New Delhi: Reluctance on part of the Bharatiya Janata Party to name its Chief Ministerial face in the national capital and its inability to present a clear-cut strategy, have allowed the Aam Aadmi Party to gain an upper hand in the Delhi Assembly elections slated for 8 February. The Congress, which had secured the runner-up position during the Parliamentary polls, where all the seven BJP nominees won, is lagging behind in the perception battle that puts AAP as the probable winner of the 2020 showdown. However, elections can many a time throw up surprises, so till the time the results are declared, the suspense would continue.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has, through a well-calibrated campaign, taken the lead in showcasing the many achievements of his government. It is without a doubt that during the past five years, the AAP government’s performance has been exceptional and most Delhiites are more than satisfied with what has been attained in the field of school education, the health sector and both power and water supplies. Even Kejriwal’s worst critics give him the credit and believe that the freebies dished out by his dispensation have endeared the AAP to the city residents, women in particular, who can travel free in buses.
What is working for Kejriwal is that both the Congress and the BJP have failed to present anyone as the CM nominee. When the BJP attempts to make it into a battle between Kejriwal and Narendra Modi, its star campaigner, the result is that it unnecessarily leads to embarrassing the Prime Minister. It requires little common sense to understand that PM Modi or even Amit Shah are not ever going to be nominees for the Delhi CM’s position, so Kejriwal is in a definitive comfort zone of his own.
On the face of it, the AAP appears invincible, but in elections that may not always be the case. For instance, the AAP is changing many of its nominees in the various seats it had won in 2015, and thus could face a mini-revolt from within. In addition, as compared to around 125 volunteers per constituency in 2015, there are fewer than 100 AAP volunteers per Assembly segment this time round. In 2013, the figure was over 150 per constituency. The reason for the decline of volunteers is something which would certainly be a matter of worry for AAP.
There is also some apprehension in AAP circles that the Muslim vote could get divided between its nominees and those of the Congress. There has been brewing resentment amongst a section of Muslims, who feel that Kejriwal could have avoided supporting the government on Article 370 as well as not taking any stand on the Citizenship Amendment Act. It is due to this ambiguity that this segment has been branding the AAP as the “B” team of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). However, towards the end, the Muslims in all likelihood may support AAP in case it emerges as the party which can keep the BJP at bay.
Another factor that might go against Kejriwal is that he has shown his marked preference for members of the Vaish community, to which he himself belongs. This may have wooed some of the traditional Vaish BJP supporters, but has alienated the Punjabis, who still are the most potent force to reckon with in the city. Ironically, the BJP too has not given much importance to the Punjabis, who at one time were its backbone in Delhi, during the era of Vijay Kumar Malhotra, Kidar Nath Sahni and Madan Lal Khurana.
There are many political observers who are convinced that if the BJP is to field Khurana’s daughter-in-law, Vandana Khurana or Sheila Dikshit’s sister, Rama Dhawan, from New Delhi against the Chief Minister, a tough battle may ensue. M.L. Khurana’s name is synonymous with Delhi and his younger son, Harish, could be the BJP nominee in the current elections from somewhere in West Delhi. So far as Rama Dhawan goes, she has taken a back seat following Sheila’s demise and the Congress has not made any attempt to court her. Therefore, if the BJP were to take her in its fold, she would carry a larger number of Congress workers with her, given that she was the one who nurtured the constituency during her sister’s three terms from there.
The BJP is caught in a factional war, where its present head, Manoj Tiwari and former Union Minister Vijay Goel seem to be acting more like adversaries rather than party colleagues. Tiwari’s elevation is on account of his being an accomplished Bhojpuri artiste, but has been at the expense of some local Poorvanchalis who were a part of the BJP much before he arrived on the scene. Vijay Goel decidedly is the best known BJP face in the city, other than Union Health Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan.
However, BJP’s central leadership has not shown any signs of giving him the command for the present polls. Harsh Vardhan appears to be satisfied with being a senior member of the Modi Cabinet and is hesitant to get back into city politics, full time. Sudhanshu Mittal and Vijendra Gupta, two other senior leaders from Delhi, are also not on the centre stage, which has been occupied by Tiwari and prior to him by Satish Upadhyaya, who is considered close to both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Upadhyaya is described as a man to watch in case the BJP forms the government here.
In fact, the BJP, which had emerged as the largest single party in 2013 with 32 seats, and was poised to form the government along with possible defections from the Congress, has not yet recovered from its major political folly. At that time, BJP insiders stated that it was the then Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who had first prevented Ramvir Singh Bidhuri and subsequently Jagdish Mukhi (now Governor of Assam) from forming the government. It was Jaitley again who took everyone by surprise by projecting Kiran Bedi as the BJP’s Chief Ministerial face in 2015, a move that led to the party’s virtual decimation in the Assembly polls.
With Jaitley’s premature passing away last year, the party does not have any top leader who has been conducting the affairs of the Delhi unit. Both Union Ministers Prakash Javadekar and Hardeep Singh Puri have been made in-charge of the party’s affairs, but have not attempted to go beyond the brief assigned to them. Puri is a Delhiite, who has spent most of his working life in the world capitals during his distinguished tenure in the Indian Foreign Service. Javadekar, on the other hand, is well-versed with Maharashtra politics, but has displayed little interest in the city. Both are perceptive and sharp politicians who have a huge task on their hand.
The Congress has been written off by most of the media, but this has largely happened because of an unexplained ban on Congress spokespersons by their own party to appear on TV channels. This has created an erroneous impression that the grand old party was totally out of the race.
The fact of the matter is that for the Congress this is an existential crisis in Delhi, which it administered for 15 years under Sheila Dikshit. Subhash Chopra was brought out of virtual retirement by the high command to lead the party, given his wide acceptability and long experience. During the past two months, he has tried to energise the party unit by ending factionalism on one hand, and on the other hand involving the rank and file in electoral preparedness.
The Congress essentially is concentrating on 15 to 20 seats, though it is contesting all the 70 Assembly segments. The party’s strategy is that it has a good chance in seats that have a fair share of minority votes, as well as the constituencies which have been nurtured by some of the local leaders. However, its biggest problem is that most senior leaders do not wish to contest the polls, and want their sons, daughters or close relatives to be granted the ticket. What they do not seem to realise is, that as of now the Congress has no member both in Parliament and the Assembly and the close kith and kin may find it extremely difficult to swing the contest in their favour.
There has been a view in the party that all the candidates who were fielded during the Lok Sabha elections should also be asked to contest the Assembly polls. In addition, all former ministers in the Congress government and strong leaders such as Jaikishen, Mukesh Sharma, Tarvinder Singh Marwah, Vipin Sharma, Chaudhury Matin, Vijay Lochav, Hasan Ahmed, Pervez Hashmi and Krishna Tirath should also be in the fray. The seats where the Congress is expecting to do well include Matia Mahal, even though Shoaib Iqbal has joined the AAP, Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk, Sadar Bazar, Okhla, Seelampur, Gandhi Nagar, Mustafabad, Rohtas Nagar, Sultanpuri, Samaipur Badli, Kalkaji, Jangpura and Rajouri Garden.
However, what the Congress needs to be cautious about is that the BJP could surreptitiously assist in propping up some of its candidates to ensure the defeat of AAP nominees so that the saffron contenders could come out victorious. The equation in Delhi is that a weak Congress performance would benefit AAP, but if the Congress were to put up a strong show, the BJP would reap the advantage.
The battle of Delhi is most crucial since the capital is viewed as mini-India. What happens in the capital is subsequently reflected in the rest of the country.