Debating India

ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS

Advantage Congress(I)

AMULYA GOPALAKRISHNAN

Sunday 30 November 2003, by GOPALAKRISHNAN*Amulya

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 24, November 22 - December 05, 2003.

Delhi seems all set to sway the Sheila Dixit way as the BJP, the main Opposition party, is yet to come up with a forceful anti-government campaign plank.

"WHOEVER you vote for, the government’s going to get in," goes the snide saying. However, if the pre-election surveys are anything to go by, Delhi seems to be largely satisfied with its Congress(I) government. Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, riding high on five years of visible development in Delhi, is now asking for a second term and in all likelihood, she will get it.

While the traditional Congress(I) voters have been drawn from unauthorised colonies, resettlement colonies and slums, Sheila Dixit has made huge inroads into the sizable middle class population, which used to be solid Bharatiya Janata Party turf. Her gestures like personally blocking a bulldozer from razing a slum settlement and voicing concern for the jhuggi-jhopri (shacks) clusters have also helped in retaining the support of that section. "The Bhagidaari scheme of participatory governance has also bolstered her image among voters," says a Congress(I) party worker. Relying on public-private partnerships to address common concerns, the Bhagidaari scheme links resident welfare associations (RWAs) and citizens’ groups to the local authorities and higher officials. When Sheila Dixit first introduced the scheme, it was resisted by her own MLAs, who saw it as truncating their powers and boosting the BJP, which commands influence over RWAs. Today, the number of RWAs has grown to 1, 300 with many rural groups and trader and industry associations supplementing them.

In political circles, the debate on who will become the next Chief Minister of Delhi raises the question whom the voter would vote for - the candidate or the chief ministerial aspirant. "People are not going to vote for Sheila Dixit’s face. They are going to vote on the basis of their candidate’s credentials, and this will ensure the Congress(I)’s defeat," says Union Minister Vijay Goel, a BJP MP from Delhi. He adds that the Congress(I) has shot itself in the foot by renominating many of its non-performing MLAs. Congress(I) circles respond to this by saying that Sheila Dixit’s high scores on her performance in office will far outweigh the negative record of individual party candidates who have been renominated owing to factional pressures.

Former Delhi Chief Minister and BJP leader Madan Lal Khurana, who has to battle the inconvenient popular perception that in Delhi things have improved markedly in the past five years, accuses Sheila Dixit of hogging credit for work initiated by previous administrations and funded by the Centre. He claims that the Metro project was revived during his tenure as Chief Minister in 1994-95, when the Central government signed a deal with Japan. Similarly, he points out that the successful shift to compressed natural gas (CNG) for public transport, which has dramatically reduced pollution levels, was forced on the Delhi government by the Supreme Court. Khurana also attacks the power privatisation process of the Congress(I) government. With characteristic combativeness, he calls it "the biggest scam since Independence", and alleges that it involves large-scale abuse and siphoning of funds, thanks to the single-point delivery system.

However, as The Hindustan Times-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey reveals, the majority of citizens feel that power cuts are perceptibly less frequent than last time and that is enough to ensure that the issue is not as potent a weapon as the BJP would like it to be. Khurana has accused the Sheila Dixit administration of rampant corruption, which he says led to the resignation of four of her Ministers.

Shorn of a single major issue that could become a rallying point, BJP leaders have made allegations that are too general in nature against the Sheila Dixit government. Vijay Goel, for instance, stressed that schools and healthcare facilities had touched an all-time low during her term, and that a corrupt and inefficient Delhi Jal Board had delayed its dream project, Sonia Vihar, by two years. However, the Khurana campaign is hobbled by the fact that much of the bluster seems directed at policies backed by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre, such as the regularisation of illegal extensions. "The BJP has nothing to give to Delhi. Sheila Dixit is perceived as somebody who enlists the support of citizens to address real problems instead of chasing up rhetorical ones," claims Congress(I) leader Jagdish Tytler. Khurana touts the demand for statehood for Delhi as a major point on his agenda and accuses Sheila Dixit of waffling on the issue. She, on the other hand, blames most administrative lapses on "multiplicity of authority", and the fact that land and law and order are still under the Central government’s control. "It takes immense pressure to work against these dispersed powers and get a project going," she says.

Finding that no particular issue of governance has become a controversy during the campaign, BJP organising secretary Jagdish Mamgain indicated that to `expose’ the Congress(I)’s "sordid culture" the BJP would highlight instances of sleaze, such as those involving the late Congress(I) councillor Atma Ram, who was allegedly killed by his party colleague; the trial court verdict in the Naina Sahni murder case, which led to the conviction of former Delhi Youth Congress president Sushil Sharma; and the Gujarat call-girl scandal in which Congress(I) leaders such as Arvinder Singh Lovely were allegedly involved.

In contrast, the Congress(I) is emphasising its record of good governance over the past five years, claimed party representatives. "The instructions from Sonia Gandhi are very clear. We shall only stress on our work. The Congress(I)-BJP debate is just a debate between development and nothing," said Jagdish Tytler. However, BJP MP and former Delhi Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma asserts with confidence: "You take it from me - whatever the pre-poll surveys say, we will get a two-thirds majority in the House." In his own outer Delhi stronghold, which has 21 Assembly constituencies, he claims to be sure of winning at least 18. He insisted that the BJP’s candidate "Poonam Azad will definitely defeat Sheila Dixit" on her home ground, Gole Market. Whether or not that happens, it is certainly not going to be a cakewalk for Sheila Dixit, who defeated Poonam Azad’s husband, former cricketer Kirti Azad, by just 5,600 votes in the last election.

Since her becoming Chief Minister, the general perception is that Sheila Dixit has not spent much time in her constituency, mainly populated by government employees. This time she faces no less than 18 competitors in Gole Market - including former Congress(I) worker Romesh Sabharwal who is standing as an independent. While Sheila Dixit will have to confine much of her campaign effort in her own constituency, the same cannot be said for Khurana in Moti Nagar, against whom the Congress(I) has fielded the young Alka Lamba, who last won in the Delhi University Students Union election. Khurana, pointing out how he beat Tytler by 15,000 votes in the parliamentary constituency, says that he will not even consider it a contest. "Bitiya ko khaali haath bhejna padega" (Will have to send the little girl back empty-handed), he comments derisively.

The BJP claims that the most glaring weakness of the Congress(I) is its infighting, which was proved by the delay in announcing the list of candidates. "The Congress(I) campaign is in disarray, and they air their disagreements in public," says Jagdish Mamgain. However, the BJP’s own internal dissidence threatens to sabotage the party’s electoral chances. For example, former BJP MLAs Vinod Sharma and Gauri Shankar Bharadwaj have decided to contest as rebels against the party’s official candidates from Nasirpur and Shakurbasti respectively. Also, the party’s Sikh cell chief Harbajan Singh Walia defected to the Congress(I), proving that the BJP can no longer securely bank on the post-1984 Sikh antipathy to the Congress(I). In fact, with the Congress(I) sidelining leaders allegedly guilty of participating in the riots, and with the rise of a new breed of leaders within the party, it might be time to discard old assumptions, say commentators.

Before Sheila Dixit’s entry, the Congress(I) was carved up between heavyweights like Sajjan Kumar, Chaudhry Prem Singh, Jagdish Tytler and J.P. Agarwal. As a Congress(I) party worker says, Sheila Dixit sought to create a second line of leadership that is independent of these fiefdoms. The drawing up of the candidates’ list saw a lengthy wrangle between her and factions headed by Prem Singh and Sajjan Kumar. The big tent of the Congress(I) witnessed a lot of trapeze acts and fire-swallowing routines, but Sheila Dixit’s hold over the screening committee, comprising leaders such as Motilal Vohra, Ahmed Patel and Oscar Fernandes, was demonstrated by the fact that all the Chief Minister’s men have been given the ticket. They include Transport Minister Ajay Maken, Health Minister A.K. Walia and Development Minister Haroon Yusuf. Prem Singh is said to have got only three of the 20 persons whose names he proposed. However, the decision to re-nominate MLAs such as Jaspal Singh from Tilak Nagar and Kiran Walia from Hauz Khas to shore up her post-election support system might damage the party’s chances, remarked a Congress(I) insider.

Both the Congress(I) and the BJP have been liberal in doling out nominations to extended kith and kin. However, several candidates in the relatives’ category lost out this time. In the BJP, Sahib Singh Verma failed to push his son’s case for the Bania-dominated Shalimar Bagh constituency and his brother Azad Singh’s for the Nangloi seat, which has a Jat majority. Similarly, in the Congress(I), Deepak Bhagat, son of the veteran party leader H.K.L. Bhagat and Anil Bandhu, son of former Delhi Industry Minister Deep Chand Bandhu, were denied the ticket. Bandhu has decided to contest as an independent from his father’s stronghold, Wazirpur. In Saket, the Congress(I) rejected its sitting MLA Tek Chand and has decided to field the up-and-coming Rohit Manchanda against the BJP’s formidable Vijay Jolly. Tek Chand retaliated by filing his nomination under the Samajwadi Party banner, promising to make things difficult for the Congress(I).

Both the BJP and the Congress(I) seem to have factored in the point that Delhi is demographically different now - Punjabis, comprising only 16-18 per cent of the population, are no longer the colossal force they used to be; today, it is the powerful Poorvanchal lobby that claims political attention. The recent fuss over the Chatth celebrations reflected the realisation of the group’s growing influence. Also, the Third Front, comprising parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party, the Lok Janshakti Party, the Janata Dal, the Rashtriya Lok Dal and so on, has decided to contest from all the 70 constituencies. They claim to be able to tap into the citizens’ grouses against both the Congress(I) and the BJP. Third Front chairman Ramvir Singh Bidhuri, who is contesting from Badarpur, debunks the pre-poll predictions, "Hum logon ke beech hain, aur humko to hum hi hum dikhayee de rahe hain" (We are among the people, and we see only ourselves everywhere). The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has fielded 40 candidates, claims to have chosen them only because it is fully confident of their victory. Says Dharamveer Ashok of the BSP: "Both the BJP and the Congress(I) are losing sleep over us. We shall definitely see a hung Assembly this time."

As the battle hots up and campaigns swing into full force, such pre-election prophecies abound. Whether it is a Congress(I) clincher, a two-thirds win for the BJP, or a hung Assembly, the matter will be settled on December 1.

P.S.

Pic: SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY; Chief Minister Sheila Dixit after filing her nomination.

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