livelihood issues such as the rise in the prices of essential commodities, exploitative labour relations in various businesses, and regularisation of Lal Dora areas (unauthorised colonies). The rich are against it as they see a conflict of interest with the party.

It is this significant gap that the Congress and the BJP are eyeing in the face of a massive resistance from the middle class. Both parties are doling out promises of sops for the 40 lakh Poorvanchalis, migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who constitute one-third of the 1.5 crore voters in the capital. They also form 35 per cent of Delhi’s population as a result of increased immigration. The Congress, in 2008, targeted them and won the elections. The BJP, realising its own mistake in ignoring them earlier, has started to woo them. In the 2012 municipal elections, the BJP fielded 18 candidates from Poorvanchal, 12 of whom won. The Congress candidate from West Delhi in the 2009 parliamentary elections, Mahabal Mishra, a Poorvanchali, defeated the BJP stalwart Jagdish Mukhi.

The Poorvanchalis have upset the political arithmetic in Delhi, earlier dominated by Punjabis, Jats, Khatris, and Brahmins. After the delimitation of constituencies, this significant population is spread all over the city. “With large-scale migration from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the voters’ composition has changed in these constituencies. Also, several parties have been considering giving fair representation to them to woo voters,” says Abhay Verma, Delhi BJP vice-president and a leader from Poorvanchal. The BJP, in its attempt to loosen the Congress party’s hold on this population, also appointed Annapurna Mishra, a Poorvanchali, the Mayor of East Delhi Municipal Corporation.

In the last 15 years, the poor, who include most Poorvanchalis, have preferred the Congress to the BJP, a party seen as aligned with the seths and sahukars (traders and moneylenders). The Congress party has also, over the years, seen them as its primary vote bank and has put its energies in solving their short-term worries.

But the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress party is perceptible this time, unlike in 2008. Despite a drop in the vote share by eight percentage points in the last elections, the Congress managed to win 43 out of the 70 seats. The BJP, which increased its vote share by one percentage point, could win only 23 seats. However, a further drop in the vote share in this election could make things difficult for the Congress.

The anti-incumbency factor is peculiar in Delhi. Surveys have pointed out that people still like the three-time Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit but dislike the Union government. The most important factor pushing people against the Congress party is price rise, and the recent rise in the onion price only made matters worse. The BJP, by selling onions in various quarters of Delhi, is seeking to capitalise on this wave of discontent. It must be remembered that the price rise in onions dislodged the BJP government in Delhi in 1998. Large-scale agitations over rapes, scams and other forms of crime on the streets of Delhi, which were not necessarily directed against the State government, also figure prominently in the middle-class imagination. Sheila Dikshit’s government, despite having a decent run, could still lose as collateral damage.

In Delhi, however, the BJP has failed to project a united front. Until the first week of October, squabbles within the party over the question of chief ministerial candidate were quite obvious. Vijay Goel, the State unit president, informally projected himself as one until September. However, the party high command anointed four-time MLA Harsh Vardhan for the post in early October. The party high command was of the view that Harsh Vardhan, who started the Pulse Polio programme and the anti-tobacco campaign for the first time in India when he was Delhi’s Health Minister, had a cleaner image. After this development, Goel, who enjoys significant support within the State BJP unit, has become passive. Having been out of power continuously for 15 years, the BJP has already become weak organisationally. The Delhi BJP seemed to have been recovering only because of the “Modi factor”. Despite the best efforts of the party high command to unite all factions, Goel’s absence from the electoral campaign will make a considerable impact on the BJP’s prospects.

The Congress, on the other hand, has no such leadership issues, with Sheila Dikshit clearly at the helm of affairs. That is why the Congress campaign is more focussed. It has identified underprivileged constituencies and their traditional seats to campaign on specific issues. Along with showcasing its achievements like an improved public transport system —an asset to the middle class—it was also prompt in introducing the food security programme even before the Centre had passed the legislation. Along with this, Sheila Dikshit has ensured the smooth functioning of the single-window system for the poor to avail themselves of the benefits of government welfare schemes such as old age pension and assistance for the education of the girl child.

Delhi seems to be at an interesting political juncture. The impact of the AAP has been such that both the BJP and the Congress are taking extreme care to examine the record of their candidates with respect to crime. Candidates who have criminal records are being shown the door. The outcome of this election should not only pave the way for issue-centric politics in the capital but force the parties to concentrate on the concerns of the poor. Because it is clear that the traditional caste and community arithmetic will not work in favour of any one party unless the poor, now a force to reckon with in the event of a three-way contest, vote for it. Sanjay Kumar, Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in New Delhi, in his research on recent elections of Delhi has predicted that gradually people will start voting in terms of class as opposed to traditional caste equations in the new political landscape where immigrants matter the most. “Delhi hardly looks like one city. It seems there are three cities merged into one—of upper class, the middle class and the poor. These cities do not have geographical boundaries, they keep merging with one another, but the three cities have deep social, economic and political boundaries,” says Kumar. Perhaps, the political parties in Delhi should take note of this fact more than anything else.

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