With the Congress throwing its weight behind the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Aam Aadmi Party being cautious around it, leaders from both parties contesting assembly polls from areas where the agitations continue to seethe are finding different ways to engage with them.
However, both parties, which are pitted against the BJP, also have to contend with the wariness that participants of the citizen-led protests harbour towards politicians.
The sit-in at Shaheen Bagh led by women is arguably the most popular anti-CAA protest in the city, where thousands show up every evening in solidarity. Several senior Congress leaders — Shashi Tharoor, Salman Khurshid, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Sandeep Dikshit and Subhash Chopra — have made their way both here and to the protest at the gates of Jamia Millia Islamia.
The Congress is yet to announce its candidate from Okhla constituency, where Shaheen Bagh and Jamia are located. But former Congress MLA from Okhla Asif Muhammad Khan, who has been a strong presence at the Shaheen Bagh protest, said the opposition to the Bill will be a major plank of the candidate from the constituency.
“I have been going to the venue every day, I stand with the public for several hours. It sends a message to the public that these people are with us, and will help us when it is required. But this is a people’s protest and they do not want much involvement by political parties… This will be a big issue in the campaign in this constituency. The Congress has taken a clear stand against CAA-NRC and most leaders who have visited these protests are from the party. (CM Arvind) Kejriwal has not taken a clear stand on the issue and has been speaking in circles,” he said.
In fact, Congress’s involvement is one of the reasons cited by a group of students for withdrawing from the sit-in on January 2. They had initially played a big role in coordinating it.
Sharjeel Imam, a PhD student from JNU and one of the coordinators, had said “some parties are trying to hijack the protest in the light of coming elections,” in a reference to Asif Khan’s involvement.
On the other hand, sitting MLA from the area Amanatullah Khan is the only AAP leader to visit the venue. He, too, has been cautious about his involvement.
He had addressed the gathering at Shaheen Bagh on January 13 and said he did not want to politicise the issue: “I am completely with you. If anyone has to go to jail, I will go first. If anyone has to receive lathi blows, I will receive them first… For me, politics comes second and you come first. If I have to make a choice between contesting elections or not, I would choose to stand with you… If I have not been around you, it was because I didn’t want to do politics. This is an issue of the people and not of any party.”
Safoora Zargar, member of the Jamia Coordination Committee that organises protests at the varsity, said they were not averse to politicians at the protest: “Our protest is directed at the rollback of the CAA and NRC, for which we need the support of political parties and for them to include it in their manifestos. If anyone is ready to stand with us, we are happy to give them space.”
On AAP’s distance, she said, “There is resentment against AAP, but we also understand the nuances of elections and the political web the BJP is creating around it; we refuse to fall into it.”
In Seelampur, another epicentre of protests, Congress and AAP have fielded former MLA Mateen Ahmed and East MCD councillor Abdul Rehman respectively. Both are named in an FIR for “inciting the crowd” for the violence that had broken out in the area during a protest on December 17.
However, protesters have rejected political presence. Ahmed had visited the venue and sat among protesters earlier in the week without speaking, while Rehman had been asked to go back.
“People are very clear that they don’t want politicians to come… Elections are coming and people know that politicians will come if they see it as beneficial — and stay away if not,” said Abdul Kareem, a resident of the area.
Ahmed said opposition to the CAA will be an important part of his campaign. “I went to the sit-in because I should go when something is happening in my area; but that is the citizens’ protest. I have been raising it in my own public meetings, and I’m the one who started protests in the area. My name is in an FIR,” he said. Rehman was unavailable for comment.
In Old Delhi, Alka Lamba, who left AAP and is now contesting from Chandni Chowk on a Congress ticket, had also been leading protests at Jama Masjid for two weeks. “She had been leading a protest every evening from 6-7 pm since January 1, but will no longer be able to do so as her candidacy will give it a political colour and she is busy with campaigning,” said a source close to her.
However, citizens protesting regularly at the masjid said their protest is a separate one. “She comes with her own people. Later in the evening, citizens hold their own protest. No political leaders are invited; if they come, they are chased away. There is a lot of mistrust in being used for elections… AAP has maintained its distance as it is not comfortable for their electoral politics,” said Mohammad Naeem, a local social worker.
Shoaib Iqbal, who quit Congress and is contesting from Matia Mahal on an AAP ticket, conducted a few small protests but stopped after his candidacy was declared.
“It is a very sensitive issue… I will decide on how to approach it after consulting people through door-to-door conversations, and after the Supreme Court hears petitions against the Act on January 22. Any mobilisation will be done after getting permission from police and the returning officer,” he said.
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