Ai vaaye inqilaab zamaane ke jaur se
Dilli Zafar ke haath se pal mein nikal gayi
(Alas! What a revolution, due to cruelty of the age
Delhi slipped out of Zafar’s hands in a moment)
—Bahadur Shah Zafar
Nineteenth century poetry by the last Mughal emperor may not be apt for modern electoral battles but the verses do provide invaluable context for any battle for Dilli—a vibrant, pulsating city which has been at the heart of all power struggles in the vast swathe of land that is India. Early next year, when assembly elections are slated for the city-state of Delhi, this battle will have many layers, many meanings for the BJP. It’s the modern version of the all-conquering empire that now rules most of India. Yet, Dilli is out of its grasp still. And hence, this is a battle the BJP is determined to win—a battle of prestige, a battle for pride for the ruling party at the Centre.
For the BJP, Maharashtra and Haryana are done, albeit not without some hiccups. Jharkhand is the next port of call but it’s the big-ticket Delhi election that holds much more at stake for the party. But it will not be an easy battle. For, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is a battle-hardened general who has honed his political and electoral skills the hard way. He has also toned down his aggressive street-fighter image to that of an administrator who takes pride in his “achievements”, especially in health and education.
Party leaders exude confidence that Delhi will be a repeat of 2015 when Kejriwal won a historic mandate by winning 67 out of 70 seats, a result that ended the Congress’s 15-year reign in the city-state. Rajya Sabha MP and AAP leader Sanjay Singh says the government’s “splendid record” in the past five years will win a second term. “We have fulfilled our election promises of mohalla clinics, schools, 200 units free electricity, free water, CCTV cameras, marshals in buses, among many other schemes,” Singh says.
In the past months, Kejriwal has rolled out a largesse of freebies, all with an eye on the polls (see box). Full-page advertisements and roadside banners highlighting his government’s schemes have become frequent. And all these started right after the Lok Sabha elections when the BJP swept all seven seats in Delhi. This was the warning bell the AAP could ill afford to ignore. In fact, the AAP’s vote share of 18.1 per cent was a distant third, even behind the Congress’s 22.5 per cent. The BJP grabbed a staggering 56.6 per cent of the votes.
“After the Lok Sabha elections, many things have changed. While other opposition parties remained in gloom post-Lok Sabha elections, the AAP hit the ground running,” says political analyst Praveen Rai. “(Even otherwise) they have been doing a lot of work…their accomplishments include setting up of mohalla clinics, reforms in education and better transport etc.” Rai believes that the government’s battle against pollution—one of the biggest issues in Delhi—and its recent announcement of raising the minimum wages of 55 lakh workers will give a fillip to their winning prospects. This week, the AAP government also rolled out free rides for women in city buses, which many believe could be a game-changer in the hustings.
The results in Maharashtra and Haryana have also come as a morale-booster for the AAP, with the BJP falling short of its own expectations. Though the BJP is all set to form the governments in the two states, the fact that it has fallen short of absolute majority has kindled hopes for AAP, as well as the Congress, in Delhi. For the record, the BJP lost in constituencies adjacent to Delhi. More importantly, it lost in urban pockets, which are traditional voters of the saffron party. Political analysts, though, warn against reading too much into a decline in assembly vote share compared to Lok Sabha elections. “We shouldn’t look at the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the vote share. State elections are fought differently. The victory of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh also point to different voting patterns,” says Rai.
But observers do say the recent elections have proved beyond doubt that voters have rejected the BJP’s narrative of hyper-nationalism. Local issues such as agrarian crisis and unemployment are likely to dominate state elections, they say. Many believe that the AAP’s strategic ploy of avoiding direct attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his policies will benefit the party. The party had come in for criticism from many quarters for adopting a soft approach towards Modi and supporting the repeal of Article 370.
However, party spokesperson Saurabh Bharadwaj says the party would focus more on their accomplishments rather than Modi-bashing. “We are avoiding a direct attack on Modi because we realised that the only effective way is to talk about our work more. Only the voters can get the country out of the mess. People will teach the BJP a lesson. There’s extreme positivity about the AAP government,” says Bharadwaj. Observers also point out that the BJP, which was riding high on the dominant narrative of repealing Article 370, may be forced to change its strategy as it didn’t yield the desired results in the state elections.
Though a few pre-poll surveys point to an upper hand for AAP in Delhi, the BJP leadership maintains that the party will continue its winning streak in the state. “We are upbeat about the Delhi elections. We have won several elections in the past five years whether it’s Haryana, Maharashtra, or other states,” says BJP Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Goel.
The Union cabinet’s recent decision to regularise unauthorised colonies—shanties which have come up over the years with migrants squatting on government land—in the national capital is also expected to boost the BJP’s prospects as it would give land rights as well as access to infrastructure and civic amenities to about 40 lakh people. These migrant residents form the core of AAP’s voter base in 35 of the 70 assembly constituencies. Goel also came down heavily on the AAP government for its claims on mohalla clinics. “They are a publicity stunt. They are like highway dhabas. It’s like keeping doctors in highway dhabas,” he says.
Murmurs of power tussle in the BJP’s state leadership have also surfaced of late. AAP leaders claim that the BJP failed to project a chief ministererial face because there are many in the race. The BJP, however, dismisses such talks. “There is no dissidence or power tussle in the party. We will fight under the leadership of Manoj Tiwari,” says Goel.
On the sidelines of the match-up between the AAP and BJP is the Congress, hoping for a miracle against all odds. The Congress’s newly-elected state chief, Subhash Chopra, is confident that the party will form the government in Delhi this time. The appointment of Chopra came three months after the death of Sheila Dikshit. A three-time legislator from Kalkaji, Chopra tells Outlook that the party will spell out its poll strategies on the Ayodhya verdict and other issues soon. “Things are changing. We are confident that the Congress will form the government in Delhi. People are fed up with the Kejriwal government. I appreciate the free rides for women, but why didn’t they do it five years ago?” he asks.
Taking on Kejriwal over electricity and water, Chopra says the CM should spend taxpayers’ money on development rather than on advertisements. “Who got 24/7 electricity in Delhi? When the Congress government took over, there was no electricity for 10 to 12 hours in the city. People used to cry over water scarcity. We gave 24-hour water in the city…and Congress never charged for water,” says Chopra.
But it will take more than just past glory for the Congress to recapture power in Dilli. History seldom takes sides in battles. Or elections. Zafar’s shayari succinctly reminds us of this fact.
- Free rides for women in DTC buses within NCR
- Free electricity up to 200 units for domestic consumers
- Waiver of water bill arrears
- Marshals on buses for women’s security
- Hike in minimum wages