Column on Delhi election result in NDTV.com on February 11, 2015
(Delhi-based columnist and author Sunil Sethi writes a column for Business Standard and hosted NDTV’s literary show – Just Books – for 9 years.)
I stopped by at our popular halwai at a South Delhi market to buy gulab jamuns for a family lunch on Sunday, and overheard the shop keeper on his cell phone giving his prediction on the election result. “Ab kal dekhna kya hoga,” he was saying, “Dilli saare desh ko hila degi“—Wait and see what happens tomorrow…Delhi is going to shake the nation. As it turned out, he was spot on, and clearly a fervent Aap Aadmi Party fan.
He is the archetype of the “muffler man”—comfy jersey, shapeless pants and brimming with confidence, though I doubt if, like his leader Arvind Kejriwal, he took the afternoon off to “chill” go to see a movie called “Baby”.
I tried to engage him in conversation, pointing out that shop owners like him are regarded as part of the BJP’s traditional voter base in the city, so why the change of heart? “Don’t forget,” he pointed out, all smiles, “Kejriwal belongs to our community; he’s a bania like us.” On the basis of caste loyalty, though, he was only partly right. Not just the city’s trading community but all shades of political persuasion – cutting across caste and class – came out in overwhelming support of AAP, in one of the biggest landslides the city-state has ever known.
Polling on Saturday at the local municipal school where I have been voting since the early 1970s was calm and orderly and solid the whole day long. Ours is a mixed neighbourhood with a dense working class area – one of Delhi’s numerous lal dora villages – bordering an affluent residential enclave. Voters usually emerge through the day in a trickle, clutching their slips on a leisurely stroll, while the better-off drive up in their sedans and SUVs. But I had seldom seen such long queues. A stylish neighbor in a smart red wool dress could hardly restrain her enthusiasm. “I voted AAP,” she exclaimed with unabashed glee. On sartorial grounds alone she is in the genre of Narendra Modi — someone always dressed upand always on the go. Most likely, she voted for the BJP in May’s general election. But this time, she said, she wanted to “show them”.
This sentiment of “let’s put the BJP its place” or “bring them down a peg or two” – especially after the party’s seemingly unstoppable juggernaut in national and state elections last year – has been a key factor in determining AAP’s spectacular triumph.
Delhi is a complex, problematic, spoilt and demanding place, a city more conscious of the shifting levers of power, more attuned to the antennae of political rumour and gossip, than anywhere else in the country. It has among the highest per capita incomes, boasts better indicators in education and healthcare, more green cover and bigger spending on arts and culture than any other city. On any given day you can walk into free classical music or jazz concerts in its parks, go ticketless to the Russian ballet or Peking opera, or pay a few rupees to enter the best art shows. Its populace is so accustomed to a “freebie culture” that it expects everything to be heavily subsidised — including water, power, housing and public transport. It is also a disastrously mismanaged, infernally polluted, traffic-choked and dangerous city. And if you want “Swacch Bharat”, then see the large waste dump, opposite the municipal school where I voted on Saturday, turn into a festering mountain of uncollected garbage on weekends when its municipal employees go on the lam.
Since the election of December 2013 that threw up a hung Assembly, and particularly since last May when the BJP swept the city’s seven Lok Sabha seats, things have gone from bad to worse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his strategic election micro-managers like Amit Shah are perceived as “outsiders”, impervious to the capital’s mounting stress levels. Kiran Bedi’s nth-hour nomination as candidate for chief minister was seen as another instance of the party’s arrogance and disinterest; it alienated not only the BJP’s strong ground-level cadre, but further disillusioned Delhi’s disgruntled voter. Bedi’s half-hearted campaign was also rendered “voiceless” on account of her perpetually sore throat. When she did manage to utter, what fell from her mouth were either platitudes of Modi-worship or silly jibes against Arvind Kejriwal that he adroitly turned into sympathy for the striving underdog. That she lost from Krishna Nagar in East Delhi, former stronghold of BJP’s best-known local leader, Dr Harsh Vardhan, now a Union minister, underscores the degree of schadenfreude prevailing in the constituency: it derived malicious pleasure in ensuring her humiliating defeat.
One of Sheila Dikshit’s contributions in 15 years of Congress government was to trifurcate its municipalities, yet they remain hopelessly unwieldy and incompetent. The police force is notoriously corrupt. The Jal Board with its thousands of grace-and-favour employees has been struggling to install automated water meters and computerize its records but – on the evidence of a visit I made a couple of weeks ago – failing miserably.
According to the 2001 census, Delhi recorded the highest number of migrants (5.6 million) after Maharashtra (7.9 million) in a decade. It is this teeming population of new arrivals, growing apace, that form the bedrock of Kejriwal’s support base. How will he provide them cheap electricity, water and housing without bankrupting the city’s finances is the question to which AAP has no clear answers. It was at the root of the confusion which caused its floundering 49-day government to fail in 2014.
I walked to the straggly village bazaar that abuts the municipal school just after polling ended on Saturday to collect an electric kettle given for repair and found the polling agents of the three parties tallying voters’ lists at their makeshift tables. They presented a study in contrast as they wound down after a day that began at dawn. The BJP stall was the best-manned with smart laptops and a flurry of volunteers on cell phones. The Congress Party table had a group of young men in jeans and sports caps with Rahul Gandhi badges. They were sipping tea and gossiping-with astonishing accuracy-about the festivities lined up for Amit Shah’s son’s wedding in Ahmedabad today. “BJP ka band bajega aur baraat bhi,” one of them sneered.
The AAP stall had just two earnest men, modestly attired in kurta pyjamas and AAP khadi caps, diligently ticking lists with ball points. They patiently explained their system of volunteering and door-to-door campaign which they had been carrying out since December. With quiet assurance, one said that he was certain that “all the poor people” – the working class of car mechanics, shopkeepers and household helps who live in the area – had voted for AAP.
At the electrician’s, the TV set was turned up loud, and the afternoon’s exit polls predicting a victory for AAP were being avidly discussed among shop owner and customers. When I reminded them of the public anger that followed Arvind Kejriwal’s ignominious exit as chief minister 13 months ago, they were unexpectedly magnanimous. “Woh purani baat hai,” said the electrician cheerfully. “Ek baar Kejriwal ko phir chance do. Sabse bari baat hai usne public se galti ki maafi mangi hai (That’s an old story. Let’s give Kejriwal another chance. The main point is that he’s apologized to the public for his mistake)”.
Most customers nodded in agreement. Arvind Kejriwal’s sincere public apologies have warmed Delhi’s heart and swung the vote for AAP. The BJP’s overreaching authority and swagger has caused its comeuppance.