The political battle of the year is being fought in Delhi. It need not have been so. For, New Delhi is the most functional city state – or metropolis if you prefer – in India. Most services, possibly all of them, have improved. Some things are truly world class. Some better. In a sentence, Delhi is at its best now and improving. It’s not El Dorado but it’s not the worst either.
What works for Delhi
Along with Gurgaon, Delhi is the top employment destination in India. People earn three times more than most places in India. Everybody owns at least one mobile phone. Supply of electricity has improved noticeably.
It is the greenest capital in the world. More than a fifth of its area is covered by trees or shrubs although a vast number of trees have been cut to build human homes. The government has been stable; only a minister changed here and there. It is the most secular city in India [along with Kolkata].
The metro services within Delhi and to the airport are among the best in the world. But you knew that already. How then does all this not translate into political advantage for the Congress? The Congress has been governing reasonably well for 15 years now. But from the looks of it you’d think they’ve done something terrible. They have not.
As much as the Congress has self-destructed in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the party has self-preserved in Delhi. And yet, the nascent Aam Aadmi Party [AAP] has been able to challenge the Congress. In some sections, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal is being spoken of as claimant to the chief minister’s post.
The Congress conundrum
Sheila Dikshit is the best chief minister Delhi has had. She is articulate, maternal, trustworthy, intelligent and skillful. She is fit and forward-looking. She is one of the gentlest people you’ll meet in a Delhi populated by many asinine, hostile people.
Yes, there are questions over issues of finance arising from the 2010 Commonwealth Games. We’ll revisit it when we are near closure. We don’t know enough at the moment. And it takes nothing away from her governance.
A sharp Congress might have elevated Dikshit to national politics after the Commonwealth Games and pitted her against Narendra Modi. Delhi with Dikshit has done better than Gujarat with Modi. Plus, Dikshit is undeniably secular. But they’ve asked her to do it a fourth time in Delhi.
It’s possible. But many of the Congress plus points are lost in the reticence of their campaign. The election is on 4 December and we haven’t heard a big bang from them yet. Either the Congress is working on a big finish or it expects the Delhi voter to figure it out for himself.
This is a risky approach. Delhi is a city of refugees and migrants. They can be insecure even when comfortable. They tend to want although they may not need more. One car, one phone or one house may not be enough. Such greed breeds discontent. The haves want more and the have-nots hate the haves for it.
The BJP and the AAP find fertile ground in this discontent, as any opposition party would.
The AAP factor
Kejriwal and his team have gained traction by the simplicity of their campaign. They don’t like the bigger parties who they say are part of the corruption matrix. They’ve kept things strikingly transparent on the AAP website. You can track everything – finances, candidates, events, manifestoes. In addition, Kejriwal has built on the momentum generated by Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal campaign.
Kejriwal is shrewd, ambitious, ferocious and articulate. He knows how the system works – he was part of it in the income tax department. He says he’ll empower people in a way that has only been talked about since the times of Mahatma Gandhi.
His big act was the indefinite fast he called off after two weeks. It resonated with people. They saw him as a person willing to suffer for the larger good while his peers wouldn’t forego two meals. Families seem to have liked the issue on which he fasted – electricity tariff and the resulting monthly bills.
Everything rests on what happens between Kejriwal and Dikshit. Kejriwal could set up the contest of the year if he files his papers from the same constituency as Dikshit. The AAP stands to benefit only if Kejriwal wins. It’ll be tricky if he loses and the AAP wins close to 20 seats. As of now, they don’t have a Plan B.
People usually choose safer options like more than one constituency when the stakes are high. Dikshit and Kejriwal could do so as well but it won’t be the same thing.
The BJP role
Fifteen years in opposition seem to have diminished the BJP in Delhi. They don’t have the people or the work ethic to make a difference. Their chances rest wholly on the anger directed against the Congress at the national level. Dikshit doesn’t generate fury in anyone but the BJP hopes that she’ll take the hit from an anti-Congress mood in general.
Harsh Vardhan, the BJP chief ministerial nominee in Delhi, will not sweep you off your feet. He is like a family doctor; you could take your children to him for a check-up. He doesn’t have the steel of a chief minister. He doesn’t have the presence. He is trustworthy and simple. Nothing more.
Also, the BJP hasn’t evolved in Delhi since the 1980s. Their core support still comes from shopkeepers and traders. This is significant in a city with the maximum number of shops on earth. But it doesn’t draw in the younger voter. Delhi has changed vastly over the past 30 years. The BJP doesn’t seem to have adapted enough.
Then there is Modi. Delhi represents everything he seeks to tap into. It’s the hub of protests. It’s where the country is governed from. It has the maximum number of Internet [and Facebook] users in India. It has young voters. It has the old guard. It has the RSS. It doesn’t have the Left.
And still it’s like Modi has passed Delhi by. Neither he nor Rahul Gandhi has had any impact in Delhi so far. The BJP has a big worry if its man of the moment can’t help.
The choice of candidates is important. If interesting and radical, it could alter many things. If it isn’t, then Dikshit may be the best choice. Kejriwal will be a good opposition leader. Vardhan will add quality to the assembly.
To sum up
• Sheila Dikshit’s 15-year stint should make it easy for the Congress but it isn’t
• The AAP shouldn’t be a serious contender but it is
• Narendra Modi should deliver for the BJP but he isn’t
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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and tehelka.com.
He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.
Vijay blogs here and may be cont acted at email@example.com.