The Congress party on Monday finally declared six of its seven candidates for Delhi’s Lok Sabha elections, setting the stage for a three-cornered fight in the national capital and putting to rest months of speculations over an alliance with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party “to stop Narendra Modi and the BJP”.
Outlook had reported on April 17 that the negotiations between the two parties had failed after both the sides refused to budge from their positions – the Congress wanted an alliance only for Delhi while the AAP insisted on an arrangement in Haryana and Punjab too. Though the two parties continued to claim over the next few days that they were still trying to build a consensus over the pre-poll pact, with AAP asking six of its candidates to delay the filing of their nomination papers, Congress sources had told Outlook that time for talks was over and the party leadership was set to announce its nominees in a few days.
On Monday morning, the Congress named six of its candidates – Sheila Dikshit from North East Delhi, Ajay Maken from New Delhi, JP Aggarwal from Chandni Chowk, Mahabal Mishra from West Delhi, Arvinder Singh Lovely from East Delhi and Rajesh Lilothia from North West Delhi. For the South Delhi constituency, the party is expected to declare its candidate by Tuesday; it is considering names of Olympic medal-winning wrestler Sushil Kumar, former Delhi Assembly Speaker Yoganand Shastri and party spokesperson Pawan Khera.
The BJP, which had won all of Delhi’s seven seats in 2014, has so far re-nominated four of its sitting MPs – Dr Harsh Vardhan (Chandni Chowk), Manoj Tiwari (North East Delhi), Parvesh Verma (West Delhi) and Ramesh Bidhuri (South Delhi) – and is likely to name its remaining candidates by Tuesday. The AAP has named all its nominees – Atishi (East), Raghav Chaddha (South), Pankaj Gupta (Chandni Chowk), Gugan Singh (North West), Balbir Jakhar (West), Dilip Pandey (North East) and Brajesh Goel (New Delhi).
The Congress party’s choice of candidates is interesting for various reasons. The party, particularly its president Rahul Gandhi, was keen on an alliance with AAP primarily because of a belief that the combined vote share of the two parties would translate into an anti-BJP sweep in the national capital. If its choice of candidates is anything to go by, the Congress seems to not just take on the BJP, but perhaps more importantly, has also decided to give no quarter to AAP.
Take the East Delhi constituency for example. The seat was won by BJP’s Maheish Giri in 2014. In the current poll season, AAP’s Atishi, riding on a favourable wave owing to her stellar work in improving Delhi's public school infrastructure and a pleasing personality, is seen as a clear favourite to wrest the seat. In fact, many in AAP believed that the party’s brightest chance of winning a seat in Delhi was in the East Delhi constituency due to the popularity of its candidate and the work of her erstwhile boss in the state’s education department, Manish Sisodia, who represents Patparganj assembly segment that falls within this parliamentary seat.
While the BJP is yet to name its candidate from East Delhi – there is a buzz that it may replace Giri – the decision of the Congress to field Lovely from here shows that the party isn’t willing to give Atishi an easy win. A former Delhi minister with substantial clout among Sikhs, who form a significant chunk among the East Delhi electorate, Lovely is a Sheila Dikshit prodigy. However, when things went crashing for the Congress following the AAP’s rise, Lovely was among the first high-profile deserters from the grand old party to join the BJP. He came back to the Congress after it became clear that Dikshit was set to regain control of the party’s Delhi unit from her rival, Ajay Maken, and now is pitted from a constituency from where the former Delhi Chief Minister’s son, Sandeep Dikshit, was a two-term MP (in 2004 and 2009).
The 81-year-old Dikshit herself has jumped into the electoral fray from the North East Delhi constituency; a decision that party sources say was thrust upon her after her son, Sandeep, refused to contest. Dikshit’s main political rival here is Bhojpuri actor and BJP’s incumbent MP, Manoj Tiwari. Tiwari enjoys support among North East Delhi’s substantial Purvanchali population. The AAP has fielded a political greenhorn, Dilip Pandey, but is hoping that Kejriwal’s massive efforts at providing cheaper electricity and better water supply – popular achievements in this constituency which has huge tracts of slum clusters and large population of the lower income groups – will help the party make incremental gains in North East Delhi. Dikshit, on her part, has her achievements from her 15-year-stint as Delhi CM (which saw the Delhi Metro take off from this constituency) along with a loyal cadre to bank on. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, though Congress candidates had lost their deposits in all of Delhi’s Lok Sabha seats and finished third after the BJP and AAP, its candidate – JP Aggarwal – had still managed to win the largest bloc of votes among his party candidates from the remaining six seats.
Aggarwal is trying his luck from Chandni Chowk this time. He had last represented the seat in the mid-1990s and was moved to the North East Delhi seat in 2009. He won it by a margin of over 2 lakh votes. Interestingly, former union minister Kapil Sibal, who had won the Chandni Chowk seat for the Congress in 2004 and 2009, has bowed out of the electoral race this time, forcing the party to send Aggarwal back to this constituency. Chandni Chowk has a significant population of his bania community along with a large presence of Punjabis. Aggarwal is pitted against BJP’s Dr Harsh Vardhan, a popular Delhi leader but whose main support base remains in East Delhi, and the AAP’s Pankaj Gupta.
Maken, who had lost his deposit in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls against the BJP and AAP, and then again in the 2015 assembly polls, is trying to avenge his humiliation in the New Delhi seat. He had last won in 2009. The BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi had won the seat in 2014 though she may not be re-nominated this time around. Despite electoral setbacks, Maken still remains popular in some parts of New Delhi although the seat has a substantial presence of bureaucrats and government employees who tend to vote for the incumbent government.
In West Delhi, another seat that has a heavy Purvanchali vote base, the Congress has once again fielded Mahabal Mishra, known in Delhi’s political circles for his muscle power and clout among the electorate of migrants from Eastern UP and Bihar. On Sunday, amid rumours that Mishra may be denied a ticket, his supporters had surrounded the Congress headquarters and shouted anti-Rahul Gandhi slogans.
AAP insiders admit that their weakest candidates are West Delhi’s Balbir Jakhar, North West’s Gugan Singh and Brajesh Goel in New Delhi but hope that the work of the Kejriwal government, at least in the West and North West segments, will help the party overcome the lack of familiarity of its nominees in these constituencies.
A senior Congress leader told Outlook that there was little doubt that a three-cornered contest in at least five of Delhi’s seven seats will split the anti-BJP vote between the AAP and Congress. The party is convinced that AAP’s stunning 2015 victory, when it bagged 67 of Delhi 70 assembly seats, was largely because the Congress’s vote had en mass shifted to Kejriwal’s candidates. The party is hoping that this shift will now be reversed – even if partially – in favour of Dikshit, Maken, Aggarwal, Mishra and Lovely, but fear that while this may mean a boost in the Congress’s vote share, the actual benefit in terms of winning seats will be reaped by the BJP which is expected to benefit from the continuing consolidation of its cadre.
Why then, did the Congress leadership, allow the alliance talks with AAP to fail? Kejriwal’s emissaries had, after all, told Congress leaders that they were willing for a Delhi-only alliance provided that the grand old party scale down its expectations and contest on two and not three of Delhi’s seven seats, leaving the rest to AAP. Congress sources say that though they may not be able to win more than two seats, a higher vote share may help the party rebuild its base. With assembly elections due in nine months, the party hopes to emerge as the kingmaker in an election that is expected to throw up a hung verdict like 2013. A far-fetched dream or a gamble worth throwing the extant game away? There won’t be any clear answers till May 23.