Elections in Delhi generate an interest all out of proportion to its geographical dimensions (1,484 sq. km) and population (19 million). This can be attributed to its status as the national capital, but also to the dynamism of its political landscape. Successive waves of migration have engendered a rapidly-mutating political theater which throws up a progression of colourful characters. None more so than its current chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal.
The unlikely 'neta' captured the public imagination in 2012 and surprisingly, has managed to hold on to it in the face of Narendra Modi's charisma. The uncommon leader of the 'common man's party' (AAP) is by far the dominant figure in the Delhi assembly poll of 2020.
The very fact of Kejriwal's rise testifies to the evolution of Delhi's electorate. Initially, it had a distinctly Punjabi character, thanks to post-Partition migrations. Its politics was dominated by Pakistan-born Punjabis such as Madan Lal Khurana, V K Malhotra, Jagdish Tytler and HKL Bhagat. In 1993, the BJP convincingly won the first legislative assembly elections of the National Capital Territory (NCT). Khurana became CM and the BJP dominated Delhi all through the 1990s.
The migratory flux of 'purbiyas' or easterners from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh led to a socio-political reconfiguration that the Congress was quick to recognize. Enter Sheila Dikshit, who had the advantage of combining Punjabi and purbiya credentials. She remained in power for 15 years. By this time, the sun had set on the BJP's Punjabi stalwarts, leaving baniyas to hold the fort. Even as the BJP projected a Punjabi for CM, an acute need for a credible purbiya face was felt (later fulfilled by singer/actor Manoj Tewari, who crossed over from the Samajwadi Party in 2014).
The next CM of Delhi, however, was a baniya from Haryana: Arvind Kejriwal. Delhi had transcended traditional regional affiliations to unite behind AAP. The party, born of an “anti-corruption” movement, cut across demographic, caste and class divides to capture 30 per cent of the voteshare in its first election and an astounding 55 per cent in the next.
The BJP was determined to prove his 67/70 seat tally a pyrrhic victory. The peculiar features of Delhi's statehood arrogate to the centre power over the police and land and these were brought to bear on the fledging Aam Aadmi Party with a vengeance. The first three years of Kejriwal's second tenure as CM were a relentless struggle. Even as he battled the centre's excesses － which included a raid at his residence － his stock fell, particularly when AAP lost the assembly elections in Punjab and the local body elections in Delhi. Nor did AAP make any headway outside the capital.
Kejriwal's face-off with the bureaucracy, his seemingly endless battle with Modi, rumours of unaccounted donations and his apology spree (to stave off defamation cases filed by Congress and NDA politicians) did nothing to bolster his approval ratings. The BJP lost no time in presenting him as a professional martyr (who covered up his own shortcomings by accusing the centre of harassment) and a flash-in-the-pan politician.
A desperate effort to ally with the Congress ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha proved yet another political error. He was snubbed, after a long drawn-out flirtation, but it cost him the goodwill of anti-Congress voters. The BJP romped home in Delhi, repeating its 7/7 score of 2014. Interestingly, the AAP did not lead in a single assembly segment and the Congress was the runner-up in five of the seven seats.
Why, then, is AAP leading in all the opinion polls? A look at Delhi's budget is enlightening. The allocation for education is a hefty 26%, far ahead of the average of 16% for the states. Likewise, the allocation for health is north of 13 %, whereas the average for the states hovers around 5%. Haryana, for instance, spends less than 19% on both sectors combined. This is in addition to other social sector schemes, as well as increased power and water subsidies.
The AAP government's work in education and health is undeniable. Quietly, away from the glare of publicity, it has been focusing on sectors which are within its purview, like the 'doorstep delivery of public services'. It may not have managed to deliver free WiFi and city-wide CCTVs, but the visible improvement in social services and the efforts to introduce transparency will work to AAP's advantage. At the very least, Kejriwal is not approaching voters empty-handed.
Kejriwal himself has been demonstrating considerable political acumen of late. For one thing, he has abandoned his trademark muffler, which had inspired a line of T-shirts, twitter hashtags and screenprinted posters in 2015, perhaps because of its subaltern symbolism. For another, he has virtually stopped criticising the centre, has chosen not to get involved in the anti-CAA protests and taken an uncharacteristically nuanced stand on the violence on university campuses. There's an impeccable political rationale behind this. Well aware of the different pattern of voting behaviour in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections, Kejriwal would prefer to fight on his own turf – strictly on local issues, where he and not the BJP, has the advantage.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.