If Bombay was the perfect set that encapsulated urban India till the 1960s, film crews have been drawn to Delhi since — movies now portray the stereotype of the go-getter, jugaadu, “sirji”-muttering Delhiwallah. But the historic city has always been the country’s political battleground, a symbolic destination embodied in slogans like “Dilli door ast” and “chalo Dilli”. The sadhus in the 1960s and the anti-Emergency rally in Ram Lila Maidan in the 1970s set the national mood. The capital was where one travelled — to change the course of one’s life and to change politics.
Many people say that this time, it was the BJP that promoted the notion that Delhi was the jewel in the crown. Its eagerness to push back fresh elections gave out a powerful, if muddled, signal — Delhi was important as a political conquest. It also gave citizens of the sprawling city time to evaluate the political choices available to them.
Of all the metros in India, Delhi is the only one not pushed by a regional sentiment to return to its root name. There is no equivalent of the Shiv Sena or the Kannada Cheluvi to evoke regional pride. The Punjabi dominance of the early decades after Independence has waned. It is now a mixture of various communities, from Purabiyas to Malayalis and Bengalis. No one linguistic or regional community can stake an exclusive claim to Delhi. The city belongs to no one and everyone at the same time.
A city of key strategic importance, Delhi has been India’s capital for centuries. If you could not stop the invader from the Hindu Kush before he reached Delhi, there was no stopping him until he overran the Indo-Gangetic plain and won the war. The Red Fort was in Delhi. The British too eventually abandoned Kolkata and felt compelled to rule from Delhi, even if that meant building a “New” Delhi some miles off Shahjahanabad.
More recently, the Congress — a party that had not been known to nurture chief ministerial talent from the days of Indira Gandhi — was able to showcase its own success with a “Delhi-model” for 15 straight years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his earlier avatar as Gujarat chief minister, was constantly sneering at the “Sultanate of Dilli” to make a larger point about the need to seize Delhi. Even the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal anti-corruption drive got traction because, well, it was in Delhi.
But what does one make of an election for this “trumped-up municipality”, one of the smallest assemblies in India, which is not even a full state? Why the fuss?
The prosperity of Delhi makes it unlike the rest of India. Eight of its 11 districts figure in the top 20 districts of India on the index of overall wellbeing, according to a recent study based on NSSO numbers (68th round).
Its prosperity now attracts thousands every month: migration to Delhi is larger than to Mumbai, India’s first classical working-class city. There is no other city in India which has reasonable representation from each of its 29 states and seven Union territories. So, a political win or loss in a city built on the idea of migration itself, and which incubates a mini-India, with deep inter-dependencies across classes, castes and types, sends out many signals. Even before May 16 last year, if there was a bellwether for the national elections, it was the ruling party’s ignominious performance in the Delhi assembly elections of December 2013. Though the BJP vote share fell noticeably in state elections in Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir from the numbers notched up in May 2014, a defeat in Delhi, where it won all seven Lok Sabha seats, would be more visible and embarrassing.
With the PM and the BJP president running brilliant poll campaigns that ensured an eight-month-long victory lap for the party, a win in Delhi is essential to keep the momentum. It would signal a victory for the Modi-Amit Shah duo over even their own party. The leadership had written off sections of the party and brought in a spanking new chief ministerial candidate at the last moment. While Kiran Bedi is widely believed to be an insurance policy against a possible defeat in Delhi, the fact that Modi directly took on the AAP has also made the election a test of his personal credibility.
Delhi offers the Modi-Shah brand of politicking a bigger challenge. What is more important than just losing, sometimes, is what you lose to. The way in which the AAP has projected itself as the bearer of a new political vocabulary, not in regulation handloom or kurta-pyjama but in the everyman’s clothes, poses a challenge to what the BJP sees as its ultimate trump card — its ability to communicate or sell itself to the electorate. If millions in this most densely populated city are not convinced that you speak for or to the common man then is the 2014 pitch already in need of a reboot?
The BJP leadership has exhibited no appetite for courting the Opposition; winning the maximum number of states and earning more clout would be more in line with its style. A defeat, that too by a relative newbie, would puncture the vipaksh-mukt project, which is being pushed as one to be achieved.
The BJP, proud at having secured a powerful majority in the Lok Sabha, has been disturbingly blase about ramming crucial legislation through the ordinance route. Since it has a constitutional obligation to get them passed in the critical budget session beginning later this month, a win in Delhi would help the BJP railroad the Opposition further, especially in the Rajya Sabha. A loss, conversely, would force it to shift gear as an energised Opposition would have an alternative “Delhi-model” to needle the Centre.
A loss in the city that once elected the Jana Sangh and BJP founder-stalwarts like A.B. Vajpayee, V.K. Malhotra and L.K. Advani would definitely give the BJP cause for concern. The Congress, for its part, may enjoy the BJP’s discomfiture, but it should also be worried by a possible AAP victory in mini-India. If the Congress sees itself as the natural national alternative for parties ranged against the BJP, the success of the AAP in Delhi could shake the idea that all opposition to Modi must centre around the Congress.
But what perhaps makes Delhi elections most important and prestigious for the BJP today is the ruling party’s USP, which it has loudly marketed: that the BJP alone has the answers to the problems faced by urban India, rich or poor, old or young. However fuzzy in detail, the BJP has owned the soaring rhetoric of the “smart city project”, bolstering the claim that the party is not just for today but also for tomorrow. The AAP is no Syriza or Podemos, parties that are shaking up Europe. But the BJP should be seriously shaken by the reasons for supporting the AAP that have been articulated in the campaign.
Principally, because they challenge the assumption that it is only the BJP that has the key to deciphering urban India, ergo, the future.