In the upcoming general elections, the fortunes of the city’s principal political players hinge on their plans to address one issue above all else — sealing. Delhi being overwhelmingly metropolitan, the importance of traders as a voting block cannot be ignored. The 2018-19 economic survey report states that out of all the establishments in the city, around 99% fall in areas considered urban.
In the recent elections, the trading class have largely sided with the BJP in the capital — reflected in the fact that even as the vote shares of the AAP and Congress went through ups and downs, the BJP’s share remained largely constant.
However, the large-scale sealing of commercial premises — under the supervision of a Supreme Court-appointed monitoring panel — has thrown the field wide open, with the AAP and the Congress sensing an opportunity to woo traders by promising to address their grievances.
According to official records, around 10,533 establishments such as shops, restaurants, bars and bakeries were sealed in the city till January 31 for alleged violation of norms, including usage of residential premises for commercial purposes. Being the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP found itself on the backfoot, with the entire exercise happening under its watch — albeit under the top court’s order.
The AAP has weaved the issue into its larger demand for statehood — its primary poll plank — with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal asserting in rally after rally that given a choice, he would stop sealing within “five minutes”. The AAP also demands that the Centre introduce an ordinance to stop sealing with immediate effect, while the Congress has promised to start de-sealing with immediate effect if elected to office.
President of Meherchand market association Ashok Sakhuja said, “Sealing will cost the BJP as being in charge of the MCDs , they could have given us some relief. More than 300 people have been left unemployed just in this market and the numbers will swell to thousands as far as the entire city is concerned. This will be the main election issue for traders.”
Delhi BJP general secretary Rajesh Bhatia told The Indian Express that the party tried to provide relief to traders by amending the 2021 Master Plan through two notifications in June and July 2018, but they were stayed by the SC. “We relaxed Floor Area Ratio norms, made way for use of basements for commercial activities and brought down conversion charges (amount required to change land use from residential to mixed). But they are sub-judice and the SC has ordered status quo,” Bhatia said.
The Delhi Congress said it will raise the issue as part of its campaign, which also found mention in Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s address to booth-level workers on Monday. “Traders in Delhi are upset as they have lost their businesses during the drive. If the Congress comes to power in Delhi, we will de-seal all shops that have been lying closed for months. We will get an ordinance passed in Parliament,” said Jitender Kochhar, Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee spokesperson .
Bhatia, however, blamed successive governments of Congress and the incumbent AAP for the mess, saying the non-implementation of the MPD-2021 in letter and spirit has landed the city in this situation. When asked if the BJP fears losing the loyalty of traders, he said: “Our Delhi chief took the lead by de-sealing a lock. When it comes to traders, it is a good thing that they support us but we represent every section of the society and work for everyone. Traders know that the SC has ordered a status quo and once that is cleared, they will get relief.”
AAP spokesperson Saurabh Bhardwaj said, “The issue is directly related to the Centre and the only solution is an ordinance. Changes in the master plan through executive orders cannot be a solution as they can be challenged… Had land been under us, we could have passed a law in the state assembly and that’s why statehood is important.”