If only five Delhi constituencies could foresee what was coming

Tuesday, 24 December 2013 - 9:28am IST | Agency: DNA
AAP could have improved its score if certain sections hadn't obsessed over identity politics.

Chief Minister-designate and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal likely feels hobbled because of his government’s dependence on the Congress for survival. It is possible the AAP would have acquired a majority on its own had Delhi’s voters, particularly Muslims, not disbelieved its potential of triggering an electoral gale in its favour. Consider this: in four of the five constituencies considered Muslim, the AAP was relegated to the third or fourth position. The Congress bagged four of these and the Janata Dal (U) one, deepening the mystery about the Muslim vote because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the AAP fell short of the majority-mark by just a few seats.

The AAP’s astonishing performance elsewhere in Delhi suggests that the voting in the five Muslim constituencies had a Rip Van Winkle-ian quality to it. It was as if their residents suddenly awoke from the slumber of five years to vote regardless of the political transformation underway.

The essence of this transformation was that an overwhelming majority of the Delhi electorate did not think the Congress deserved another chance at governance, and perceived either the AAP or the BJP as best placed to vanquish or most suited to replace the grand old party.

This isn’t to suggest that the Muslim in Delhi could or should have considered the BJP as a viable alternative to the Congress. Muslim politics hinges on countering the BJP, apprehensive as they are of the impact of untrammelled Hindutva rule on them. Their understandable antipathy to the BJP entails judging which of the non-BJP parties has the best prospect of winning, and then voting for it. This tendency is said to have become sharper because of the BJP projecting Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.

Did the anti-BJP obsession, then, prompt the five Muslim-preponderant constituencies — Ballimaran, Mattia Mahal, Mustafabad, Okhla, and Seelampur, where they constitute upward of 37 per cent of the electorate — to vote differently from other parts of Delhi? It is possible Muslims did not feel a need to vote out the Congress, believing it had served their interests. Again, it is also possible Muslims too thought the performance of the Congress had been deplorable, but concluded its misgovernance had to be condoned for the pragmatic reason of keeping the BJP out of power. Either way, the Muslim voter in the five constituencies does resemble Rip Van Winkle, disconnected from the larger political universe of Delhi in which he/she is embedded.

Yet, it would be erroneous to conclude that the Muslims outside the five constituencies too rallied overwhelmingly behind the Congress. In fact, the AAP’s last internal survey found it had replaced the Congress as the party of choice among those who were both young and educated, and that it had made inroads in Muslim pockets outside the five constituencies. These findings several political activists confirmed to me in their accounts about campaigning in the recently concluded election. Significantly, several of these Muslim pockets, the activists said, largely comprised lower classes/lower castes, particularly the migrants, and that the educated young everywhere appeared inclined towards the AAP. These aspects are significant as the Muslims in the five constituencies constitute roughly 25-26 per cent of the community’s total population in Delhi.

Nevertheless, the voting behaviour of the five Muslim constituencies is bewildering from another perspective. In times of communal tension, Muslims residing in localities in which they are preponderant invariably feel less intimidated than their religious brethren in areas where they are outnumbered. You’d, therefore, think Muslim constituencies would be more experimental, more daring, in their political choices. In reality, though, the Delhi election results testify to their reluctance to be the vanguard of the political change that Delhi decided to usher in.

Anecdotal accounts from the five localities suggest community elders were stunned at the AAP’s performance, even in two Muslim constituencies where the political fledgling polled over 18,000 votes. This support for the AAP largely came, my respondents said, from the young who are relatively more mainstreamed into the larger universe of Delhi, sharing its aspirations and ideas of politics and governance. Anti-BJP sentiments did not also run deep among those between 18 and 25 years as they were mere adolescents during the grisly 2002 riots in Gujarat. Though opposed to saffron politics, the young, unlike the generations scarred by the Babri Masjid demolition and the Gujarat riots, were willing to vote for ideas in addition to that of secularism.  

For elders and local opinion-makers, the fear of a BJP victory was compelling enough to ensure the community votes were not split to the saffron brigade’s advantage. This became a community project since in these constituencies the Muslims are the principal determining factor in ensuring who wins or loses. By contrast, this is a role Muslims outside the five constituencies do not play and, therefore, aligned with other social groups to defeat the Congress but without handing a default victory to the BJP.

Community consolidation is always to the advantage of established parties which through their past victories establish a formidable patronage network to attract votes. No doubt, voters in the five constituencies would have been swayed by advertisements that Muslim luminaries issued in Urdu newspapers cautioning the community against splitting the vote to the advantage of Modi’s BJP. Invariably, most of these adverts carried Sheila Dikshit’s photo. Some others also say these five localities have had a history of mobilisation around issues of identity — from the invasion of Iraq to encounter deaths to riots — than that of, say, bijli-paani, which the AAP symbolised.

It can’t be anybody’s case that issues of security for the community, as also discrimination against it, are not of vital importance. But according infinitely greater primacy to the politics of identity over that of interests, which don’t necessarily preclude secularism, limits the Muslim community’s political choices and exposes it to the perils of isolation, as has happened in Delhi.

Rip Van Winkle has woken to the AAP-ian change and, hopefully, drawn some lessons as well.

The author is a Delhi-based journalist

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