OUTSIDE MIRZA GHALIB’S HAVELI, WITH with his romantic couplets on the walls of the arched stone memorial in Ballimaran in Old Delhi, politics wafts along with aromas of kebabs, firni, samosas and jalebis. Like the fare, politics too thrives in its multiplicity here.
In the twilight after a shower that has brought down the May temperature, the street comes aglow with yellow and white lights, like the rest of Chandni Chowk. Mohammad Iqbal, a resident who claims his family’s links to Old Delhi go back to the 17th century during the time of Mughal emperor Shahjahan, is engaged in a heated debate with a Congress worker about his party failing to enter an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). “This will help the BJP. Now the only question is who between the Congress and AAP will be number two and three,” he says.
A few shops down the lane, in his deep, narrow outlet selling sevai (vermicelli), Raj Kumar holds a grouse against all three parties— AAP, Congress and BJP, which he had backed in the last Lok Sabha election. “Our expectations have not been fulfilled. There are so many traders here, but see the roads.” His son, Anuj, also a trader, butts in saying Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the best. Kumar smiles, says Modi has a sway on the youth and goes on to praise the Congress government under Sheila Dikshit and Ballimaran’s AAP Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) and minister Imran Hussain. Kumar adds, “But, at the Centre, what is the alternative to Modi?”
Discussions in the street revolve around Modi. There are supporters of BJP Member of Parliament (MP) and Union Minister Harsh Vardhan for yet another term and others split between the Congress’ JP Aggarwal, a local, and AAP’s Pankaj Gupta, an IT professional. Those backing the BJP, several of whom are the party’s traditional voters in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, say it’s an endorsement of Modi’s leadership. While Anil, a chemist, appreciates Modi’s foreign policy initiatives, Naveen Khemka and Satbir, who work in a cloth shop, laud demonetisation. “Modiji has several khoobiyaan [qualities],” says a shopkeeper Keshav Ram, as the sound of the maghrib azaan (sunset prayer) resonates from the nearby Jama Masjid.
The voices in Ballimaran, which falls in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha seat that has a sizeable Muslim population, seem to stand testimony to Iqbal’s arithmetic, that the split in opposition votes between the Congress and AAP will give the BJP an edge. Most see Congress President Rahul Gandhi, and not AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, as a plausible face against Modi in a General Election. Mohammad Afzal Khan, a footwear shop owner who had backed the AAP, says the fight will zero down to Congress versus BJP. “The AAP has no wajood [identity] today. Aggarwal is a stronger candidate.” But Mohammad Ali, who sells watermelons around the street corner, owes his allegiance to the AAP MLA, echoing Adil, another shopkeeper. Salman, who has a pharmacy right next to the memorial of Mirza Ghalib, the 19th century poet, says being a Lok Sabha election, most anti-BJP voters favour Rahul Gandhi, but the AAP could draw some votes.
Against the backdrop of the polemics of Ballimaran is a quiet acceptance of the dissimilitude. The road, lined with shops and old houses on both sides, faces Red Fort, where Mughal emperors lived for nearly 200 years till the mid-19th century. One of the oldest markets, Chandni Chowk is still a bustling commercial hub, dominated by Bania traders, traditionally the BJP’s vote bank. In the 2014 election in Chandni Chowk, Vardhan, a Bania himself, won with 437,938 votes, defeating AAP’s Ashutosh, who got 301,618 votes. Congress’ Kapil Sibal, a two-time MP from the seat, managed to get just 176,206 votes, his share dropping by 41.73 per cent, compared to 2009. The BJP holds all seven Lok Sabha seats of Delhi.
The pro/anti-Modi debate splices through Delhi’s seven seats, criss-crossing the capital’s slums and plush localities, haves and have-nots, immigrants and inhabitants. Right from the 1952 elections, when Sucheta Kripalani defeated Jawaharlal Nehru’s cousin Manmohini Sahgal, both freedom fighters and politicians, elections in Delhi have witnessed political stalwarts in the fray, including former Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, senior BJP leader LK Advani and Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshiram. The emergence of Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP altered the city’s electoral politics. From a largely Congress-BJP face-off, contests became three-cornered. Like in 2014, Delhi is again witnessing an acrimonious triangular contest, replaying the consolidation of the pro-Modi voters and the dilemma of the anti-BJP voters.
Former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has no regrets that an alliance between the Congress and AAP did not firm up. “Why regret? We are fighting in seven seats. If we had got into an alliance they were talking of three, four, five seats. Besides, we are fighting independently and our workers are happy,” she says. Wearing a soft-grey cotton saree, she is all set to begin her day. At her Nizamuddin East residence, where she had moved in after losing the Delhi Assembly election in 2013, party workers have started thronging the living room, which faces the 16th century Humayun’s Tomb.
“The vote for BJP is because of Modi,” says Gautam, who sells bags in North East Delhi’s Sonia Vihar, where BJP candidate Manoj Tiwari’s appeal seems to have waned among Purvanchalis
At 81, Dikshit, who was chief minister for three terms, is still the Congress’ tallest leader in Delhi. The party again positioned her in the forefront of its campaign. She claims the AAP is not in the race. “The AAP slogan promises full statehood to Delhi. Now this is such an impractical thing to say because it’s Parliament that will decide on it. You start with a promise which is beyond you.” Statehood has become a bone of contention in the campaign of the three parties. An AAP billboard with Kejriwal’s image says ‘Hum kaam karte hain, woh kaam rokte hain’ (We work, they stall), a dig at the Centre for relentlessly creating hurdles ever since he became chief minister. A BJP poster with Modi’s image says ‘kaam ruke na, desh jhuke na’ (Work should not stop, country should not stoop). Senior Congress leader Ajay Maken, pitted against BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi and AAP’s Brijesh Goyal in the New Delhi seat, opposes statehood saying it will raise the tax burden on people in the capital, which is “fully funded” by the Centre.
Asked if she too had experienced obstructions as chief minister, Dikshit says, “If I felt restricted, we worked it out. And do remember that the part of my tenure when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister was when we got our Metro. When you are in governance, you are responsible for the governance of the people, the state. These differences you have because you belong to a particular party should not come in the way. You are given by the people the responsibility to govern.”
Unruffled by the anti-BJP vote division, Dikshit says her party’s rule in Delhi for 15 years will help them. “We have got a lot of work behind us which is appreciated, like changing the face of Delhi and turning it into a modern city,” she says. Dikshit, a Punjabi married into an Uttar Pradesh Brahmin family, is taking on two Purvanchalis—BJP MP Manoj Tiwari and AAP’s Dilip Pandey— in the North East Delhi constituency. The seat, created in 2008 after delimitation, has a Muslim population of 22 per cent.
Along the eastern banks of the Yamuna, in North East Delhi’s Sonia Vihar, where a large number of Purvanchalis reside, Bhojpuri singer Tiwari’s appeal seems to have waned. “The vote for BJP is because of Modi,” says Gautam, who sells bags. He praises the Prime Minister for the post-Pulwama air strikes in Balakot. His comment resonates with several BJP supporters belonging to eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, who pledge allegiance to Modi. A large part of Purvanchali migration to Delhi for work had coincided with Lalu Prasad’s rise in Bihar. “They came looking for livelihoods when with the rise of other social groups they stopped getting contracts,” says former journalist Sidharth Mishra, co-author of Delhi Political 1947-2013. Earlier in 1947 during Partition, the influx of Punjabis from Pakistan altered Delhi’s demography.
In his outlet selling sevai in Chandni Chowk, Raj Kumar holds a grouse against all three parties— AAP, Congress and BJP, which he had backed in the last Lok Sabha election. “Our expectations have not been fulfilled”
Dikshit’s candidature seems to have made it a BJP-Congress contest in North East Delhi, though there are traces of support for the AAP. Girish Kumar, who is about to open his tiny paan shop, says development, like highways, has taken place in the Modi regime. Right next to him, Rajinder Singh, who is boiling tea, has put up posters of Dikshit and Congress President Rahul Gandhi behind him. Lalima, a housewife who is just stepping out of a sari shop, is appreciative of the AAP because her electricity bills have gone down.
BOTH CONGRESS AND AAP leaders are appealing to those who wish to defeat the BJP to prevent the voter base from getting split. They are blaming each other for failing to stitch up an alliance to take on the BJP. Despite rounds of meetings between the Congress and AAP, an alliance—based on calculations that together their vote share could be higher than that of the BJP— has eluded the two parties. Rahul Gandhi has said the Congress had proposed fighting in three seats, leaving four to the AAP, to which Kejriwal initially gave his nod, but later additionally demanded the understanding be extended to Haryana and Punjab.
A BJP leader, exuding confidence the party will now win all seven seats, admits an alliance between the Congress and AAP could have posed a challenge. While the BJP is relying on Modi, the Congress is banking on Dikshit’s record from 1998 to 2013. The AAP is counting on remnants of its appeal among the city’s people, who, in a hope for change, had entrusted it with 67 of the 70 Assembly seats in February 2015.
It’s nearing 10 pm, the deadline for road shows, when Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, along with AAP’s East Delhi candidate Atishi, reaches the last stop at Shaheen Bagh in Jamia Nagar. Rose petals are showered from balconies, as people line both sides of the road. “Assalaam waalaikum. Ramzan ke paak mahine ki shubhkamnayen [Best wishes of the holy month of Ramzan],” says Kejriwal to the crowd in this Muslim-dominated area.
He pleads to all to vote on May 12th. “If your votes get split and Modi wins, you will not forgive yourself,” he says. Underlining his message that their vote should go to the AAP, he claims the Congress will lose its deposit in every seat. Atishi, a 37-year-old educator, is contesting against BJP’s Gautam Gambhir, a former cricketer and political greenhorn as old as her, and Congress’s 50-year-old Arvinder Singh Lovely, a former minister in the Dikshit government. At the AAP office in Shaheen Bagh, she settles down to address party workers. “Tonight, after this road show, both Congress and BJP will lose sleep,” she says.
Squeezing through the crowd in the packed room, a media co-ordinator ushers me towards her table. In the din, wiping sweat from her face, she manages to take a couple of questions. “Our biggest strength is the work the AAP has done in the past four years. People have faith in us, unlike other parties,” she says. Atishi played a key role in Delhi’s education reforms and says that in the East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency there are 250,000 children who study in state government schools. If you count their families, that could mean her work has directly affected half a million voters.
Former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has no regrets that an alliance between the Congress and AAP did not firm up. “Why regret? We are fighting in seven seats. If we had got into an alliance they were talking of three, four, five seats”
“People realise there is a candidate who made a difference even before contesting,” she says, admitting this is a highly polarised election because of Modi. Asked if the anti-Modi vote is getting split, she says “not in Delhi”.
In High Tension Street (as locals call it), from where Kejriwal’s road show had just passed, resident Mohammad Rashid says because this is a Lok Sabha election, people are confused as some see Rahul Gandhi as a face against Modi. The AAP has done work and there is support for the party, he adds. A group of students say Atishi has been effective in reforming the education sector and several children in the area recognise her.
Around 12 km from Jamia Nagar, at Chilla village, at another end of East Delhi with a different demography, BJP workers, some of them wearing Modi masks, wait for Gautam Gambhir, an opening batsman who is treading into the rough and tumble of politics. He reaches at the scheduled time to address a meeting of Gujjars, a middle caste, whom he promises that the sports complex in their area will be upgraded to an international one. “I want the youth here to get the same opportunities that I got in sports.” He also assures his party will ensure safety of women, clean air and water, and basic infrastructure, touching on core issues plaguing the capital, one of the world’s most polluted cities. Gambhir ends his speech by saying a vote for him would be for “fulfilling Modi’s dream of development”. His audience crowds around him, with the youth and women taking selfies, before he leaves for his next public meeting.
At a kabaadi’s (junk dealer) near the meeting, people who have gathered to hear Gambhir start arguing. “I want a party which will get a full majority to rule—not a coalition. Modi can ensure that. So I have no choice, but to vote for Gambhir,” says Ram Lal. Pawan Singh disagrees, complaining his bread-and-butter problems have only aggravated in the past five years. Ram Milan, who runs a tea shop across the street, is cynical, saying his life has not changed, but he is ready to give the BJP’s new candidate a chance, and Modi another five years. Abhishek Chaudhury, a diehard Modi supporter who runs a shop for making identity documents, says, “Pulwama may have been an intelligence failure, but Modi gave a befitting reply to Pakistan in Balakot.”
BJP leader GVL Narasimha Rao admits Modi is the protagonist of the election for the party. “It’s Modi all the way all over the country, and it is no different in Delhi. There is public confidence in him and he is getting all the traction for the party. In the past four decades, I have not heard of an election where people have rallied behind a prime minister after he has ruled for five years,” says Rao.
Dikshit says she cannot remember an election that has been so dictated by a personality. However, she says, people do vote for a leader at the Centre and in states. “That’s nothing unusual or special about Modi. But people choose because of general merits of a personality. Here nobody is talking of the merits. Notebandi caused a lot of problems, discomfort, losses and cheating. And then there is [the Goods and Services Tax], which has not yet taken off properly,” says Dikshit.
Rao denies the GST has turned traders against the BJP, saying they are no longer unhappy about the new tax. “It’s actually a selling point. Initially, people may have had some hiccups but they have realised they have benefited in the transition to the new tax regime.”
IN THE NEW DELHI CONSTITUENCY, Om Prakash Gupta, a businessman selling readymade garments in an upmarket shopping arcade, is disillusioned with Modi. A BJP supporter, in the 2014 elections he had watched every speech of Modi’s, confident he will bring “change”, ousting a “corrupt” Congress. In the same market, some other traders ask, ‘Unke alaava kaun hai (Is there an alternative)? It is this seat, the oldest of the seven, which is the abode of the corridors of power, including Lutyens’ Delhi, Parliament House, the Supreme Court, the high court, the diplomatic enclave and elite markets. In 2014, Lekhi, a 52-year-old Supreme Court lawyer, won with 453,350 votes (47.02 per cent), while AAP’s Ashish Khetan got 290,642 votes, and Congress’ Maken, 182,893 votes. This time the AAP has fielded its trade wing head Brijesh Goyal in the seat, where sealing of outlets, on directions of the Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee, has been a major concern among traders.
“People realise there is a candidate who made a difference even before contesting,” says Atishi, AAP’s candidate in East Delhi. Asked if the anti-Modi vote is getting split, she says “not in Delhi”
It was in the New Delhi Assembly seat that Kejriwal defeated Dikshit, replacing her as chief minister. For Kejriwal, who had won the hearts of slum dwellers, the middle class and minorities, the Delhi Lok Sabha elections will be a litmus test. In the 2015 Assembly elections, less than a year after the BJP won all seven Lok Sabha seats, the AAP swept Delhi securing 54.3 per cent of the vote share. The BJP, however, managed to hold on to 32.1 per cent, one percentage point less than 2013, but the Congress was reduced to 9.8 per cent. Kejriwal failed to retain his unprecedented mandate, and by 2017, in elections to three municipal corporations of Delhi, the AAP’s vote share fell to 26.23 per cent. The BJP won all three with 36.23 per cent of the votes and the Congress regained some lost ground with 21.09 per cent. Having watched political developments in Delhi closely, Sidharth Mishra, chairperson of the Vivekananda School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says most AAP’s candidates are not weighty enough.
Dikshit is hoping to rekindle her appeal among women, the middle class, Muslims, Purvanchalis and all others whom the AAP had poached from the Congress. “What has Kejriwal done for Delhi by his own thinking and initiative?” she asks, responding to a question on his diminishing popularity.
The three-cornered contest is getting more bellicose. During Kejriwal’s road show in West Delhi’s Moti Nagar, a man jumped on to his open jeep and slapped him. Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma, the son of former Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma, had won West Delhi with a record margin of 268,586 votes in 2014, defeating Congress veteran Mahabal Mishra, who came third while AAP’s Jarnail Singh, a former journalist, came second. This time, Congress has again fielded Mishra, who began in 1997 as a Delhi councillor representing the Dabri ward, while the AAP has put up Balbir Singh Jakhar.
In North West Delhi, a reserved Scheduled Caste seat, the BJP has replaced Udit Raj, a Dalit face brought to the party ahead of the 2014 elections, with Punjabi folk and Sufi singer Hans Raj Hans. He faced allegations by the AAP of converting to Islam. Hans, who was earlier with the Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal, has denied the charges, which would have made him ineligible to contest from a reserved seat. He is taking on AAP’s Gugan Singh Ranga, who was earlier with the BJP, and Congress’ Rajesh Lilothia, a former Patel Nagar MLA. Meanwhile, Udit Raj has joined the Congress.
Beside him, the BJP, which has given tickets to five of its seven MPs, also denied a ticket to its East Delhi MP Mahesh Giri. In South Delhi, a seat which the BJP has held since 1989 with senior leaders like Sushma Swaraj, VK Malhotra and Madan Lal Khurana getting elected from here, the party has refielded its senior leader Ramesh Bidhuri. He is pitted against boxing champion Vijendra Singh, who is fighting his first election from the Congress, and chartered accountant Raghav Chadha, the AAP treasurer.
The Delhi chessboard is all set. The city has shown it can go the same way as the rest of country, as it did in 2014, and then, in less than a year, change its mind. For the moment at least, the divided opposition seems to have given the BJP a clear advantage.
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