Shaheen Bagh, the epicentre of protests against the new citizenship law, found a mention in all three election rallies held by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in the national capital Wednesday. Shah’s criticism of protesters — he appealed to voters to press the lotus button on February 8 so hard that Shaheen Bagh feels the current — found an echo at a rally by Union Minister Smriti Irani and a press conference by Union Minister Prakash Javadekar.
This is in sharp contrast to the Aam Aadmi Party’s poll campaign, which has in the last two days consciously tried to move away from the topic of Shaheen Bagh, and steer conversations on bijli-paani, health and electricity, all issues that the party has identified as key elements of its poll pitch.
Both strategies, though polar opposites, have been devised after hectic consultations in BJP and AAP war-rooms, insiders said.
According to a senior BJP leader, until 10 days ago, the party’s main poll pitch was residents of unauthorised colonies being granted ownership rights and the AAP government refusing to roll out Ayushman Bharat in the capital. Then, on January 21, a high-level meeting was called in the party’s main office at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg. Since then, the tone of the campaign changed — in a series of press conferences by senior leaders, protests at Shaheen Bagh and claims that protesters were being provoked by AAP leaders started featuring consistently.
For instance, in a press conference on January 22, Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Goel said Shaheen Bagh was a threat to Delhi’s security. The next day, senior leader Sambit Patra alleged that protesters were “defaming the country” for Rs 500 each, insinuating that political parties were paying people to keep the agitation alive. On January 24, Javadekar cited the ongoing protests and said people need to choose between “Jinnah wali azadi” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai.”
The next day, Patra called another press conference, this time on JNU student Sharjeel Imam, where he claimed — incorrectly — that Imam’s speech at Aligarh Muslim University was made in Shaheen Bagh. “What type of jihadi thinking is this in which there is no place for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians?” he said.
The same day, Shah, in an address to party volunteers, said BJP will ensure a national capital that “never has a Shaheen Bagh”.
Final leg could be hardest
The final countdown is likely to pose new challenges to AAP given the change in pitch — and the fact that BJP’s big guns are yet to be rolled out.
On January 27, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad held a press meet and said Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia were standing with the people of Shaheen Bagh but were deaf to those adversely affected by the protests. On Tuesday, West Delhi MP Parvesh Sahib Singh said that if the anti-CAA and NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh were allowed to continue, Delhi would face a “Kashmir-like situation”, wherein protesters will “enter homes and rape sisters and daughters”.
At Wednesday’s poll rally, Irani referred to traffic jams being caused due to the protest: “If Sarita Vihar residents have to take someone to the hospital in an ambulance, the patient is likely to die due to the two-hour jam, but the CM will not budge.” Javadekar, meanwhile, claimed that slogans in support of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru were being raised there.
Asked whether the Shaheen Bagh refrain amounted to polarising the voters, Delhi unit chief Manoj Tiwari said: “People in Shaheen Bagh are raising slogans to shoot down the PM and Amit Shah ji, and Sisodia is saying they stand with Shaheen Bagh. It is Kejriwal who should clear his stand. We can tolerate things said against the PM for two minutes, we can tolerate things being said against the BJP, but we won’t tolerate things being said against the country.”
A senior BJP leader claimed the party believes the strategy is paying off. “We are in a stronger position today than we were two weeks ago,” he said, adding that “fence-sitters” could side with the BJP given its new message.
AAP leaders admitted this has forced the party “out of its comfort zone”, and efforts are on to keep the conversation on a different track. While the party opposed the Bill in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, no senior AAP leader has visited Shaheen Bagh. The only AAP leader to have visited the site is Amanatullah Khan, who is the MLA in Okhla under which Shaheen Bagh falls.
“Yes, it has us a little worried. Shaheen Bagh becoming an issue in a state election, which we are winning comfortably, has made the leadership nervous. If the issue will be discussed in drawing rooms and at dinner tables, there is a chance voters will be polarised,” said a senior AAP leader.
On Tuesday, at a press conference addressed by Kejriwal and Sisodia on education, both declined to answer a question on Shaheen Bagh. “Let us talk about education today,” Kejriwal said.
AAP has also tweaked its campaign over the past two days. Trying to reach out to people through social media and WhatsApp, videos of Kejriwal show him talking about women safety, youth and the education. The videos end with the message that each vote for AAP will be a vote for Kejriwal — something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also said in his successful campaign in the Lok Sabha poll in May last year.
The other change in the campaign is the slogan. Where it was ‘Lage Raho Kejriwal’ till last week, old posters and hoardings are now being replaced by those saying ‘Dilli main toh Kejriwal’.
The slogan comes from the feedback the party got during the Lok Sabha polls, where its volunteers were told repeatedly by voters that they would pick Modi for the country, and Kejriwal in Delhi.
“After the change in BJP’s pitch, we decided to hit them where they are most vulnerable — the CM face. We have Kejriwal, what do they have?” a party leader said.
AAP’s campaign director Pankaj Gupta acknowledged that BJP is pushing to change the narrative. “They are trying very hard. These are deliberate attempts to polarise voters. But people are smart; they understand these tactics and know this is Dilli ka chunav. We have no other pitch but our work. We fight for basic necessities,” he said.
Another leader said there is a sense of “caution” as well. “We have to be very careful. We are near the finish line and far ahead of others. We cannot afford a last-minute spanner.”