Of all the by-elections which were held last week and the result of which will be announced Monday, it is Bawana in Delhi, which is being watched most avidly.
So what is at stake? For the actors, everything.
There is the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has not seen an electoral victory after it stormed to power in the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections. Since then, it lost the Rajouri Garden by-election in Delhi, the municipal corporation elections, the Punjab Assembly elections, and even the Delhi University Students’ Union elections.
It desperately needs to report a win, if for nothing else than to record that its innovative governance ideas have the popular endorsement.
Then there is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This will be among the party’s first Assembly elections fought after the change of guard in the Delhi BJP, when the baton passed into the hands of Member of Parliament Manoj Tiwari. True, the party won the Municipal Corporation of Delhi polls, but the Punjabi-baniya axis in the BJP that claimed the credit for that.
But, Bawana has a Poorvanchali population in excess of 30 per cent. Tiwari is a huge draw among the Bhojpuri-speaking population. He has been camping in the constituency for more than a week and has addressed nearly 20 election meetings. He visited the slums and villages of Bawana and in the last phase of campaigning, had lunch at the home of a rickshaw-puller. All this should tell us how anxious he and his supporters are to record a win: Not just for the BJP, but also for himself.
And, there is the Congress: All dressed up and nowhere to go. The party has painted its old office — in itself, a testimony to the Congress’s presence in the area. But it has seen only a thin trickle of visitors. This is a double blow. The Congress’s Surender Kumar held the seat from 1998 to 2013. Then he lost: First to the BJP and then to AAP.
In the interim, Bawana was declared a reserved constituency for the large Dalit population that it got from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. So, it was humiliation twice over because the traditional voters of the Congress went elsewhere despite Kumar’s appeal and retaining the constituency over three elections. But two successive defeats appear to have sapped the spirit of the party. Kumar is the Congress candidate again.
One of the 12 reserved seats in the 70-member Delhi Assembly, the constituency is semi-urban, semi-rural, with a large presence of migrants and Dalits. Bawana’s 26 rural villages have traditionally voted for the BJP, and the colonies have traditionally voted for the Congress. This changed in 2013 when the slums, too, voted for the BJP after their demographic profile changed.
The issues in the two segments are totally different but the concern is the same: Employment, income and poverty. The villages complain that fertilisers are expensive, seeds are hard to get, and water for irrigation is poor. In the colonies, it is water, power, and living conditions which are existential anxieties. The Shahbad dairy is the biggest slum cluster in the constituency, unauthorised of course, with miserable living conditions.
The by-election was necessitated after AAP legislator Ved Parkash quit the Delhi Assembly just ahead of the municipal polls to join the BJP. Parkash, who had been in the BJP until 2015, fought the Assembly polls that year as an AAP candidate after being denied a ticket by his former party. Now, he’s back where he once belonged. One of the BJP’s biggest guns, Parvesh Sharma, the son of former chief minister Sahib Singh Verma, has closely monitored the election on the ground. He represents Bawana’s rural face.
For the AAP, the defection of a sitting MLA is an embarrassment. But the party’s candidate is — in a manner of speaking — a son of the soil. Ram Chandra, who had contested on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket in 2008 and had received 14 per cent of the votes, is a resident of Shahbad Dairy. He is convinced that if he wins, all the development AAP has brought to Delhi will be seen in Bawana: Mohalla clinics, schools and water facilities.
This is the theme of the AAP campaign — “we are in power in Delhi and we will do everything we can to ensure Bawana gets a share of the cake”. The mystery is, of course, why Bawana did not get a share of the cake during the time the AAP did represent it in the Assembly.
For the BJP, conceding that a defector is its candidate has been embarrassing. But the BJP’s campaign has been Modi, Modi and more Modi. This could be a sign of things to come. The mathematics of the victory is simple. If the Congress gets more than 10,000 votes, the BJP’s victory is certain. The logic is that AAP and Congress are sharing the same voter base. If that gets divided, it is the BJP that gains.
Bawana is resentful that it has to go through yet another electoral exercise. But Ved Parkash says centralisation of power in the AAP was so extensive that he felt he had no future in the party. True, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has been coming to Bawana every weekend. The AAP needs the victory badly. But so do the BJP and the Congress.