Governance versus bigotry
The maturity of Delhiites will be on test in the Assembly elections, due in February, when it will become clear whether the politics of interests matter to them more than the politics of identity
The anger and angst over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act will become the leitmotif of the campaign for the Delhi Assembly elections, which are due in early February. Delhi's significance in India's electoral politics is minimal — it is a quasi-state that sends only seven members to the Lok Sabha. Yet, the fury over the CAA will have the nation's attention riveted to the Delhi polls. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins, it will claim the victory to be a popular endorsement for the CAA.
But its defeat will imperil Prime Minister Narendra Modi's plan for preparing a National Register of Citizens, which is when undocumented Indians could become stateless.
Delhi's vote for or against the BJP cannot be construed as north India's verdict on the CAA. But Delhi will certainly provide a clue as to whether Hindutva can still throw voters into a frenzy that can make them forget the benefits derived from the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) model of governance, which is arguably the most efficient in north India. Its low utility rates saw around 14 lakh households receive zero water bills and 31 lakh families get zero power bills in the last billing cycle. The public education and healthcare systems have undergone a dramatic revamp. A lavish expenditure on social welfare still had Delhi report a fiscal surplus of Rs 113 crore in 2017-18, although it had inherited a deficit of R3,942 crore in 2013-14, according to a Comptroller and Auditor General report.
Bereft of a Delhi-based leader who can match Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in charisma, and a bit unsure whether Modi can plug this gap in a state election, the BJP has chosen to engage in barely concealed religious bigotry — of which the CAA is a manifestation - to reduce the electoral gains of governance accruing to AAP. The maturity of Delhiites is on test — will they allow the politics of identity to swamp the politics of interests? Other states, too, will undergo this test in the next four years.
The BJP has sought to exploit the fury over the CAA in Delhi — which is best symbolised by more than a fortnight-long, 24x7 sit-in at Shaheen Bagh — as an outcome of a false narrative deliberately constructed to deny citizenship to non-Muslims who fled to India to escape religious persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The BJP conveniently glosses over the link between the CAA and the NRC, in the hope of stoking the outrage of Hindus and turning the elections into a Hindu-Muslim contest.
Kejriwal has been critical of the CAA in a few media interviews; his party voted against it in Parliament. Yet, in sharp contrast to its pugnacious style of politics, AAP has been mostly missing from the protests against the CAA. AAP does not wish to be tarred as anti-Hindu by the BJP. Kejriwal has instead pointed out that the CAA adversely affects Hindus, who need jobs rather than a debate on citizenship. He wants to ensure that the Assembly elections remain, as they ought to, a referendum on his governance rather than become one on the CAA.
Election data shows why Kejriwal's strategy is another way of countering the pull of the politics of religion on voters. When AAP won 67 out of Delhi's 70 seats by getting 54.3 per cent votes, the BJP still managed to secure 32.3 per cent of votes, down from the 46.40 per cent it had won in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But the 46.40 percent expanded to a whopping 56.58 percent in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. These figures suggest that many Delhiites align with the BJP at the national level, but can and do switch their allegiance to AAP in the state elections. It is their anxiety that the BJP wishes to fuel through the CAA, to dissuade them from voting on the issue of governance, which would be advantageous for AAP.
The scenario, however, gets complicated because AAP also secured the largest chunk of the Left-liberal and Muslim votes in 2015. Yet it runs the risk of losing a percentage of these votes to the Congress, which has been relatively more visible and voluble than AAP in opposing the CAA. Congress leaders know they cannot win Delhi, but its leaders have told the media, albeit anonymously, that AAP's defeat suits them fine. It could lead to AAP's meltdown and return Delhi to the era in which its politics swung between the BJP and the Congress. The grand old party will seek to script AAP's defeat by, say, fielding heavyweights in the elections.
The Congress cannot be expected to suspend its revival to keep the BJP out of power. Nor can it be the case that those protesting the CAA should throw away their placards and turn silent. The maturity of Delhiites, regardless of their ideological orientation, lies in them realising that only by denying power to the BJP they can pressure the party against deploying bigotry in elections to arouse the atavistic instincts of people, to sidetrack them from voting on governance, which is Kejriwal's strongest suit and the Modi government's weakest in the context of slowing economy.
The writer is a senior journalist
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