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.”