As you approach the Bhati Mines locality in south Delhi, it looks like a mini fair is on. Peanut and omelette sellers are doing brisk business. Children run around, pamphlets in hand, bumping into adults every now and then. Shopkeepers stand outside their shops, taking in the spectacle, seemingly pleased by the blip in the monotony of their lives. A group of labourers, mud-caked spades resting on their shoulders, has stopped to listen. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which formed the government in Delhi in 2015, winning 67 of the 70 seats in the assembly, has organised a jan samwaad (public meeting) in which a DJ plays music during intervals between speeches. This meeting is one of roughly 300 organised under the ‘Aapan Purvanchal’ programme in a bid to reach out to the Purvanchalis—people from eastern UP and parts of Bihar—a few months ahead of assembly elections.
The Purvanchalis comprise an estimated 40 lakh of the 1.4 crore voters in the national capital. “Thirteen of our MLAs in Delhi are purvanchalis,” Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh, who is from Sultanpur in eastern UP and is in-charge of Aapan Purvanchal, tells a gathering of about 200 people. “We made 1,172 ghats for Chhath Puja. Nobody has given Purvanchalis the kind of respect that (Arvind) Kejriwal ji has given.” In the crowd, 52-year-old Birbal, who runs a mobile phone repairing shop, says, “The government has done work, but it’s not ‘solid’. You can see the lights, CCTV and new roads, but little has changed in the lanes.” Another resident disagrees, pointing out that AAP’s efforts have led to the locality’s inclusion in the list of regularised colonies.
The MP, who is also AAP spokesperson, tells Outlook that Purvanchalis have benefited the most from whatever the Delhi government has done so far, be it free water and electricity (up to a limit) or better government schools. “My task is to connect with them and publicise the good work we have done,” he adds.
Posters of political leaders, including CM Kejriwal among the most prominent, congratulating people on Chhath Puja were put up in various parts of Delhi. A string of unsigned posters have also come up, claiming to be in public interest and chastising Kejriwal for his comments on Purvanchalis—the CM had said that people from Bihar come to Delhi on a Rs 500 ticket and get subsidised treatment worth Rs 5 lakh here—and for wasting public money on advertisement. The MP says Kejriwal has been quoted out of context and that he had meant it was something to be happy about that people from other states are coming to Delhi.
Manoj Jha, Rajya Sabha MP and professor of social work at the Delhi School of Social Work, says Purvanchalis have been a robust constituency in Delhi since as early as 1995. “That Chhath has attained political overtones and the government is making elaborate arrangements are proof that the Purvanchalis can tilt the scales in elections,” says Jha, who is also spokesperson for the Rashtriya Janata Dal. “The appointment of Purvanchalis to key party positions—Manoj Tiwari as state BJP chief, Gopal Rai in AAP, Kirti Azad as campaign committee chief in the Congress—shows how parties are catering to the Purvanchali voters. And the main issue for Purvanchalis is their right to live with dignity in the city.”
No wonder Kejriwal’s comments on people from Bihar coming to Delhi for subsidised treatment have added fuel to the fire. “What Purvanchalis need is respect. And we have a CM who insults and demeans them,” says Congress’s Kirti Azad. “Making arrangements for Chhath Puja is his job; he is not obliging anybody by doing that. In fact, much of the work in Delhi such as sewer lines, metro and flyovers was done by (former CM) Sheila (Dikshit) ji. Kejriwal is merely trying to woo people with empty promises.”
The BJP has been more unsparing in its attack. “Kejriwal’s hatred for Purvanchalis is evident. He even said that if the NRC (National Register of Citizens) was implemented in Delhi, I would be the first one to be thrown out. By referring to me, he is implying all Purvanchalis will have to go,” says Manoj Tiwari, BJP MP and the party’s state president. “Kejriwal might be giving free water and electricity, but the BJP has given leadership to the Purvanchalis. Now they are rattled. I dare Kejriwal to nominate a Purvanchali as CM candidate. He’ll never do it.”
Credit for regularisation of about 1,800 unauthorised colonies, which are home to a large population of Purvanchalis, by the Union government has been a bone of contention between AAP and the BJP. While AAP says it had sent the proposal to the Centre way back in November 2015, the BJP, in turn, accuses the AAP government of delaying the process and seeking time till 2021 to demarcate the colonies. The BJP, meanwhile, is planning a thanksgiving event with the PM in a bid to wrest credit for the move.
On the ground, political tensions are yet to build up. As of now, the mood seems to waver from enthusiastic support for Kejriwal to reluctant support to fence sitting. “It’s difficult for the BJP to defeat AAP. They can go from 3 to 13, or 23, but they can’t defeat them, says autorickshaw driver Jitendra Singh, who is from UP’s Etawah, putting forth his projections for the elections ahead. “We keep doing a survey as we ferry passengers all day. That’s how we know what will happen.”
In east Delhi’s Mandawali locality, Nathai Ram, a retired MTNL employee says Kejriwal has delivered on all his promises. “He has given 20,000 litres water and 200 units of electricity free every month. Which other government could do that?” asks the sexagenarian, a native of UP’s Rae Bareli. Hailing from the parliamentary constituency of Sonia Gandhi, he has little sympathy for the Congress.
“Even though people think Kejriwal is whimsical, stupid, a comedian-type, they acknowledge he has done work,” admits a BJP worker in East Vinod Nagar, who didn’t wish to be identified. However, there are complaints about the poor quality of tap water in several areas. Despite her woes of rising cost of living and smelly water, Bhagalpur native Bina Jha, 55, voices support for AAP for bringing down her electricity and water bills. Asked about Kejriwal’s recent comments on people from Bihar coming to Delhi for treatment, she fumes, “Had he been in front of me, I would have given him an apt answer. He forgot us after gaining power. He couldn’t get his own cough treated, though.”
The AAP chief’s comments rile Purvanchalis in west Delhi’s Mangolpuri too. “If Biharis and UP-wallahs leave Delhi, who will be left here?” asks Renu Singh, 46, who is from Jaunpur. She appreciates the improved healthcare in government hospitals, but expresses concerns about the schools. “The teachers don’t come, the kids are failing in several subjects. And the schools are having happiness class, dhande ki class (entrepreneurship class), this class, that class…when will the kids do serious studies? Only the kids from private schools will become doctors and engineers,” says Renu, whose husband works as a private guard.