In Delhi’s Seemapuri, former Congress voters give AAP the edge despite BJP’s polarising campaign

In Seemapuri, where Sheila Dixit once commanded mass support, the tide seemed to have shifted towards the AAP and its candidate, Rajendra Pal Gautam. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
08 February, 2020

In January this year, Omveer Singh Chauhan, a former Dalit Congress leader with a significant following in north east Delhi’s Seemapuri constituency quit the party after nearly three decades as a member and joined the Aam Aadmi Party. “Since Sheila ji’s death the Congress has collapsed completely in Delhi,” Chauhan told me, referring to the Congress veteran and former Delhi chief minister, Sheila Dixit. The party was fielding the “same old faces” and did not allow new leaders to emerge, he said. “The Congress has given the Seemapuri ticket to Veer Singh Dhingan, who lost the last two elections.” In 2015, Dhingan lost the elections to Rajendra Pal Gautam of the AAP. Both of them will compete from the seat once again in this year’s assembly elections. But in a development that does not bode well for Dhingan, Chauhan was far from the only one to become disillusioned with the Congress. In Seemapuri, where Dixit once commanded mass support, the tide seemed to have shifted towards the AAP.

Five years ago, the AAP stormed to power in the national capital, winning 67 of the 70 assembly seats. As Delhi goes to polls on 8 February, the battle lines are clear. The AAP’s pitch for a second term focuses on the reduction of electricity and water bills, and its health and education reforms. The Bharatiya Janata Party has adopted a characteristically divisive campaign that seeks to link the AAP to the protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area. The BJP campaign has also been marked by violent, charged rhetoric. The minister of state for finance, Anurag Thakur, called for shooting traitors, while the cabinet minister Prakash Javadekar suggested that the Delhi chief minister and AAP chief, Arvind Kejriwal, was a terrorist. Meanwhile, the Congress has gone from three consecutive terms under Dixit, to a party that nobody expects to form government in Delhi.

According to Chauhan, over the past five years, large sections of the Congress party’s voter base have drifted away from the party. Chauhan is a resident of Nand Nagari, a resettlement colony in Seemapuri. The Seemapuri constituency comprises four wards, Dilshad Garden, Nand Nagari, Sundar Nagari and New Seemapuri, and the latter two are also resettlement colonies. While in the Congress, Chauhan said he was the vice president of the party’s north east Delhi district unit. When I asked why he did not join the BJP, he responded, “They never talk about Dalits or our issues. They even broke our Ravidas temple.” In last August, the Delhi Development Authority, which comes under the central government, had demolished a temple of the revered saint and poet, Ravidas, following a Supreme Court directive.

The AAP’s growing popularity in the Seemapuri constituency can also be attributed to the party’s roots in the area. Before the formation of the AAP, in 1999, Kejriwal was one of the founders of a grassroots-activism NGO called Parivartan, which was based out of Sundar Nagari. The deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, had worked with Parivartan as well. Matloob Rana, a journalist with the Hindi daily Shah Times and a resident of Sundar Nagari, was associated with Parivartan and has followed the trajectory of the AAP and Kejriwal. “Parivartan first worked on the issue of rations under the public-distribution system and their stand was that every family should get a ration card,” Rana recalled. “They also used the right to information to audit the public works in these colonies and demanded transparency and accountability from the government and involved the residents in the process through public meetings. Because of that background, AAP has always had a positive response in low income and resettlement neighbourhoods,” he said.

Anjali Bhardwaj, the founder of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, a citizens group working on issues of transparency and accountability in governance, was one of the founding members of Parivartan and worked in Sundar Nagari in the early 2000s along with Kejriwal and Sisodia. “Sundar Nagari had all the problems that a typical resettlement colony faces, like poor sanitation, non-existent health facilities and pilferage of subsidised rations,” Bhardwaj told me. “It is not easy to address these problems unless one brings about systemic change, and one would expect a chief minister who comes from that background to address these issues.”

I asked Bhardwaj what she felt about the AAP­’s work. “While the work on bijli-paani”—electricity and water—“and education reforms are welcome, other issues like corruption in food-security schemes and grievance-redressal mechanisms have not been put in place yet,” she said. “These may be due to political compulsions. If AAP wins a second term, we hope they address these issues, which require change at a systemic level.” The AAP manifesto for the elections has promised the door-step delivery of rations, in order to “ensure dignity, transparency and accountability in supply of food ration and ensure food security for all.”

According to Brahm Dikiya, a resident of Nand Nagari and the Delhi unit president of the Rashtriya Safai Mazdoor Congress—a national labour-rights organisation for sweepers and scavengers—a substantial number of Dalits in Seemapuri voted for the Congress in the 2019 general elections. He said these included members of the Koli, Khatik, Jatav and Valmiki communities. Dikiya said that the area’s Muslim community had voted for the Congress as well, hopeful that a national party would be able to defeat the BJP. But in this year’s assembly elections, he added, a substantial section of those votes are likely to go to the AAP.

Dikiya’s analysis was echoed by others from the area. “Muslims will vote for whichever party can defeat the BJP and in the state elections that party is the AAP,” Tahir Khan, another Nand Nagari resident, told me. “It has worked for everyone in the last five years. The CAA-NRC and Delhi elections are not a Hindu-Muslim issue, though the BJP is trying hard to make it one,” Khan added. Chauhan, who is a member of the Khatik community, also told me, “The old Congress base in Delhi among Khatiks, Jatavs and Muslims seems to have shifted to the AAP, while Kolis and Valmikis may vote for the BJP.” Padam Singh, a Jatav resident of Nand Nagari, said he was happy with the CCTV cameras installed by the Delhi government and the free bus rides for women. “Ninety percent of the Dalit vote has shifted to the AAP,” Singh said.

In the 2015 assembly elections, the BJP had fielded Karamvir as its candidate, who came second with 24 percent of the votes. This year, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has fielded Sant Lal Chawariya of the Lok Janshakti Party as its candidate from Seemapuri. According to Chauhan, this would cost the BJP. “BJP supporters are hard wired to press the button next to the lotus and they may not vote for the bungalow,” he said, referring to the LJP’s symbol. Chawariya, too, admitted that this may be the case. “We have worked very hard to explain to the voters that in the absence of the lotus in Seemapuri, they should vote for the bungalow,” he said, adding that “the BJP is a disciplined, cadre-based party and they will vote for us.”

There appeared to be a consensus on the ground that despite the BJP’s efforts, the voters would not exercise their ballot on the basis of the party positions on the Shaheen Bagh protest. Chawariya described the protest as “wrong” and “spreading anarchy,” but he did not believe it was an electoral issue in Seemapuri either. “Seemapuri is peaceful,” he said. “We are campaigning on the regularisation of unauthourised colonies and other issues in the BJP’s manifesto.” Rana, the journalist, told me, “Delhi’s voters will vote on the basis of the work that the government has done in the last five years.”

Mohammad Aqueel, a Sundar Nagari resident, concurred. “This is the first government in seventy years that has worked and is asking for votes on the basis of the work they have done, which is visible on the ground,” Aqueel said, referring to the AAP. He added that of the four wards in the constituency, Sundar Nagari, Seemapuri and Nand Nagari were primarily lower-middle class and working class, which had benefitted substantially from the AAP schemes. “Dilshad Garden is a more upper-middle class neighbourhood and the residents there are BJP voters, but even they have gained from reduced power bills,” Aqueel told me.

Indeed, even sections that are considered traditional BJP voters said they were impressed with the AAP. Anil Gupta is a businessman and the president of the Dilshad Colony Marketplace Welfare Association. “Delhi’s politics needs Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party,” Gupta, who owns a readymade garments store and a pharmacy, said. “Normally, Banias are BJP supporters, but this time, a large section is voting for the AAP because even we have benefitted from free electricity and water.” In Dilshad Garden’s Guru Tegh Bahadur enclave, I spoke to Bharat Singh Walia, a retired police officer. “I normally vote for the Congress, but this time I will support the AAP because of the work they have done,” Walia said. “I haven’t had to pay my water bill for the past six months.”

On 3 February, I spent an evening with Gautam, the AAP’s Seemapuri candidate, as he conducted a door-to-door campaign in the constituency. When I asked him if the BJP’s polarisation campaign was working, he was ambivalent. “There is some polarisation, but others have joined us in equal numbers,” Gautam said. “Muslims and Dalits, except for Valmikis, will vote for the AAP. We are running a positive campaign based on the work, while the BJP is running a negative campaign. The voters will vote for us.”

As the AAP team wound through the narrow bylanes of the New Seemapuri ward, I spoke to Shyam Bahadur Thapa, a 58-year-old resident of the area who was standing outside his home. “For the last three months my electricity bill has been nil,” Thapa, a daily wager, said. When I asked him if he thinks this would continue, he responded, “It will continue at least till 11 February, and I intend to vote for the party that makes it continue.”