Assembly Polls

The Battle for New Delhi

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An electoral contest that has India’s capital rivetted

In June, half a year before the Delhi Assembly polls to be held on 4 December, Arvind Kejriwal declared that he would make his electoral debut against the state’s three-time Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit by contesting the New Delhi seat she holds. Not just that, the Aam Aadmi Party leader vowed to fight directly against her in any constituency she sought election from.

Many felt it was suicidal of Kejriwal to take on Dikshit in her own bastion. His political career, they warned, could end before it had begun.

But much has changed since then and the debutant’s chances are no longer seen as dismal. Kejriwal himself has simple logic for his choice of constituency. The BJP, he says, has conspired with Dikshit by fielding weak candidates against her in past elections. This allowed her to emerge stronger each time. He wants to change that. As the top leader of his party, he wants to pit himself against the top leader of the Congress in Delhi. This is not about chief ministership, he explains. It is about making a contest of a non-contest.

Meanwhile, for the same constituency, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has picked Vijender Gupta, who, as a former state chief of Delhi, is no lightweight himself. Many see this choice as an outcome of Kejriwal’s insistence on making a fight of it.

Little wonder that the capital’s New Delhi constituency has become the cynosure of the state’s polls. On her part, Dikshit maintains that the AAP poses no challenge and is delusional about its chances. And she does not want to enhance Kejriwal’s stature by having an open debate with him. “What for?” she said in an interview with Open, “I don’t even know what he stands for, and he has no political ideology.”

“The writing is on the wall,” says a cabinet member of her government. While Kejriwal has little chance of winning New Delhi, he says, “contesting Dikshit could easily result in a situation where Kejriwal loses the seat but his party makes major gains elsewhere”. The debutant party is indeed a force to reckon with, he admits, though unsure if its underdog strategy will yield results.

“[Dikshit’s stance] might not be an assertion of confidence as much as an expression of being shaken,” says a Union minister of the Congress who stays in the New Delhi constituency. It is not Kejriwal’s popularity but Dikshit’s loss of her own that’s a worry for the ruling party, he says, walking with me in Lodhi Garden. He is not sure whether the BJP or AAP will gain the votes the Congress loses.

The New Delhi constituency is unique in the sense that about 65 per cent of its homes are occupied by government employees. At first glance, Kejriwal’s fate seems sealed by this statistic alone. “We don’t doubt his intentions,” says an IAS officer who lives in Bharati Nagar, “but are worried that he may create anarchy.” There is, he adds, another reason that many are wary of the AAP leader: with bureaucrats and politicians the biggest beneficiaries of corruption, why would they support the man who wants to take a broom to it?

Another voter, a Revenue Department officer of the 1989 batch who was once Kejriwal’s boss, has this to say: “Black money fuels the parallel economy. Babus and ministers are not the only beneficiaries [of corruption].” There are illegal hawkers and street peddlers who pay bribes to carry on doing what they do. If not for this, they’d have no jobs. Plus, the constituency is full of middlemen who help with passports, driver’s licences, legal cases, railway tickets and assorted permits and certificates for a fee. They will not vote for the AAP candidate. “That is not necessarily true,” says Kejriwal. Even if they gain from a corrupt system, he says, they are unhappy with the rot that has set in. Even they want a clean-up. He cites the example of a drug supplier to government hospitals.

This man gets supply contracts for drugs that never reach these hospitals, but gets paid for them on the basis of fake bills. He pays half the money as bribes to government functionaries who get him contracts, even as he sells off the medicines in the open market. “He told me I want to supply medicine and run a clean business, and that is why he supports AAP,” says Kejriwal, “Winds of change are blowing, I can feel it.” Many others want to clean up their acts as well, he says.

In the 2008 Assembly polls, Dikshit’s nearest rival in New Delhi was the BJP’s Vijay Jolly, who lost by a margin of 13,000 votes. Jolly is now vice-president of the Delhi BJP unit. This Diwali, he gifted Dikshit a 20 kg basket of onions, the price of which had scaled about Rs 100 per kg at the time, perilously high for a government in power (in 1999, the BJP more or less lost Delhi to her on this issue). The CM’s equation with the current BJP candidate, Gupta, is not even perversely cordial. She has reportedly described him as an ‘outsider’ since he lives in Rohini on the outskirts of west Delhi.

“If I am an outsider, what is she?” Gupta lashes back. “She has contested elections from Kannauj in UP and once from East Delhi in the past.” And he is no longer a resident of Rohini, he says, pointing to his sarkari bungalow on 14 Bishambar Das Marg in New Delhi: “I live here now.” This is where Gupta’s election office is—a big hall with a white-tiled floor and a scatter of chairs. At the far end is a big table behind which sits Vijay Prakash Pande, a slim middle-aged man clad in a green kurta and black sadari sporting a saffron lotus brooch. Pande teaches mathematics at an institute he owns but won’t name (“It’s in Rohini,” is all he says), and here, he is in charge of logistics. He places an order of 200 chairs for a rally and then speaks to an elderly party worker for a band to accompany a padyatra that Gupta is set to undertake.

According to Pande, the BJP will win on the strength of an anti-incumbency wave. “AAP is not an alternative,” he says, “We are.”

Outside the hall, the AAP is a subject of ridicule among a group of BJP workers. How could a party that didn’t even exist until now deliver ‘change’? They find the idea of it funny. No one says anything against Kejriwal, but they dub the AAP a ‘mad elephant’ on a rampage, with no saying who or what it will damage.

Later, the BJP candidate explains what he sees as a key weakness of the AAP.

It has no experienced workers at the booth-level, and without these, victory is hard to score. “It’s all hype,” he says of the rival party, “This is a constituency of brainy people.”

Gupta is about to leave to attend a funeral. He talks about problems of the constituency—bad roads, water shortages, et al—that have persisted despite its legislator having been the CM for 15 years. And then he draws closer to say, “I have exclusive and explosive information for you. [Diskhit] is going to badly lose from here. I have not said this to anyone before.” How is he so sure? “I have been interacting with people,” he says, “They are not happy with her. They support me.” This conclusion, he drew from a door-to-door campaign that he began four days ago.

But knocking on doors is what the AAP has been doing as well—for four months. “This fight is between two parties,” says Gupta, spouting the party line expressed first by Nitin Gadkari, who dismissed the AAP as a ‘chaar aadmi party’ (four-member non-entity). His words echo what Dikshit said in an interview with Open: “Kejriwal is not even on our radar.”

Nachiketa, an Anna Hazare follower from Maharashtra who claims to be a BJP supporter too, believes he had reason to fling black ink on Kejriwal at a press conference on 18 November. “I have done this to protest the Jan Lokpal Andolan,” he yelled after he did it, “Anna has asked them not to use his name. Still, these people are using Anna’s name.”

That was shortly before an exchange of letters between Anna Hazare and Kejriwal was made public. In the correspondence, Hazare argues that the Jan Lok Pal bill cannot be passed by the Delhi Assembly, since it’s a Central bill and needs to be enacted by Indian Parliament. In his reply, Kejriwal reminds Hazare that he’d supported a similar piece of legislation by Uttarakhand’s BC Khanduri government of the time. In May 2012, Hazare had toured Maharashtra in support of a similar law for the state. Also in the news is Hazare’s demand of Kejriwal that he explain where some money went that was collected in the Anna Movement’s name.

As 4 December draws closer, the AAP also finds its finances under the scanner of the Central Government. Recently, Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde ordered a probe of its alleged funds from foreign sources, though he himself had given the party a clean chit on this in February. Just the publicity of the probe, however, appears to have done the AAP a good turn; within five days of its announcement, the party raked in additional donations of Rs 90 lakh.

Kejriwal says he is unperturbed by the probe. He has work to do. Apart from public meetings in the constituency, he has been meeting early morning walkers at Lodhi Garden. His constituency office is in Jangpura, a small room with a big study table and an iron shelf with bundles of paper on it. When I enter, I find a young man asleep with his mouth open curled up against a wall. On a sofa set are seated half a dozen young men and women updating the party’s donor list on the AAP website. In their sweat-shirts, jeans and slippers, and wearing the party’s ‘Main Aam Aadmi Hoon’ caps, they look severely deprived of sleep.

Total donations crossed Rs 20 crore last week, which is the sum the AAP estimates it needs to fight the Delhi polls. “This is the only opportunity to make a difference to the country,” says Vijay, 30, an engineer from Andhra Pradesh who was working for a firm in Bangalore before he quit his job four months ago to help the AAP’s cause. He is busy translating a Hindi document into English.

Equally enthusiastic is Rajesh Trivedi, a software engineer who lives on Pandara Road near India Gate. He says he left a paying job in Mumbai to volunteer for AAP, and claims to have visited nearly every household in the constituency other than the grand Lutyen’s bungalows that are home to judges and ministers. With the help of a few others, he has drawn up a list of public works that need to be done in New Delhi. Lodhi colony, for example, has a theft problem. “It’s a government colony,” he says, “and is still not safe.” Then there is Rakesh, 28, a doctor who’d have been doing an internship in Bangalore had he not volunteered. “I can take you to places where roads have not been repaired for years,” he says.

Coordinating all their efforts is Gopal, who gets incessant phone calls and claims not to have slept for four nights. He was busy with filing Kejriwal’s nomination papers. “We have received donations ranging from Rs 11,000 to Rs 5 from 12,000 families,” he says, “Mostly people donated between Rs 10 and Rs 100.”

An inspector general of police who lives in government quarters on Pandara Road, and has contributed Rs 5,000 in the name of his daughter, says that Kejriwal’s views are not new. But no one has sincerely done what needs to be done. “I am surprised that no one has dealt with these issues seriously in the past,” he says, “at least he is making the right noises.”

Having drawn so much attention, it was inevitable that the New Delhi constituency would see new forms of tamasha. Shiv Kumar Tiwari, an independent candidate, sought to make a show of himself by turning up to file his nomination atop an elephant, an act of grandiosity that the Election Commission has frowned upon. Its model code of conduct, among other things, prohibits ‘cruelty to animals’ during election campaigning. “I had checked with the nodal officer if riding an elephant was against the model code of conduct,” says Tiwari in his defence, “I treated the animal with care. It was hired from professionals who provide elephants on rent.” The joke among Congress and BJP workers is that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), whose party symbol is an elephant, might be tempted to follow Tiwari’s example. BSP workers say that its chances should not be underestimated. In the last polls, its vote share was 15 per cent and it didn’t even contest all 70 seats.

The polls of 2008 saw the Congress romp to victory in Delhi with roughly 35 per cent of all votes, while the BJP trailed by 2.5 percentage points. With the AAP in the fray, it is not clear what a swing away from the Congress will do to the seat-by-seat outcome. The Congress is banking heavily this time on poor voters in slums and unauthorised colonies, many of whom have been beneficiaries of Dikshit’s policies. She considers her awarding of ‘ownership rights’ to 895 resettlement colony householders ‘historic’. But her gung-ho claims cannot disguise the disgruntlement with her government. Weak attendance at a Rahul Gandhi rally last week in Mangolpuri, where a sizeable number of voters live in resettlement colonies, has shaken the party. Gandhi had to cut short his speech because there was hardly anyone left to listen. Dikshit was heard pleading with women leaving the venue. “My dear sisters, I know you must be hungry, thirsty… at least listen to Rahulji before leaving,” she was heard saying into a mike at the podium in Hindi.

A 75-year-old retired bureaucrat, a friend of Dikshit’s husband Vinod, expresses reservations about the CM’s prospects this December. “It will be a tough winter for both of us,” he says, refusing to have his name revealed, “I fear a snowfall this year in Delhi. She faces an electoral debacle.”

The Delhi government has not got its act together, he complains. He elaborates with an example. For three years, he says, he has written to many, including Dikshit, asking for street lights in his locality to be fixed, but nothing has been done. “They have even removed the electric pole now,” he laughs.

Then there are other issues that concern voters. Bharati Chaturvedi, a resident of New Delhi and founder of the green NGO Chintan, is upset that the constituency is a “resource guzzler” and “unequal” in its privileges. What Chaturvedi wants to know is what each contender will do to make the area more sustainable and equitable, and to improve the overall quality of life— especially of the urban poor—and all this with the use of less resources.