Stage set for battle for Delhi
The bugle has been blown for the elections to the Delhi legislative assembly with the Indian Election Commission announcing the poll schedule on January 6. The polling will be held on February 8 and the counting of votes on February 11, setting the stage for another state-level electoral face-off between India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a key regional satrap, Arvind Kejriwal, helming Aam Aadmi Party.
Delhi, whose assembly has a total of 70 seats, will be the fourth Indian state to go for polls in the last four months after Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. A triangular contest among the state's ruling AAP, the BJP and the Congress sets the frame of the Delhi contest.
While Kejriwal remains the Chief Ministerial face of AAP, the BJP has not yet named its candidate for the top post, in a move many say aimed at preventing the outbreak of leadership feud within the saffron party's Delhi unit. The BJP had burnt its finger by projecting the first female Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and political greenhorn Kiran Bedi as its Chief Ministerial candidate in the previous assembly poll in Delhi in 2015, and was stream-rolled by the AAP which won 67 of the 70 seats. The BJP managed just three seats while the Congress, which had ruled the Indian capital for 15 years under Sheila Dikshit till 2013, drew a blank.
So, the race for wooing the voters of Delhi in 2020 will witness a battle between the BJP's biggest mascot Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Kejriwal, who shot to prominence and pushed into politics eight years ago riding piggyback on Gandhian Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement across the country against the then ruling Congress. One key reason for the BJP not declaring its Chief Ministerial candidate for Delhi poll could be its below-par performance in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand last year, when the party had fought the assembly elections there under Devendra Fadnavis, ML Khattar and Raghubar Das respectively. The BJP failed to renew its reign in Maharashtra, had to go for alliance in Haryana to retain power, and was comprehensively defeated in Jharkhand. In Maharashtra and Jharkhand, the BJP ran into tough challenge posed by regional powerhouses in Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by Sharad Pawar and an alliance led by Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.
The stage is set for a repeat in Delhi where the BJP has not been in power for two decades. A favourable verdict in Delhi assembly poll could help the BJP in putting behind it the recent losing trend (in Maharashtra and Jharkhand) and the prospect of local issues outgrowing national subjects in the electorate' mind.
The BJP's decision to fall back on the charisma of Modi in Delhi is expected to shape the campaign narrative which will be dominated by national and state-specific issues as it usually happens in state-level polls in other parts of India, and it will be another test for it if local livelihood issues come out triumphant. The BJP will be looking to hold onto the momentum generated by its sweeping all the seven Lok Sabha constituencies in the national elections in April-May last year, in which the AAP finished a poor third.
Kejriwal remains the AAP's best vote-catching face even though his party appears to have lost some of its sheen after faring badly in Lok Sabha polls in Delhi and Punjab last year. However, the AAP continues to be a favourite to return to power, possibly with a reduced majority. Kejriwal hopes that his pro-poor and populist schemes like primary healthcare, quality educational facilities across Delhi, and subsidised water and electricity will deliver the electoral reward.
On the other hand, the BJP will bank on Modi's announcement of legalising 1,200 unauthorised colonies across Delhi, mostly inhabited by the poor. It will be its trump card as it is expected to benefit an estimated 40 lakh people—a sizable portion of the electorate—out of Delhi's total population of 2.01 crore. Besides, the saffron party will flag the issues of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and expansion of the metro rail network, a lifeline of a safe and fast public transport system in Delhi. The AAP has sought to counter it by providing free ride facility for women in state-run buses.
The BJP is pinning its hopes on a possible "silent" consolidation of majority community votes post-CAA, while the AAP looks to benefit from rising anti-BJP protests across the country in relation to the controversial citizenship law as well as the horrific violence in Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 5. The Jamia Millia University in Delhi has been a nerve-centre of anti-CAA agitation.
A key determinant of the Delhi assembly poll outcome will be the Congress' performance. The Sonia Gandhi-led party put up a surprisingly good show in national polls with vote-sharing rising from 15 percent in 2014 to 22.5 percent in Delhi last year. But the party remains hamstrung by factionalism and the absence of a local leadership face that could match that of Kejriwal and Modi. The real test for the Congress is how to tap into the perceived anti-incumbency against the AAP and the BJP and position itself as a viable alternative. A big worry for the Congress could be the voters' response in the event of a polarised campaign. This is an issue of no less concern to the AAP, too. The party has been reticent in making a strong anti-CAA pitch for fear of backlash from the majority community. Just a few days ago, Kejriwal indicated his government may not follow the Marxist government in Kerala in getting a resolution passed in Delhi Assembly opposing the implementation of the CAA. Apparently, the coming assembly election is weighing on his mind.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.