There are currently eight Shaheen Baghs in Delhi. For more than a month, Muslim women have staged a sit-in at Okhla’s Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi, protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register for Citizens (NRC). Disregarding the biting winters, seven other locations in the National Capital have taken inspiration from Shaheen Bagh and began an indefinite protest against these policies of the Narendra Modi-led government. The protests have peaked right during the campaign for the state Assembly election of Delhi, raising the question of whether the national issue of citizenship would have a bearing on state elections and determine the direction of the critical Muslim vote.
Sitting quietly with a muffler wrapped around her face, Shaheen, who shares her name with the protest site in Okhla, suggested that the protests and elections are unlikely to intersect with each other. “When we vote on 8 February, we will vote on local governance,” she said as the chants of azadi reverberated in the back. “Arvind Kejriwal has drastically changed the face of schools in Delhi and subsidised electricity as well. He has been the best chief minister and AAP should win all the 70 seats.”
Shaheen said she picks her two kids up from playschool and comes to the protest site in the evening, where she stays put until midnight. “They are young, but I am excited to enrol them in the government school in a year from now,” she said. “As far as the protests against Modi’s policies are concerned, we trust neither AAP nor Congress to stand up with us. They are equally useless.”
More than 13 percent of Delhi’s population is Muslim. In central and northeast Delhi, the number goes up to around 30 percent. In 2015, when AAP won a landslide victory in the Assembly election bagging 67 out of 70 seats, Muslim vote had overwhelmingly backed the party.
Yet, Kejriwal has stayed relatively silent on CAA, which extends citizenship to persecuted communities except for Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Critics have noted that CAA coupled with NRC could spell doom to Indian Muslims. Countless Indians, especially the ones that are poor and marginalised, do not have adequate papers to prove their citizenship. The catch, though, is that among the marginalised, non-Muslims can continue to stay in India as refugees under the CAA even if they lose their citizenship. Muslims would be left in the lurch.
AAP voted against the bill in Parliament but has since been circumspect on the nationwide protests. When asked about his stand, he trod cautiously and avoided speaking on the misery it might inflict on Indian Muslims. Instead, he asked if India is in a position to offer jobs to those it intends to welcome from other countries while unemployment in India continues to rise.
With the Congress trying to regain their lost Muslim vote share by calling Kejriwal out for not being combative, observers have wondered if this stand would cost the chief minister. If the Muslim vote is split between Congress and AAP, as it did between Janata Dal and Congress back in 1993, it could mean advantage BJP.
However, interactions with voters in predominantly Muslim seats like Okhla, Seelampur, Ballimaran and Mustafabad, and in constituencies with significant Muslim population like Trilokpuri and Seemapuri suggest AAP is still the preferred choice for Delhi’s Muslims. The reason being its welfare policies, and it is the best bet to beat BJP in the Assembly.
Rehana Khan, 70, from Trilokpuri, which had witnessed communal tensions in 2015, said her area has changed for the better in the past few years. “This has been a volatile area,” she said. “But after the improvement in schools, kids that earlier loitered around today regularly attend school. There has been a behavioural change among them.”
Most of the residents here, said Rehana, work as auto-rickshaw drivers or safai karmacharis. “Kejriwal has ensured the children of poor get a good education,” she said. “Plus, he is best placed to beat BJP that is busy peddling communal agenda. Hindu or Muslim, we have the same blood flowing in our veins but the BJP does not understand that.”
Nodding along, Mohammad Raza Khan, smoking a bidi on the steps of a dilapidated building, said he has been a fan Indira Gandhi, but he would vote for “jhadu” on 8 February. “Many of us voted Congress in last year’s Lok Sabha elections because we thought it had the best chance of beating BJP,” he said. “There was a bit of confusion, which is not there this time around. We have to vote tactically, and Kejriwal’s work speaks for itself.”
The AAP candidate from Trilokpuri, Rohit Mehraulia, said the electorate doesn’t ask about CAA or NRC when he campaigns. “They know we stand by them,” he said. “And this election is about local issues and governance in Delhi. We want to focus on that.”
However, data suggests it is a tactical call by AAP. The BJP bagged 56 percent of Delhi’s votes in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019. Over the past five years, a clear pattern has emerged among voters of Delhi: Modi for prime minister and Kejriwal for chief minister. According to Lokniti-CSDS survey, a substantial 24 percent of BJP voters in the Centre said they would vote for AAP in the state. These voters are largely ideology agnostic and vote along the lines of winnability and face. However, an outright anti-Modi stand via CAA or NRC may make them uncomfortable, which explains Kejriwal’s cautious approach towards the nationwide protests.
The strategy, though, may cost AAP a bit in a constituency like Seelampur, where the police had lathi-charged protestors and used tear gas to quell the protests a month ago. And the emotions are running high. In the same constituency, a Shaheen Bagh-like sit-in is on for the past six days.
“It is ironic that a man who launched his political career through people’s movement is now staying away from it,” said Ovais Khan, an activist in the constituency. “Kejriwal may have opposed CAA or NRC formally, but he did not step out on the streets when Delhi Police attacked us and the minorities needed a bit of reassurance. Congress, on the other hand, has been more vocal.”
Naseer Ahmed, one of the influential members in the locality, who runs a clothes shop in the “jacket wali gali” of Jaffarabad, said it could go either way, and people will make their call two days before voting. “No other chief minister has subsidised electricity or ensured water availability like Kejriwal has. But he has betrayed us for political calculations,” he said. “Agar kaam pe vote kiya, toh AAP jeet jayegi. Lekin agar jazbaat haavi ho gaye, toh phir Congress bazi maar jayegi.” (If peopme vote on the basis of work done then AAP will win but if emotions run high then Congress has a chance.)
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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2020 12:52:50 IST