Thrice this monsoon, Delhi has had to bare its gaping wounds in public. When its roads turned into rude rivers of mud and traffic piled up into endless serpentine queues. The collective sweat and frustration of its people contrasted sharply with tired, dog-eared billboards left over from the Commonwealth games of 2010 boasting of the nation’s capital as a glittering global city.
However, as the one-and-a-half crore people living in New Delhi prepare to vote on 4 December, the descriptors they are more likely to use to for their city are “crime capital,” “rape capital” and “corruption ridden.” These descriptors have always kept the affluent and middle class away from polling booths in Delhi in the past. For the most part it had been people from North West Delhi and East Delhi – in slums and unauthorised colonies from Najafgarh to Seelampur, that have decided who comes to power next. This time though, things could change.
In the last two years, Delhi has seen more upheaval than in its last two Lok Sabha terms. The streets eruped in anger after a deluge of stories on corruption in the Commonwealth games. The rage spiralled into the nationwide anti-corruption protests that finally led one year ago, to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Jantar Mantar became the new go-to place, as did Ramlila Maidan for thousands of middle class youth from the city, and many came away with the feeling that the present government must go. Once these protests died down in August 2012, they were replaced December onwards by an even larger, spontaneous wave of protests against the Delhi gang rape.
Now, in the middle of an election season, as the main contenders – the Congress party, the BJP and AAP – list their respective sets of issues, almost all of them can be broadly summed up in one phrase that will define this election: anti-incumbency. The choice before voters is not so much about “bijli-sadak-paani” or women’s safety or even the spiralling prices of food, houses, rent and fuel; but about one main thing: to vote for or not to vote for the Sheila Dikshit government again. Everything hinges on whether or not the voter this year feels positively about Dikshit’s ability to deliver what they want. Or it’s a choice between either of the two alternatives – the BJP and the AAP. Sheila Dikshit has enjoyed an overwhelming majority of Delhi’s votes three times in a row. Even with the reduced vote share in the last election in 2008, she managed to win for the Congress party 42 of the total 70 assembly seats. The BJP got just 23 seats.
Dikshit has been the Chief Minister of Delhi since 1998, and it is primarily the large migrant labour force settled in Delhi’s slums and unauthorised colonies that has continually been voting for her; seeing in her and the Congress a better ally than the BJP – a party seen as more aligned with the middle class traders of the city.
However, this time pre-election surveys have shown there may be a significant dent in that bulwark of support for the Congress. An India Today CVoter opinion poll predicts that the Congress party’s vote share may drop by a massive 7% – from 40% of the electorate to 33% this year. In the IBN-7 HT CFore survey also, the Congress is forecast as getting fewer seats but still retaining power – with about 33–37 seats.
In an election scenario that has been rendered unpredictable by the entry of the AAP for the first time, and by the groundswell of protests in the city that were covered in the national media 24×7; it finally boils down to the changing image of Sheila Dikshit’s government in the eyes of the people.
The BJP’s feeble attempts at stitching its torn image in Delhi back together again, is unlikely to make much headway with Vijay Goel at the helm – seen as someone who has no striking new ideas to push past the three-time Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, nor has the passion and aggression of the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal.
In the last election in 2008, 67% of people polled in a survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi said they were not at all interested in the election campaign, and 88% said they did not attend election meetings. This is the standard image of Delhi in an election season. A city that has repeatedly sent out the message in one election after another, that it does not care. For the first time, in a long time, that set of people may be changing their minds. The old gatekeepers will, at the very least, be shaken from their goalposts. Whoever comes in next, knows they are dealing with an agitated, watchful collective. A collective that will demand police personnel to be better trained to register crimes, particularly against women. A collective that will demand pot-holed roads to be fixed. A collective that will demand that basic hygiene and water be made available to slums and colonies – authorised or not. A collective that will demand more hospitals to be built and municipal schools to not be the embarrassment they are. A collective that will demand that the capital, with its fabulous metro and iconic citadels be fixed sincerely, so that when the next monsoon arrives, most of it does not get badly submerged again.