Elections

Capital Contest: Can An Alliance of Former Foes Prevent BJP Hat-trick In Delhi?

Arvind Kejriwal's release on bail has galvanised Aam Aadmi Party voters in Delhi but there is a new challenge for the INDI alliance.

Photo: Animikh Chakrabarty
High Stakes: Arvind Kejriwal addresses a crowd outside his house after being released on interim bail Photo: Animikh Chakrabarty
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Ashish Kumar, a resident of Delhi’s Najafgarh, was initially surprised to see a crowd gather outside the petrol pump near where he works, opposite the Tihar Jail complex, on a balmy May 10 afternoon.

As he saw trucks with the yellow and blue flags pull across the street, he knew. Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, had secured bail. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief had been arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on March 21 in connection with a money laundering case linked to the alleged Delhi excise policy scam. “I don’t believe in these allegations,” Kumar stated categorically.

Originally from Uttar Pradesh, Kumar, a member of the Rawa Rajput community, and his family are staunch Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters. As a Delhi voter, he also qualifies his position with a distinctive duality. “I support Kejriwal in Delhi and the BJP at the Centre,” he says.

Kumar typifies the mindset of many voters in Delhi, consistent with their voting patterns in recent elections. However, Kejriwal’s release after 50 days in custody as a sitting CM, has injected fresh enthusiasm among voters in the capital, ahead of the pivotal 2024 Lok Sabha elections. “This time, I support the AAP because we want it to remain in power in Delhi in the Vidhan Sabha as well as in the Lok Sabha,” he adds, citing the “good work” done by Kejriwal to better the city.

“We want justice for Kejriwal. He has done a lot for the city,” says Phool Kumari Devi, a 52-year-old voter from Dabri in Dwarka, West Delhi, who walked about four kilometres on foot to Tihar to get a glimpse of the CM.

Kejriwal’s release from Tihar sparked an impromptu AAP rally, revitalising the party’s lacklustre campaign. Senior party figures, including its ministers Atishi and Saurabh Bhardwaj, along with the 2024 Lok Sabha candidates Sahi Ram and Mahabal Mishra, gathered to energise supporters.

Accusing the BJP of turning the country into a “dictatorship like Pakistan, Bangladesh or African countries,” Atishi told Outlook that Kejriwal’s release “is not just big news for the AAP, it is a big day for Indian democracy and the Constitution.” His release, she said, showed that the Enforcement Directorate (ED) had no proof against him and was acting at the ruling party’s behest.

Doubling down against corruption charges, Singh said, “If it’s a money laundering case, there has to be some money. In this entire investigation, not a single penny has been recovered from members of the AAP in the past two years.”

In terms of how the CM’s arrest could impact elections, Saurabh Bhardwaj claimed that incarcerating Kejriwal was the “BJP’s biggest mistake”. “It was not a strategic move, as it helped AAP workers and supporters mobilise better than before. It unwittingly gave us the biggest electoral peg,” he insisted.

AAP workers, galvanised by Kejriwal’s release, are now seeking a quid pro quo from Delhi’s voters with their campaign slogan “jail ke badle vote” (vote in return for imprisonment).

The party isn’t solely relying on the sympathy vote. Kejriwal, out on bail till June 1, expressed gratitude to Lord Hanuman for his release and launched his campaign with a temple visit at Connaught Place. Many AAP leaders, including the chief minister’s wife, Sunita, have embraced Hanuman, departing from the party’s socialist image. Former AAP member Ashutosh noted Kejriwal’s strategic shift, suggesting a calculated move to garner support from specific communities.

Voters in Delhi like Shubhankar Jana, a shop owner in Kalkaji, are now assessing the performance of political parties.

“It may seem like competitive Hindutva, but in reality, it’s political opportunism,” says a former AAP leader on condition of anonymity. 

The AAP is allied with its former rival, the Congress, under the INDIA alliance umbrella, granting the national party three out of Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats. “All opposition parties have decided to leave political differences aside and work for the common goal of saving democracy,” AAP’s Mahabal Mishra said.

Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee President and former MLA Devender Yadav also expressed confidence in the INDIA alliance winning all seven seats in Delhi. “We are doing door-to-door campaigning this time and, in each area, we are addressing specific issues people face. We are getting a good response from all Vidhan Sabha (segments),” Yadav said. 

BJP’s West Delhi Lok Sabha candidate Kamaljeet Sehrawat and BJP candidate for New Delhi Bansuri Swaraj at a press conference at the party office
BJP’s West Delhi Lok Sabha candidate Kamaljeet Sehrawat and BJP candidate for New Delhi Bansuri Swaraj at a press conference at the party office Photo: Getty Images
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The BJP, aiming for a third consecutive win in Delhi, faces a challenge with the AAP and the Congress joining forces. In previous elections, the BJP benefited from a divided Opposition. “BJP leaders have not done anything for Delhi in the past ten years,” says the Congress’ North West Delhi candidate, Dr Udit Raj who won the same seat in 2014 on a BJP ticket. “When I was a North West Delhi MP, I ensured the all-round development of the constituency, and even exceeded the Rs 25 crore sanctioned for MPs or development works, by spending over Rs 41 crore,” the former IRS officer told the media.

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To counter anti-incumbency, the BJP replaced six MPs, only retaining Manoj Tiwari in North East Delhi against Congress-INDIA alliance’s Kanhaiya Kumar. Bansuri Swaraj, daughter of the late Sushma Swaraj, takes on AAP’s Somnath Bharti in New Delhi. In the run-up to the polls, Swaraj, an Oxford-educated Supreme Court advocate, the party’s new “woman face,” has replaced former Union Minister of State Meenakshi Lekhi as the BJP’s candidate from New Delhi. The sitting MP was dropped along with Harsh Vardhan, Ramesh Bidhuri, Parvesh Verma, Gautam Gambhir and Hans Raj Hans.

Tasked with wooing young, working women voters, Swaraj highlighted the recent assault allegation by former Delhi Commission for Women chief Swati Maliwal against Kejriwal’s aide Bibhav Kumar at the CM’s residence on May 12. AAP’s Sanjay Singh confirmed the “distressing incident” the next day. But Swaraj condemned it as a “shameful” act, causing embarrassment for the AAP.

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Ahead of the polls, Delhi BJP president Virendra Sachdeva issued a “chargesheet” against the AAP and the Congress, accusing them of harming Delhi over the past 24 years. It highlighted AAP’s alleged “anti-national” and “anti-Hindu” stance, a “failed” education model and the AAP-run Delhi government’s “failure” to clean the Yamuna.

Voters in Delhi like Shubhankar Jana, a shop owner in Kalkaji, are now assessing the performance of political parties. Jana says the Goods and Services Tax (GST) implementation has deeply hurt small businesses like his. “The INDIA alliance is talking about inflation. It’s a real issue with voters like us and it can only be controlled by parties in power at the Centre,” he says.

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Rohini resident Dilawar Singh, who works as a manual scavenger despite the practice being outlawed, urges voting for parties that understand local issues. “We are employed by private contractors for sewer and septic tank cleaning by the Delhi Jal Board. The government needs to look at such issues,” he states. Singh acknowledges AAP’s improved government schools, benefitting his children, but notes Dalit manual scavengers struggle to find other work.

Fatima, a Shaheen Bagh resident and shop assistant, appreciates the free bus service for working women initiated by the AAP government, but underscores the fact that Delhi continues to be unsafe for women. “The ride on the bus is free, but the bus itself remains unsafe,” she adds.

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(This appeared in the print 'Capital Contest')

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