As Delhi goes for polls on 12 May, national capital's tendency to surprise, act unilaterally make predictions tricky

Delhi is no bellwether region, but often the party chosen and cherished by the national capital during the Lok Sabha election finds itself forming the national government

Kartik Maini May 07, 2019 17:03:41 IST
As Delhi goes for polls on 12 May, national capital's tendency to surprise, act unilaterally make predictions tricky
  • Delhi is no bellwether region, but it is often that this chosen and cherished party (of Delhi) finds itself forming the national government

  • While the BJP may appear to be predominant and riding on the frugal remains of a wave, the tantalising answer to the what and the who lies in the future

  • AAP has been at pains and odds to push its local mandate (winning the Delhi state elections) into the national, but its decision to go solo in Delhi, can prove to be suicidal

  • Besides bringing Sheila Dikshit back into politics, In harking back to ‘good work’ in the past, the Congress has lent appreciable shape to its campaign

  • Unwilling to recognise the parochialism of Delhi in an election that is national and so brazenly Modi, Delhi is, for the BJP, an acquisition in the pursuit of the national

As the general election of 2019 comes, at long last to the capital, it is time for the complex political and electoral dynamics of the city, thus far only incipient, to express themselves.

Even among capitals, Delhi is an interesting city. Historically home to almost every significant political and cultural motif of the Indian subcontinent, Delhi has experienced – or borne – ceaseless change, often at the expense of its character. As if a site of a theatrical formation, Delhi is where peripatetic actors assemble, perform, and leave, and as stories go, never return.

As Delhi goes for polls on 12 May national capitals tendency to surprise act unilaterally make predictions tricky

AAP's East Delhi candidate candidate Atishi Marlena in a roadshow with Arvind Kejriwal. Twitter_@AtishiAAP

While elections in the national capital raise much colour, at some level, rarely does anybody in Delhi belong to it and consequently, to its elections. In the interaction between the local or regional and the national, this gives the city a character more complicated than is usually assumed. It is national, but not quite; it is local and parochial and yet makes no promises to belong even to itself. This strange liminal space has ensured that no election in Delhi can be prophesied, let alone deciphered, by a formula that can pervade everything. Delhi revels in surprises.

It is in this nebulous space that the three principal contenders — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Indian National Congress (INC), and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — have developed their electoral claims to the seven constituencies — Chandni Chowk, East Delhi, New Delhi, North East Delhi, North West Delhi, South Delhi, and West Delhi — and fielded their candidates.

Although only truism, it is important to underline that this is a general election to the Lok Sabha, and in the sixteen such elections that Delhi has witnessed and partaken in, it has voted with a staggering single-mindedness. Delhi usually awards its chosen and cherished party a victory so sweeping as to obliterate ambiguity; Delhi is no bellwether region, but it is often that this chosen and cherished party (of Delhi) finds itself forming the national government. This is palpable in four electoral histories. In 1999, the BJP won all seven seats of the city; in 2004 and 2009, the INC won six and seven of the seven seats, respectively. In 2014, evidencing a similar single-mindedness, candidates from the BJP were voted to the Lok Sabha in all seven seats. This should, as one may extrapolate, mean or at least imply that Delhi must, if only in moments before the election, give off an amorphous sight of a wave. It does not. The city believes in a certain single-mindedness, but it also believes in blinding surprises. Thus, while the BJP may appear to be predominant and riding on the frugal remains of a wave, the tantalising answer to the what and the who lies in the future.

As Delhi goes for polls on 12 May national capitals tendency to surprise act unilaterally make predictions tricky

BJP's Manoj Tiwari during an election campaign. Twitter@ManojTiwariMP

More productive, however, will be a brisk overview of three campaigns of the three political formations of the city. The AAP, also the incumbent so far as the legislative Assembly of the national capital is concerned, has developed and been the most sustained oppositional force to the BJP hoping to replicate its sweeping triumph over the seven constituencies as in 2014. Thus far, the AAP has been an incisive interlocutor of the national and local dynamics of Delhi. In a nod to the latter, it has rhetorically employed its significant and reliably quantifiable work in the fields of education (as in the government schools) and healthcare (as in the Mohalla Clinics) to develop its claim towards representing Delhi in the Lok Sabha. This has been clear in the campaigns of AAP’s Atishi Marlena (East Delhi), given both her involvement in the state education apparatus and her interest in the foregrounding of education as a public right and virtue.

The AAP has implied almost incessantly the symbology of being the only political formation representing the mandate of Delhi, clear, for instance, in Arvind Kejriwal’s response to being attacked while campaigning. Despite this nod to the local, the AAP has been at pains and odds to push this local into the national — this prefigures as much in its most provocative promise of statehood for Delhi as in its impasse with the Congress over possible seat-sharing citing the AAP’s insistence on taking the arrangement beyond Delhi. In this, the AAP has made a significant decision, which, it is reasonable to argue, can prove to be suicidal.

The Congress, the principal oppositional force to the BJP in national politics, entered the election in Delhi as a deeply divided house between Ajay Maken (New Delhi), who rendered support to the idea of an alliance with the AAP, and Sheila Dikshit (North East Delhi), also the former chief minister of Delhi, who militated against it with resolute force. There are some features of the Congress’ campaign in Delhi that reflect significant focus. The decision to call Sheila Dikshit back to the city’s political terrain, taken, perhaps, in helplessness, has given a solidity to the campaign; in harking back to the ‘good work’ of the Congress, such as in the Master Plan and implicating it to include the city’s struggles with urban land and land-use ceiling as Ajay Maken does here, the Congress has lent appreciable shape to a campaign that initially appeared the most dismal.

As Delhi goes for polls on 12 May national capitals tendency to surprise act unilaterally make predictions tricky

Congress leader and former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit is contesting from North East Delhi seat. Twitter@SheilaDikshit

Yet, and much more so than its national campaign, the Congress in Delhi appears to be shepherding a confused campaign whose fixtures run everywhere. The Congress has given an avowedly national tinge to the campaign as evident in speech acts and, like the BJP, chimed in with the easy appeal of celebrity by fielding boxer Vijender Singh (originally from Haryana) from the South Delhi constituency. So far, as it appears, the Congress is yet to decide how to negotiate the local and the national. Obviously, it never will.

What, then, of the BJP? Unlike the Congress, the BJP leaves little to indecision — not only does the formidable electoral machine of the BJP take its own decisions, it makes sure the public is told what they are at least once a week.

This is a peculiar facet so far as the election in Delhi is concerned, for the BJP has been the quietest contender thus far, being the last party to release its list of candidates wherein the party shuttled between ‘safe’ (Harsh Vardhan from Chandni Chowk, Manoj Tiwari from North East Delhi) and potentially ‘risky’ (Hans Raj Hans from North West Delhi, Gautam Gambhir from East Delhi) options.

As Delhi goes for polls on 12 May national capitals tendency to surprise act unilaterally make predictions tricky

Former cricketer Gautam Gambhir is BJP's candidate against AAP's Atishi Marlena from East Delhi seat. Twitter@GautamGambhir

The BJP appeared content to listen into the pandemonium of the alliance conversations between the INC and the AAP whose breakdown will, in all likelihood, benefit the BJP but as Vardhan diagnoses accurately, could go either way.

Yet, it is a grave fallacy to read the BJP’s silence in Delhi as silence in toto, for inscribed in its ‘local’ silence is its tacit and foregone inscription of the national. The BJP, in fact, is speaking all the time because Narendra Modi is. Delhi is addressed wherever Modi’s words appear. The message is as clear as evident – unwilling to recognise the parochialism of Delhi in an election that is national and so brazenly Modi, Delhi is, for the BJP, an acquisition in the pursuit of the national. Of course, given the aforementioned single-mindedness of Delhi’s mandate, this could yield excellent results. But, and this applies as much to the AAP and the Congress, Delhi is full of surprises.

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