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Opinion

Delhi elections: How will the competition play out? – analysis

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Notwithstanding the small size of its Vidhan Sabha (70 seats), the upcoming elections for the city- state of Delhi are the cynosure of national political interest. It has been so since 2011, when the city became the centre of the Anna Hazare-led protests against corruption — a movement that led to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In two subsequent rounds of assembly elections in 2013, and then in 2015, the party established itself as a political start-up of urban professionals, with a clean image. In the 2015 assembly elections, the AAP won 67 of the 70 seats, ending both a 15- year old reign of the Congress, and challenging an established base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But this victory came with its dilemmas. The AAP could do nothing to challenge the ascendance of the BJP at the Centre, on an anti-corruption political agenda similar to its own, in two consecutive Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019.

Also, although Arvind Kejriwal became the face of a more-or-less collegial leadership of the AAP in its early years, Narendra Modi’s face as a national leader had greater pan-India appeal. The same electorate that put Kejriwal in power with such a massive mandate was unwilling to accept his jibes about Modi. The lessons from Delhi were pointing to a structural transformation in the electoral arena.

First, the voter was looking at credible issues being at the forefront of electoral promises; pork-barrel politics or monetary offerings were not influential enough. The structures of patronage based votebanks that worked as a “fixed asset” for the Congress were now passé.

Second, citizens could vote differently for different levels of government, even within the same limits of geography. At the very least, the city now had an assertive citizenry at the base — this writer found that in elections between 2013-15, older politicians, such as the Sajjan Kumar-Ramesh Kumar duo, had little traction.

Given these changes, how is the political competition likely to play out this time? Are local issues likely to hold sway, or will the more nationalistic issues matter more? What is the broader political significance of the battle and its likely signals for national politics?

As far as political competition is concerned, foremost in the minds of the electorate, is the question of whether the incumbent AAP will manage to hold on, with its focus on concrete delivery and local issues. Some of the strongest achievements of the government have been with respect to taking on water mafias in unauthorised colonies, and improving the performance of government schools. In areas like Sangam Vihar — Delhi’s largest unauthorised colony — it was the land mafia that doubled up as the water mafia, and private tankers extracted heavy rents for meagre supplies for 15-20 minutes every fortnight. The colony now has a more regular, the AAP cadre-supervised supply of tankers, and pipelines are being laid out for secure water to households. So, the issue is not just about ownership documents to those living in unauthorised colonies, which the BJP hopes to leverage, but the long and arduous process of connecting them to pipelines and civic amenities, that Kejriwal’s government seems to be inching towards. This may well help the AAP gain the trust of the underclasses. Similarly, the promise of free electricity for 200 units is not simply a freebie as the BJP campaign would have us believe. It is coupled with the party’s personal assistance in case of complaints of exaggerated electricity bills.

Another notable achievement is that of improvements in infrastructure, and quality of education in the 1,000-odd government schools. A clear outcome of their enhanced performance is the improved pass percentage.Even more, alignment with world-class ideas on teacher training and learning outcomes has helped the government school model conform to global norms in this area. Over 200 teachers were sent to Singapore — another city- state with globally acclaimed high learning levels on Programme for International Student Assessment tests. As a result, flipped classrooms, computer-aided classrooms, revised and friendly curricula, even swimming pools in some schools, are concrete achievements.

For the BJP, the electoral competition is pegged around its nationalistic legislation based changes — the nullification of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and its special status, and now the Citizenship Amendment Act. The party is relying on the charisma of Narendra Modi, who is an able communicator, and makes direct appeals that are considered credible by the electorate. The trouble is, however, that the party’s record of local municipal governance, through its councillors, is dismal. And the nationalistic legislations of late have stirred protests where the local actions of the city police, which reports to the Centre, have been criticised.

The outcomes may not signal any political realignment at the Centre, where the BJP is firmly in control. But as voters deliberate on elections in this city-state, they may transform the nature of the political arena further. In that case, they may ask for concrete deliveries rather than be shown the might of the State that simply legislates but has a delivery deficit.

Manisha Priyam is associate professor, National Institute for Educational Planning and Administration

The views expressed are personal

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