Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal is undoubtedly the frontrunner for the Chief Minister’s post in the upcoming Assembly election in the National Capital Region (NCR). The word on the street is that he might win comfortably as even the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) supporters, who vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the national level, want “a Kejriwal” to hold fort in Delhi. The BJP does not have a credible chief ministerial candidate, and this is a major reason for such tactical voting. Delhi’s most popular BJP leader at the moment is the Delhi unit chief and former Bhojpuri actor Manoj Tiwari. He is seen as not good enough to change the BJP’s fortunes.
A staunch BJP supporter explained why he would vote for the local AAP candidate: “Even if I were to discount his [Manoj Tiwari’s] theatrics and ignore the fact that he is a singer and dancer, he is not from here [Delhi]. He has no real connect with the people of Delhi and does not understand the issues.”
Voters do not take seriously Tiwari’s election promise of providing “five times more relief” on electricity and water charges than what is available under the AAP government. One voter, who dismissed Tiwari’s statements as “bakwaas” (rubbish), said: “Currently we are getting electricity for free [up to 200 units]. What does he mean by five times free?”
The message from voters to the BJP high command seems to be that parachuting candidates from outside the State will not work any more. In the last Assembly election in 2015, the electorate responded to the BJP’s surprise announcement of Kiran Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate by reducing the party’s tally to only three seats. The vacuum created by the demise of BJP leader Arun Jaitley, who groomed people from across professions to become leaders, is being keenly felt by BJP insiders, especially in Delhi.
Election surveys and polls have shown steady popular support for Kejriwal and disenchantment with the BJP in the NCR. They indicate that voters want a candidate who has carried out welfare measures at the local level while the BJP is kept in power at the national level.
The IANS-CVoter survey asked likely voters across Delhi who they thought would win the Assembly election. More than half, around 59.7 per cent of the respondents, said the AAP would. Half that number, or 24.1 per cent of the respondents, said the BJP would win, while only 2.4 per cent said the Congress would. The survey, based on 2,326 urban, rural and semi-urban voters, showed that 40 per cent of the respondents would go by the image of the local candidate; 22.6 per cent said they would think about the chief ministerial candidate while casting their votes. But when they were asked who according to them was the “best candidate to be the Prime Minister of India”, an overwhelming 70.7 per cent said it was Narendra Modi.
Polls suggest that Kejriwal’s support is built on voters who do not mind an aggressive BJP at the Centre but want a neutral Chief Minister to cushion the blows of the Modi government’s divisive policies at the national level. In the run-up to the Assembly election, Kejriwal has steadily repositioned himself as a person focussing on the welfare of the people from being a person always at loggerheads with the authorities. He is playing smart and not engaging the BJP in any blame game. Former BJP president Amit Shah criticised him by saying that he practised a model of politics through advertisements and “development”, but Kejriwal emphasised that he would fight the election on local issues and a “positive campaign”.
“All Amit Shahji did in his speech was abuse me. I will not do anything like that. We will not abuse anyone. This time vote for Delhi, not for your political party… we will ask for votes from BJP and Congress supporters,” the Chief Minister said while addressing the media.
Ram Chandra Yadav, a lower-middle-class resident of South Delhi, told Frontline that the BJP had pushed its luck too far. He said: “People do not have jobs. How long can they keep up with the communal propaganda? It is clear they [the BJP] want Hindu-Muslim riots. However incompetent and corrupt the Congress was, at least it did not promote religious bloodlust.” He said he would vote for Kejriwal as the Congress was not looking strong enough to win. He wanted to keep the BJP out at all costs.
The voters whom Frontline spoke to reflected a weariness with the BJP’s usual strategies of communal violence and politics around the cult of Modi. They asserted that manufactured waves were short-lived and in the long run people wanted their governments to deliver on routine issues of livelihood, education and survival.
The pattern has been observed in other States too. After the BJP rose to power in 2014 on the back of a strong Modi wave, people elected whoever the local BJP candidate was for the State elections. Opposition parties had to contest against Modi and his larger-than-life image. But from December 2018 onwards, the States voted out the BJP and brought in regional leaders. The pattern was seen in successive State elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. Sharad Pawar, the kingpin in Maharashtra, and Bhupinder Hooda in Haryana steadfastly kept their campaigns away from themes of nationalism that the BJP was drumming up.
AAP focus on welfare
Kejriwal, too, has kept away from controversies surrounding the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and has been talking only about his welfare activities. When specifically asked to comment on the CAA at a press conference, he said that the issue should not be reduced to a Hindu-Muslim binary, and steered the conversation towards his governance in the past five years. But he did ask why the BJP was keen on giving citizenship to Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis while rejecting Indian citizens. He has strategically avoided playing into the BJP’s hands and getting embroiled in issues of communalism or nationalism, issues that lead to polarisation and ultimately work out to the BJP’s advantage.
The past few months have been especially volatile in Delhi. The Delhi Police’s excesses on students in Jamia Millia Islamia, their swift clampdown on protesters in Daryaganj and old Delhi, and the attacks on students on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, allegedly by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, have put everybody on tenterhooks. The BJP has tried to blame the AAP government for the deterioration of the law and order situation. But that does not cut ice with voters because it is well-known that the Delhi Police functions under the Union Home Ministry and has nothing to do with the Delhi government. It helps that Kejriwal and Sheila Dikshit, the Congress Chief Minister before him, had made a fuss about the Delhi Police not being under the control of the Delhi government. It is not, therefore, easy to pass the buck on law and order.
The BJP’s Rajya Sabha member Vijay Goel, meanwhile, said that he would undertake a “shanti march” to explain the CAA to people and tried to explain away the protests against the CAA as ploys by the Opposition to disrupt the peace. The Model Code of Conduct came into effect in Delhi immediately after the Election Commission (E.C.) announced the election dates on January 6. Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said that the Commission had held meetings with the Delhi Police, the government and the Ministry of Home Affairs to ensure that the atmosphere was conducive to free and fair elections. He added that in the event of an “extraordinary situation”, the E.C. had the option of deferring the election. This led political analysts to speculate that with an imminent defeat in sight, the BJP might plan to create conditions to force a delay. The sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh against the CAA has blocked a State highway for more than a month. Every second day rumours run wild that the police are going to disrupt it. The extension of emergency detention powers under the National Security Act (NSA) to the police by the Lieutenant Governor fuelled rumours that these powers would be used to shut down protests and arrest targeted dissenters and innocent Muslims alike.
It was whispered in opposition circles that Deputy Superintendent of Police Davinder Singh, who was caught by the Jammu and Kashmir Police ferrying two terrorists outside Kashmir, might have had a plan to disrupt peace in the capital. With the investigation of that case handed over to the National Investigative Agency (NIA), which comes directly under the Home Ministry, information on the case has been effectively suppressed.
Kejriwal is expected to have a smooth sailing in these elections on the back of his welfare measures, especially in the slums of Delhi. The seemingly simple measure of slashing electricity prices and making usage of up to 200 units free has gone a long way with not only slum dwellers but also the middle class.
“I did not have to pay any electricity bill for consecutive months. I am forced to admit that Kejriwal has kept his promise. What has the BJP got to show as far as work is concerned in Delhi? Nothing,” said a middle-class BJP supporter. Domestic worker Duna will vote for the jhaadu (the broom, the AAP’s election symbol), because she now gets piped water in her slum cluster. Voters whom Frontline spoke to also repeatedly spoke of the improvement in government schools and the free ride for women on Delhi Transport Corporation and cluster buses. The Delhi health care scheme, which enables any patient from a government hospital to access any of 67 empanelled private hospitals for tests and any of 44 private hospitals for surgery, irrespective of income levels, got much praise.
These schemes may not have been perfectly implemented, but a perception has gained ground that Kejriwal’s government has worked for the people. In some places, for instance, people credited him for building roads that were constructed under the previous regime.
The opposition blames him for unkept promises such as providing Wi-Fi Internet access across the capital. But Kejriwal is able to bring back the narrative to the work that was done under him. He launched a Guarantee Card promising 10 measures, to provide basic infrastructure in unauthorised colonies, build pucca houses for all slum dwellers, appoint mohalla marshals for women’s safety, make Delhi garbage-free and pollution-free and build a network of cheap transportation across the capital.
Kejriwal has a dedicated social media team to publicise these measures and this team is belting out catchy slogans such as “Achhe beete paanch saal/ Lage raho Kejriwal” (Five years well spent, keep it up Kejriwal) inspired by the Sanjay Dutt starrer Bollywood hit Lage Raho Munnabhai. While the BJP also has its digital team in place, by all counts it looks like a latecomer to the campaign. Notwithstanding the party’s stature at the national level, in Delhi it appears to be struggling to catch up with Kejriwal.
The election to Delhi’s 70-seat Assembly is slated to be held in a single phase on February 8. The results are expected to be announced on February 11. January 21 is the last date for filing nominations, while January 24 is the last day for withdrawal of nominations. There are 58 general seats and 12 reserved seats.
The new Assembly will be in place by February 22, when the term of the outgoing Assembly ends. The AAP won the 2015 election with an overwhelming majority of 67 seats. The Congress, which had ruled Delhi for 15 straight years before Kejriwal’s rise in the political arena, drew a blank. The AAP, however, suffered a setback in the 2017 municipal election and was routed in all seven of Delhi’s parliamentary seats in 2019 as well.
The AAP and the BJP are the main contenders in this Assembly election, while the Congress is nowhere on the scene. Political pundits believe that the AAP is poised to repeat its 2015 win.