Assembly Elections - Delhi

Shifting sands

Print edition : December 13, 2013

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit along with Union Minister Kapil Sibal releasing the Congress manifesto, in New Delhi on November 20. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

A BJP poster showing the high prices of onions and tomatoes in New Delhi on November 21. Photo: RAVEENDRAN/AFP

The Assembly elections will provide crucial insights into voter preferences in a political environment made uncertain by the Aam Aadmi Party’s entry.

THE social and political boundaries within Delhi are clearly getting divided on class and caste lines as the National Capital Territory faces a triangular contest in the elections to be held to its Assembly on December 4. The low turnout for Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s rally in the Dakshinpuri constituency demonstrates this. A reserved seat for the Scheduled Castes, Dakshinpuri has been a Congress stronghold. The Congress blames lack of drinking water at the venue as one of the reasons for the failure of the rally, whereas both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) see it as an indication of their own rising electoral fortunes.

Such a state of flux may not be limited to one constituency in Delhi. Historically, the Congress has enjoyed the support of the Scheduled Castes, Muslims, the poor, and migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar: the migrants form one-third of the city’s population. So much so the party could form a government in Delhi for three consecutive terms from 1998 on the strength of sheer numbers. The core support base of the BJP, on the other hand, has been the upper castes and the upper class of the city. They include Sikhs, Banias, Khatris and Brahmins.

However, the 2008 Assembly elections, for the first time, showed that the traditional support bases of various parties had become fluid. According to a study conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), after the 2008 Assembly elections, the support of the upper class for the Congress increased by one percentage point from the previous elections, held in 2003. However, its middle-class support declined by six percentage points and lower-class support by 14 percentage points from the 2003 elections. In the same reference period, the BJP lost its traditional upper-class base by seven percentage points, but it increased its support within the middle class and the lower class by one and six percentage points respectively.

In caste terms, the Congress lost more than 20 percentage points among Dalits, mostly to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), from the 2003 elections. Significantly, the BJP registered an increase of 10 percentage points of votes among the Jatavs, the largest Scheduled Caste community in Delhi, and 12 percentage points among other Dalit groups. The BJP also gained four percentage points of Muslim votes, thereby directly affecting the Congress. The Congress’ failure to field enough Jat, Gujjar and Yadav candidates cost the party dearly in terms of its Other Backward Classes (OBC) support.

The Congress still managed to win in 2008 as it could muster enough support from its traditional vote banks. But the difference in the vote shares of the Congress and the BJP came down, from 13 percentage points in 2003 to four percentage points in 2008.

Development rhetoric

This time around, the Congress’ idea of “development” may not be a vote-catcher among the poor. The party has been blowing its own trumpet, citing the numerous flyovers, the Metro rail, and the improved bus transport system in the capital, and claiming to have transformed Delhi into a world-class city in the past 15 years. “What is the use of such facilities if we cannot afford them? You cannot commute from one place to another without spending at least Rs.100. The buses were bad before, but we could at least travel without burning a hole in the pocket. The Metro rail is also very expensive if you commute to work daily. The price rise in essential commodities has never been as bad as it is now,” said Asha Kumari, a domestic worker, who has to commute 10 km daily to work for the Rs.3,000 she earns every month. Similarly, a large section of women are unhappy with the government because of the rise in food prices.

At the same time, the shift of a small section of upper-class votes in favour of the Congress points to the fact that the party’s achievements in the past 15 years have caught the imagination of the affluent. However, the party’s campaigns in Delhi indicate that it is not relying entirely on upper-class votes.

“It will be a mistake to keep talking about flyovers, the Metro and a world-class city as these do not appeal to the poor without whom we cannot win any election. The middle class and the upper class have surely benefited from these amenities, but they have never been our traditional voters,” said a senior Delhi Congress leader.

The remark becomes significant at a time when the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s development rhetoric seems to have energised the middle and upper classes of Delhi. The Congress campaign is focussed more on welfare schemes for the poor. One of them is about the regularisation of slums, many of which were demolished during the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Other promises include bizarre ones like installing foodgrain vending machines for the poor.

The Sheila Dikshit government was the first in the country to implement a food security programme. Other achievements in the past 15 years the Congress harps on are regularisation of many unauthorised colonies, better health facilities and an improved public distribution system.

The focal points of the opposition’s campaign are the failures of the Congress government—rising electricity and water tariffs, corruption scandals and worsening law and order situation.

The AAP, unlike the BJP, is wooing voters with immediate programmes such as swaraj (self-rule), a stronger Lokayukta Bill and electricity and water tariffs reduced by at least 50 per cent. Calling the goals “impractical”, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has said that it is only because of improved provision of electricity and water that the bills have shot up.

The AAP’s alternative political vision, even if one disagrees with it, has come as a breath of fresh air in Delhi politics. Political observers, however, say the AAP will need some more time to dent the existing political equations.

The party relies on volunteers and lacks cadre strength, and therefore its organisational presence in most localities is negligible. It has gained considerable traction among the middle class and the educated, but its potential to form the government—which means getting more than 35 seats in the 70-member Assembly—is doubtful.

The BJP, which was placed in a formidable position, is clearly nervous because of the AAP’s presence. The anti-incumbency votes, which would have gone in its favour in the event of a bipolar election, remain divided at present.

The BSP, which got 14 per cent of the votes in the last elections, is not a keen contestant this time. It entered the electoral fray only last month. This means that a significant section of Dalits and OBCs, who voted for the BSP last time, could vote for any of the top three parties in the fray.

The campaign is reflective of this. Both the BJP and the Congress have given adequate representation to Dalits and OBCs. The Congress, particularly, has given Jats and Gujjars a fairly good representation in its candidate list. The BJP, however, has given the ticket to more Poorvanchalis—migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

According to a report of the news agency PTI, caste will be a decisive factor in around 20 constituencies in outer and rural Delhi. Of the 364 villages in Delhi, around 225 are dominated by the Jat community while in 70 villages, Gujjars are in the majority. The Yadavs form the majority in 35 villages, says the report.

Notwithstanding the caste arithmetic, the most keenly fought contests will be in 15 constituencies, where the margin of victory was less than 1,500 votes last time. In 16 constituencies, the swing of immigrant workers’ votes will be crucial. The BJP, undoubtedly, has an edge if the anti-incumbency sentiment expressed on the streets translates into votes. Only a very good performance by the AAP can help the Congress secure its government in the coming elections, provided it retains a large chunk of its traditional votes.

The Assembly elections in Delhi will provide crucial insights into various caste and class preferences. It will also help review the success of the BJP in making inroads into the Congress’ traditional vote bank—a phenomenon seen in most parts of north India. How cosmopolitan Delhi votes this time will also serve as an important indicator to the 2014 parliamentary elections.

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