Just before the December 2013 Delhi elections, our housekeeper, who has been the mainstay of our home for over a decade, came with a special request. “Sir, I want to get a voter ID card,” she said enthusiastically. We managed the voter card and on election day, she turned to me triumphantly with her inked finger, “Humne jhadoo ko vote diya!” Now, over a year later, she is planning to vote again for AAP. It’s the same with the municipal worker who cleans the street near our home, the driver and the watchman.
In the neighbourhood park, the mood is very different. This is where the residents of upscale Panchsheel Park and the surrounding colonies go for their morning walk. As they huddle over their morning cup of hot chai in the winter breeze, the mood is distinctly saffron. “We need Modi for Delhi, he is our man for stability and progress!”
The contrasting moods suggest that the 2015 Delhi elections are reflective of a growing class divide. Upper income groups seem to be drawn to the BJP while the poorer sections of society are attracted to AAP. In an urban landscape that mirrors terrifyingly real social divides, an election has become an arena for class consciousness to play out like never before. It is almost as if income levels are determining political choices.
It wasn’t quite like this when Delhi went to polls 14 months ago. Then, Arvind Kejriwal seemed to be a magnet for the middle class even while attracting those living in slum clusters. Tired of the Congress, the middle class was hankering for change. Much like the desire to see Narendra Modi as prime minister, there seemed to be an equally strong pull factor towards Kejriwal. Interestingly, a CSDS poll before the 2013 elections had shown that almost half of those who said they would vote for AAP in the Delhi elections wanted Modi as their preferred prime ministerial choice.
The driving impulses for this middle-class voter was anger against the perceived corruption of the Congress as much as a yearning for change. Sheila Dikshit had been embraced by the middle classes for over a decade but in the aftermath of the Commonwealth Games scams, she too was seen to be tainted by association. The angry voter wanted her out and saw in Kejriwal’s anti-corruption plank the ideal platform to teach the Congress a lesson.
Now, the Congress has gone, Dikshit has been pushed into near retirement, Kejriwal’s tryst with power lasted barely 49 days and Modi is the supreme leader at the Centre with a clear majority. The dramatically changed context has meant an equally sharp shift in the middle-class mood. The charge that Kejriwal is an ‘anarchist’ who cannot handle being in government resonates most powerfully within the middle class: His dharna at Rajpath just ahead of Republic Day in January 2014 was seen as symbolic of a leader who didn’t respect the Indian State. It was a defining moment in middle class disenchantment with the Kejriwal brand of politics.
By contrast, the poor who live in jhuggi-jhopris or unauthorised colonies seem to have no such criticism of the AAP leadership. For those who live on the margins, Kejriwal’s seven weeks in power are seen as a period when they felt empowered. A roadside tea shop owner will tell you how the police were scared to demand ‘hafta’ and a family in a slum will speak almost nostalgically of how bijli-paani rates had come down. The logic of bankrupting the state through freebies and subsidy raj has little resonance here: Economists don’t matter to those who are simply looking to survive till the next month. Nor is a Kiran Bedi seen with the same affection here as she might in a middle-class neighbourhood. In middle-class homes, a policewoman is admired; in the poorer localities, the khaki uniform is feared. While the Modi brand of good governance and ‘acche din’ promise echoes in the middle-class homes driven by aspirational dreams, in the lower-income colonies there is still a sense that the Modi mantra is primarily aimed at the more affluent social groups.
Which is why the Modi juggernaut, which swept all before it in 2014, is being put to the test in the Delhi elections. The demographics of a city in flux with large migrant populations is such that the contest is more equal: There are around 20 constituencies where the underclass can influence the final outcome. There are equally another 20-odd constituencies where the middle-class vote has a decisive say. There are another half a dozen seats where Muslims — still looking for options to counter the BJP — are the critical vote. In effect, the battle for Delhi has been reduced to around 25 marginal constituencies where there is a greater mix of communities and income levels.
The challenge then for both the main parties in Delhi has been to get the incremental vote that goes beyond traditional supporters. In the 2014 general elections, the BJP made impressive gains among Dalit voters in the capital. Equally, AAP experienced a large-scale desertion of its middle-class support. In the general elections, the BJP and Modi were seen as the natural alternative; now in a state election, local factors have changed the rules of the game. That the BJP has to pull in virtually the entire Cabinet to fight a municipal-size election suggests the party is taking nothing for granted in a battle where the terms of engagement are being shaped as a ‘class war’ between the ‘mufflerman’ and the supreme leader in a Rs 10 lakh suit.
Post-script: The bulk of the AAP vote seems to be drawn from the Congress’ original support base. That the party which dominated the capital’s politics for 15 years is being almost reduced to a B team of a party, which is barely two years old, only confirms how rapidly its fortunes have dwindled.
The article first appeared in Hindustan Times