Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal
on a roadshow at Hari Nagar,
New Delhi, January 29 (Photo: Getty Images)
A RUNNING TOPIC OF conversation on social media these days is political and ideological divisions within families and how these are impacting close relationships. Savita Singh, a 20-year-old resident of an unauthorised shanty in Timarpur, though active on social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok, is unaware of the debate. She immediately recognises the context since that is what plays out in her family every day. The mere mention of Delhi elections launches a war of words between her and her elder sister Rakhi, which ceases only after a sharp reprimand from their mother Jamna Bai. Savita is a committed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supporter, the ruling party in Delhi, while Rakhi is a devoted fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, by extension, of the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP. Savita is in favour of giving Arvind Kejriwal, the incumbent Delhi Chief Minister, another chance, while Rakhi feels that the BJP looks after her interests as an Indian and she should vote keeping that in mind. “This is the scene in my house, day in and day out. There are shouting matches, the neighbours get involved. I see it as a sign of how politically evolved and mature my daughters are,” says Jamna Bai. While she and Rakhi get by on whatever work they can get, which includes packaging balloons at a rate of Rs 3 for 10 packets, Savita, the most educated in the family (she has studied till Class XII), is an aspiring actor who plays Parvati and other leading roles in religious dramas across the city.
Both Rakhi and Savita were born in Delhi but their parents migrated from Jhansi in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP). Nearly everyone in their locality hail from neighbouring villages and districts. In fact, nearly all of Northeast Delhi constituency, under which Timarpur falls, is densely populated with migrants who have roots in eastern UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, and are collectively referred to as Poorvanchali, ‘poorv’ in Hindi meaning east. It is believed that nearly 40 per cent of the population in West, Northwest, Northeast and South Delhi is Poorvanchali. Most of them are working class and live in densely populated, often unauthorised shanties, quite like Savita and Rakhi, but they hold the keys to one of the more powerful addresses in the city—the Delhi Secretariat.
It was in 2015 that the might of the Poorvanchalis as a voting bloc emerged when the AAP gave tickets to 13 hopefuls and they were elected to the legislature with a thumping majority (the party won 67 of 70 seats). In the same year, the BJP appointed Bhojpuri star Manoj Tiwari, a Poorvanchali himself, as the Delhi state party president in a clear nod to the power of the community and the party’s need to make inroads into it. Tiwari is a two-time Lok Sabha MP from Northeast Delhi. “Poorvanchalis have always been present in big numbers but it was the AAP that gave tickets to candidates from the community and got huge votes in return. Till then, while they were present in the BJP and the Congress, they were essentially liaison men with few being given tickets,” says Sanjay Kumar, professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi.
Even today, Delhi has the largest migrant population in the country with two of three migrants in Delhi estimated to have roots in either UP or Bihar. It would explain why the AAP still has more than a dozen Poorvanchali candidates in the fray
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Delhi has always been a city of migrants, emerging as the focal point following the Partition in 1947 when thousands of Punjabi Hindu and Sikh families made their way to the city after the creation of Pakistan. Punjabi, Sikh and Jat communities were always considered politically the most influential in the city with parties like the BJP and the Congress choosing leaders from these groups. Even today, Delhi has the largest migration population in the country with two of three migrants in Delhi estimated to have roots in either UP or Bihar. It would explain why the AAP still has more than a dozen Poorvanchali candidates in the fray while the BJP has fielded two candidates from its alliance partner JD(U), a first. Both Burari and Sangam Vihar, the two constituencies from which JD (U) candidates, Shailendra Kumar and SCL Gupta, will be contesting, respectively, are Poorvanchali strongholds. Traditionally, the Poorvanchali community used to vote for the Congress while Punjabi Khatris formed the core base of the BJP’s supporters.
A common poll promise made by all three parties has been the regularisation of unauthorised colonies in the city apart from availability of facilities like water and electricity. The BJP in its manifesto has, in fact, mentioned that a colony development board will be set up. As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the Poorvanchali community in the city is working class and lives in these areas. “I am a poor man and my constant struggle in life is to make ends meet. My concerns in life are as basic as they get: roti, kapda aur makaan. So my vote is decided by not just who makes these promises but also how much they fulfil it,” says Subhash Chandra, a 40-year-old auto driver from Mangolpuri. Chandra’s father had migrated to Delhi from Jaunpur, within months of the birth of his son, to work on construction sites during the 1982 Commonwealth Games. To him, a Poorvanchali candidate matters because it is representation, but he will not cast his vote. This is a constituency the AAP has cultivated assiduously over the past five years with their focus on free water, electricity, schooling and healthcare. Chandra is a committed Kejriwal supporter as is Sanjay, an e-rickshaw driver in Wazirabad. “He works for the poor. There are many promises made in the run-up to the elections but Kejriwal has actually come through for us,” he says. But even while the AAP touts its development plank, it has made overtures to the community by organising sammelans, introducing Maithili in schools and promising ghat development for Chhatth puja ceremonies. In its manifesto, the AAP has promised to recognise Bhojpuri and seek its inclusion in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
The BJP’s decision to bring in Nitish Kumar and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for campaigning is also a clear nod to the need to cater to the Poorvanchali community but it still remains to be seen whether identity will trump welfare in this election. For some like Ashok Jha, a vendor who lives in Delhi’s Sonia Vihar, the lotus has always trumped all even though he acknowledges Kejriwal’s appeal. “There are people in my area who support him but I think that most of the work he is talking about has happened only in the past one year with a clear eye on the polls, like free bus travel for women. To me, that is political opportunism.”
Traditionally, Delhi has always voted for governance, a plank that saw Sheila Dikshit become one of the longest-serving chief ministers in the country. Dikshit, who passed away in 2019, was marginalised in her own party following the Commonwealth Games’ corruption scandal, but even today the Congress poll campaign is built around the work done by her. There are, however, indications that the BJP’s work in home states can impact voter behaviour in Delhi.
Muslims constitute nearly 13 per cent of Delhi’s population. Though the community has traditionally voted for the Congress, a division of Muslim votes between it and the AAP will only serve to help the BJP
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Someone like Rakhi from Timarpur cites the work done in her village where most kitchens have moved to cylinders because of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana scheme as a principal reason for voting for the BJP in these elections. “People may have forgotten, but I remember how well he defended the country when Pakistan attacked us in Pulwama,” she says. She is also not impressed by Kejriwal because of his criticism of the Balakot airstrike. Kejriwal had questioned the Home Minister’s statement of the number of casualties suffered by Pakistan in the airstrike. It is a sentiment Rakhi shares with Jagjit Sachdeva, President of the New Market Timarpur Association. “[Kejriwal’s comment] still rankles. Development of the city is one thing but the nation’s pride is primary.” Sachdeva is a Punjabi Khatri, a community which has traditionally voted for the BJP, but is still inclined towards the AAP. “It is not about the party but rather the candidate and the AAP’s contender, Dilip Pandey, is a good man.” Interestingly, Pandey was also the party’s Lok Sabha candidate from the same seat and was defeated.
There is a clear dichotomy between how Delhi votes during General Election and Assembly elections. In May 2019, Delhi voted overwhelmingly for the BJP, giving all seven of its Lok Sabha seats to the party. However, a Lokniti-CSDS survey revealed that more than 20 per cent of the voters who voted for the BJP in the General Elections preferred to vote for the AAP in the Assembly elections. “Modi for India, but Kejriwal for Delhi,” is how Anil Gupta, a kirana shopowner in Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar, sums it up. His reasoning is that as a voter, he has two concerns: ideological and personal. “When I vote for a Prime Minister, I vote for issues like security and our image in the world. When it comes to voting for a chief minister, I want a man who is completely committed to the city,” he says.
Till even two months ago, Delhi elections were expected to be contested on the grounds of sops that have been promised by the AAP. In spite of an overwhelming majority in 2015, Kejriwal continued with his rebel persona staging protests against the establishment and accusing the Centre of not letting him do any work. His criticism of other party leaders once saw an onslaught of defamation cases against him and marked the turning point in his political approach. He has tried to keep a low profile since then, delivered on his poll promises and he would have expected that to carry the day for him and his party. In fact, the AAP was predicted to win a second term with a comfortable, if not large, majority but protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in the city seem to have changed the game.
A sit-in has been underway in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh for more than a month now and given the BJP the perfect plank from which to launch a high-voltage campaign that focuses on the assertion of religious identities. Critics of the Shaheen Bagh protest see it as yet another attempt by a community to force the hand of the Government to play appeasement politics with the BJP pulling out all the stops in terms of high-profile campaigners like Yogi Adityanath and Union Minister of State Anurag Thakur, who have gone out of their way to assure their core constituency that any sort of attempt to question policies—and, by extension, the concept of identity—will not be tolerated.
In the General Election last May, Delhi voted overwhelmingly for the BJP. However, a survey revealed that more than 20 per cent of those who voted for the BJP then prefer to vote for the AAP in the Assembly polls
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Leading the charge was Home Minister Amit Shah who addressed rallies in the city till the very end of their campaigning. In fact, the Prime Minister, who has always been the chief campaigner for his party in every election, took a backseat in Delhi, doing only a handful of rallies. He did label the protests as a political ploy aimed at disturbing the harmony of the country and talked about the traffic disruptions that impacted daily life in the city. The policy of development as opposed to vote-bank politics is what he promised if the BJP were elected to power. The BJP manifesto has promised the regularisation of unauthorised colonies apart from electric scooters to college-going girls and money for marriage to girls from the weaker sections of society. Both the Congress and the AAP manifestos, in contrast, stress on freebies and subsidies on electricity and water tariffs. The BJP has also had more feet on the ground with door-to-door campaigning by its volunteers, a strategy it has effectively employed in the past in other poll-bound states. “Delhi elections have always been personality-driven. This time round, too, it was expected to be a Kejriwal-Modi clash, but what we have got instead is a Home Minister versus Chief Minister scenario,” says Pravin Rai of CSDS.
Mindful of the backlash over Kejriwal’s Balakot remarks, the AAP had expressed support for the revocation of Article 370 last year but has tried to steer clear of any debate on the CAA in spite of voting against it in Parliament. However, the BJP’s fever-pitch campaign has seen the AAP lose control over the narrative which started out as being focused on sops but has now ended up firmly on the BJP’s home turf of nationalism. The crescendo built up by the BJP finally led to Kejriwal saying that if Delhi Police were under his jurisdiction, he would have had the Shaheen Bagh protests cleared in under two hours. It was the biggest indicator that the narrative of the polls had shifted considerably from what the AAP had wanted it to be centred on and just how much of a trigger Shaheen Bagh has become. Interestingly, the AAP has promised a deshbhakti curriculum in schools in its manifesto. It has also promised to take senior citizens on a pilgrimage if elected to power. “The CAA’s presence in the election discourse will have an impact on results. This may go down to the wire,” says Rai.
Communal issues have not been the focus of an Assembly election in decades. Whether 2020 marks a turning point will depend on those who hail from the villages of UP and Bihar
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Muslims constitute nearly 13 per cent of Delhi’s population with a concentration in constituencies such as Ballimaran, Matia Mahal, Okhla and Seelampur. The AAP has fielded Muslim candidates from all these areas. Will Kejriwal’s silence on the CAA cost him votes in these seats? The Congress, which has traditionally been the recipient of the Muslim vote, is hoping so but a division of the community’s votes between the AAP and itself will only help the BJP. There is a current of resentment running through the voters of the city because of the Shaheen Bagh protests and the BJP is hoping to change the tide by keeping the spotlight on the issue.
Communal issues, while always a sensitive subject in a city like Delhi, have not been the focus of an Assembly election in decades now. It remains to be seen if 2020 will mark a turning point and the answer to that lies firmly in the villages of eastern UP and Bihar. Sanjay Kumar of CSDS is confident that finally Delhi will vote for the government they think will deliver but if Savita and Rakhi’s family is any indication, things are split right down the middle.