Roam the narrow lanes of the Old Delhi constituencies of Chandni Chowk, Ballimaran and Matia Mahal, where they say it can take up to three hours by rickshaw to cover the 1 km from Jama Masjid to Chandni Chowk, walking is the fastest way of getting anywhere, and shops promising “sherwani, Indo-Western, coat pant, kurta pajama” under one roof have recently added the “Modi dress”, and two things become clear. The Congress, all but edged out of the frame in other parts of Delhi, is visible and in the reckoning here. But this time its challenger is strong.
By all accounts, in the last Delhi election in 2013, Muslims may have been attracted to the Aam Aadmi Party but they wondered about its winnability, and capacity to take on the BJP. The AAP has had to contend with the high threshold for entry of new parties in a first-past-the-post polity but this challenge has been arguably even more daunting, so far, in the Muslim constituency.
Here, Congress candidates are serial winners and larger-than-life figures with established patronage networks.
And you most frequently hear the argument for a “national” party to take on the BJP, in whose regime “bayan baazi”, or communally charged rhetoric, alongside campaigns of “love jihad” and “ghar wapsi”, have already stoked anxieties.
“Just listen to Sakshi Maharaj”, says Shah Faisal, in the footwear business in Ballimaran. “In this colony, you will hardly find someone with a second marriage, or with a large family. Our mindset has changed but they talk of 10-15 children. Let’s compete in business, not in producing children”.
And grizzled B. Koya Kutty, who sells floor mats, throws a question: “Does the AAP have a presence in Tamil Nadu? In Kerala?” They can only wield the broom in Delhi, he says.
Many voters in these parts point to the Congress’s “experience”, insist that “Congress ko raaj chalaana aata hai”. There was corruption in its regime, they may admit, but as Khurshid Ali, who has a small tailoring shop in Ballimaran, puts it wryly: “We also don’t have an option, we can’t vote for an American party!”
Ali believes that the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and the “honouring onstage of the rioters” in the aftermath, have sounded a warning. He also says out loud a suspicion that has been doing the rounds: that the AAP is being propped up by the BJP to split the “Muslim” or “secular” vote. “It is a B-team of the BJP”, he says. Because “Didn’t many from the BJP sit on Anna’s stage? And hasn’t Kejriwal’s co-traveller Kiran Bedi now gone to the BJP?”
The collapse of the 49-day AAP government, and Arvind Kejriwal’s resignation only deepened this scepticism. As Mohammad Salim, who works in a cloth shop in Chandni Chowk, says, “Par woh jam nahin paaye…”, he couldn’t dig in his heels.
The big story of this election, however, could lie in the subduing, possibly even the conquering, of Muslim scepticism towards the AAP.
Parvez, an artisan, spells out the difference: “Earlier, we felt that if we didn’t vote for the Congress, the BJP would win. This time, we feel if we vote Congress, the BJP will win”. Twentysomething Wasif Ali, in the jewellery business in Matia Mahal, agrees. “I have been a Congress voter but this time I will vote AAP because the Congress is not even in the running, in the assembly or at the Centre”, he says. Many others proclaim loyalty to the incumbent MLA but add that relatives and friends have told them the AAP is doing well in other parts of the city.
Changing calculations of the AAP’s winnability are not just tempering attitudes of mistrust towards the new party. They could also be opening up space for debate in the Muslim constituency.
Many point to the overflowing drains in potholed lanes where the MCD never comes, and the decrepit government school deserted by both teachers and students, even as elections come and go. “Only when Ahmed (Bukhari) saab gives an ailan (order) does something happen here. The police cannot do anything on either congestion or encroachment”, rues 28-year old Saeem Ahmad, who owns a shop that sells jeans in Matia Mahal.
The Congress has done nothing in its multiple terms in power here, says Asghar Khan, an artisan in Ballimaran. “The electricity bills remain high, roads still fill up in the rains and the sewer water overflows and mixes with the drinking water”, he says. In all its time in power, the Congress has only scared the Muslims into supporting it by holding up the spectre of the BJP, says Zia Farooq. “Now we need to take a risk. We won’t know if things can get better till we do”, he says. “Between the Congress and the BJP”, he says, “it is a choice between an enemy who strikes openly and one that backstabs”.
“We will support the party that gives solutions”, says Mohammad Mursaleem, also an artisan. Where he lives, he points out, water comes once a day, yet the bill that used to be Rs 200-250 has shot up to Rs 2000 and includes sewer-maintenance charges for services undelivered. “If I earn Rs 6,000 a month, and pay upto Rs 2,000-2,500 only on bijli and paani, how will I educate my children?”
In the Muslim ghettos of Chandni Chowk, Ballimaran and Matia Mahal, as in the Muslim clusters of Seelampur in the trans Yamuna area, stories abound of the 49-day Kejriwal government, just as they do among the non-Muslim aam aadmi. “My power-water bills were halved and I saw that the traffic police stopped asking for bribes”, says Javed Ahmed, who has a small cloth shop in Seelampur. Mehrajuddin, who works in a wholesale cloth shop in Ballimaran, remembers that “in Chandni Chowk, in those days, my nephew was stopped for not wearing a helmet, but no bribe was demanded”. “We went to the hospital, the doctor asked for money, we complained and he was suspended”, recalls Momin, a scrap dealer. “The police used to take Rs 50 to allow entry of a truck in the lane. But in those days, a truck construction material came up to the house I was building without any charge”, says Parvez.
For the Muslim who considers voting for the AAP in this election, does it matter that Kejriwal’s party doesn’t really directly address the community, flaunt its “secularism”, or speak to “Muslim” concerns?
“Kejriwal is secular, because I haven’t heard anything from him to the contrary”, says Mohd Aslam, tailor in Ballimaran, while across the city, in Seelampur, Ansar, who works in a sewing workshop, says it is just as well that Kejriwal doesn’t speak too much on secularism. “That would only help the BJP”, he says. Others like Zia Farooq in Ballimaran say that Kejriwal doesn’t have to spell it out for the Muslim community. “We have understood, just as everyone understood what Obama said about the need for communal harmony when he came to Delhi. And after all, the AAP cannot win on our vote alone”, he says.
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