It is not just the summer heat that is rising in Delhi with each passing day. The political temperature, too, is shooting up with the battle lines drawn for the seven parliamentary seats which will go to the polls on May 12. The number of seats makes Delhi electorally much less significant compared to much bigger states in terms of the number of seats. In that sense, the road to Delhi’s Raisina Hills, which host the hub of federal Indian government, does not go through the national capital. Nonetheless, the fight for the seven seats has always been a prestige issue more for optics than substance.
Weeks of bargaining between the Congress party and Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) over a seat-sharing pact failed and so did efforts to put up a united front against the Bharatiya Janata Party, setting the stage for a three-way contest that analysts believe is expected to help the saffron party through a split in anti-BJP votes. The BJP, which swept all the seven seats in Delhi riding a Narendra Modi wave five years ago, has re-nominated six of the sitting lawmakers, and the Congress too has fielded its best team by nominating some of its veteran leaders including Delhi’s former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and ex-federal minister Ajay Maken. In sharp contrast, almost all the candidates of Delhi’s ruling AAP are new to politics and elections. The only political greenhorn fielded by the Congress is 33-year-old professional boxer Vijender Singh, a bronze medallist in the 2008 Olympic Games, in South Delhi constituency which comprises some of Delhi’s most upscale localities. He is pitted against BJP veteran Ramesh Bidhuri and AAP’s Raghav Chadha who, at the age of 30, is the youngest candidate in the fray in Delhi.
The electoral scene in Delhi has got a celebrity touch with the BJP fielding 37-year-old former Indian cricketer Gautam Gambhir and popular Punjabi singer Hans Raj Hans in East Delhi and North West Delhi constituencies, respectively. They will be up against the Congress’ 50-year-old veteran politician Arvinder Singh Lovely, who had joined the BJP before returning to the Congress, and Congress’ Delhi unit chief Rajesh Lilothia. Gambhir is a debutant and so is AAP nominee Aatish, an educationist, in East Delhi, while Arvinder, a Sikh, was a former education minister of Delhi during the 15 years of Congress rule in Delhi under Sheila Dikshit as chief minister.
Sheila Dikshit will feature in one of the most keenly-watched contests against BJP’s Delhi unit President and Bhojpuri singer Manoj Tiwari in the North East Delhi constituency. A chief minister of Delhi for three consecutive five-year terms, Dikshit is the oldest candidate in the Delhi duel at the age of 81. Dikshit wields considerable clout on the Congress party’s national leadership, and it was at her insistence that the party decided against an alliance with the AAP in Delhi—an issue on which the opinion was divided within the Congress, with a section having favoured a tie-up with AAP to jointly take on the BJP. For Dikshit, it was a great comeback to the limelight after having been defeated in the 2013 Delhi assembly elections and the total rout the Congress faced in the 2015 assembly polls, which brought AAP to power. That setback had pushed Dikshit to the side-line before she staged a comeback becoming the chief of the party’s Delhi unit in January this year.
Another constituency in Delhi which is expected to witness an absorbing battle is the New Delhi constituency, which hosts a majority of federal government offices, the official residences of top government functionaries, including the President and the Prime Minister, and almost all the diplomatic missions in Chanakyapuri. The main contest in New Delhi constituency is between the Congress’ Ajay Maken (55), a former federal minister under Manmohan Singh government, and BJP’s legal luminary Meenakshi Lekhi (51). Here, the AAP nominee is newcomer Dilip Pandey (43). The Chandni Chowk constituency in walled Delhi will see a contest between two veterans—India’s Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan of the BJP and businessman Jai Parkash Aggarwal of the Congress.
However, a true measure of the significance of the parliamentary elections for the seven seats in Delhi for all the major players will be incomplete if it is confined to May 12. Even as they prepare for the looming electoral battle, the BJP, the Congress and the AAP are testing the waters for the next assembly polls in Delhi due early next year. The stakes are high for the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP. The party arrived on the Indian political scene in 2011, riding the crest of popular anger against corruption spawned by a movement spearheaded by Gandhian Anna Hazare. Four years later, AAP won all but three of the 70 assembly seats in an unprecedented mandate for a new party and that too just a year after the BJP had won all the seven parliamentary seats.
Although parliamentary and assembly polls in India are often fought on different sets of issues and the voting pattern also differs, the May 12 polling will give the parties an indication of the voters’ mood in the run up to the assembly polls. No wonder the main plank of the AAP’s manifesto for the parliamentary poll is the demand for full statehood for Delhi, and showcases the party’s social welfare schemes already in operation and promises about more such sops. A full statehood for Delhi would require an amendment of the Constitution and this cannot be done with just seven parliamentarians in a 543-member Lok Sabha. There are two purposes behind the AAP’s focus on Delhi-specific local issues: 1) to counter the BJP’s national security and Hindutva campaign narrative for parliamentary election; and 2) the next assembly polls because Delhi is the only place where the AAP is in power, after having failed to expand in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana states in any meaningful way.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.