| Reaching out
Few observers or analysts of the poll scene give the Bharatiya Janata Party a serious chance of making a return to power in Delhi. The Union territory, with its 14 million citizens and the truncated powers of its assembly, may seem less significant than the larger states going to the polls. Yet, given its very distinctive place in the history of the ruling party, a second successive defeat would not only mean a break with history, but it may also give a glimmer, if only a glimmer, of new possibilities for governance in urban India.
Delhi’s importance for the Jana Sangh was a product both of its geographical location (at the edge of the Punjab from where refugees poured in after Partition), and of its being one of the first major bases of power for the party, which quickly emerged as a major challenger to the ruling Congress. The first Bharatiya Jana Sangh regime in the metropolitan council was presided over by the present party spokesman, V.K. Malhotra, and the chairman was none other than L.K. Advani. Interestingly, one was a Punjabi and the other a Sindhi. The small but very well organized refugee population soon took hold of the city’s political machine. The Congress was not far behind in the race but over time, it was the Jana Sangh and later the BJP that emerged as the favoured choice.
A variety of factors facilitated this process and a quick look at them is essential. Delhi did not witness a major working class or militant Dalit movement. The major occupation of a large section was self-employment or trade: the growth of government services added to the body of white-collar workers. Even a decade ago, Delhi was exceptional among the four metros in having a slight majority of savarnas, or upper castes. Partition reduced the population of Muslims sharply, though they now make up just fewer than 10 per cent.
The Congress, in turn, made Delhi one of the early sites of its soft Hindutva politics in the early Eighties. Since 1967, no party has won two elections in the city in a row. In 1983, the ruling Congress wooed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and reaped a rich harvest. It paid for a while but the ghost came back to haunt the party. Its role in patronizing lumpen elements began in the Sanjay Gandhi period, which lasted for a decade from the early Seventies. But the 1984 massacres of Sikhs marked a new low, a repeat of the kind of insensate violence that reshaped the city so fundamentally at the time of Partition.
The Congress had to wait its turn till as late as 1998 to win another local election. Even Rajiv Gandhi hesitated to try out the party’s strength in the city, holding off polls and preferring direct rule by the lieutenant governor. What helped the return of the Congress was more than the misrule of three successive BJP chief ministers in the span of just five years.
But in the Nineties, the latter had also metamorphosed and grown. The rural hinterland came into play after decades, with a Jat chief minister in the form of Sahib Singh Verma. The old guard led by Madan Lal Khurana, whose career can be traced back to the Sixties, fought back, letting the Congress in through the back door. What did more damage was the party’s decision to pick a Haryana politician, Sushma Swaraj, to lead it. Its own base had expanded to bring in new sections: Jats, Dalits and white collar professionals. But the party machine was still dominated by the Sixties’ brand of ideologues. They fell behind the times.
It does not seem to have made up lost ground since then. Earlier this year, elections to the Delhi University Students’ Union, which has over 150,000 members, saw the BJP lose by a hefty margin. A pre-poll survey by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies and a leading daily came up with shocking statistics. More than one out of two voters under the age of 25 preferred to vote for the Congress. For a party that has been in power for five years, this must indeed be heartening news. Not only that, the BJP seems to be running neck and neck with the Congress even among the trader and refugee communities that have historically formed its backbone.
More ominously, the BJP has yet to realize how much the social make-up and character of the city have changed in the last couple of decades. Today, possibly as many as four out of ten of Delhi’s citizens were born in a village or small town in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. They lack the sort of organic link that bound the refugee or the trader to the sangh: they do not attend shakhas, study in Arya Samaj schools or have an account with the Punjab National Bank. True, there has been an expansion of sangh affiliates in the voluntary school systems. But that is not enough.
Logically speaking, Delhi could have become fertile ground for the third front kind of politics. The Janata Dal did grow in the early Nineties but its main impact was to eat into the Congress vote bank. It has since more or less vanished from the scene, though there are signs of the slow growth of the Bahujan Samaj Party in some pockets.
The key to the Congress’s success lies perhaps in being in step with the times. It has pushed through with power privatization, which is still in its early days but has on the whole met with a positive public reception. The new water treatment plant to be commissioned in December will actually wipe out the deficit in water supply for some time. The change-over to compressed natural gas for commercial vehicles was required by a court order but the Sheila Dikshit government cooperated and made it work. The general impression is of a government that looks forward to tackling problems in an efficient and business-like manner.
The growth of a larger, more cosmopolitan middle-class constituency for environment-related issues has also seen the Congress beat the BJP. The relocation of 40,000 industrial units is still going through serious teething problems but it has more vocal support now than similar such attempts have had in the past.
There is much that an effective opposition could have focussed on. A report on the “State of Governance”, a citizen’s handbook by the Centre for Civil Society, highlights several issues. For instance, municipal schools are under-staffed but over Rs 500 million was returned unspent last year. Similarly, surveys show a lack of basic amenities for as many as three million people. Little headway has been made on these fronts.
The point still is that the Congress at least looks like it is listening, if only with one ear. Perhaps, another election rout will lead to a glasnost in the BJP. Interestingly, the party presides over a coalition at the Centre and has swept the city in every general election since 1984. But the disintegration of its base in the capital is a salutary lesson. A party that does not evolve and grow with the times will be left behind, certainly not a good prospect for a party that once was the “natural choice” for much of urban north India. But a symbol that protests against sales tax, resists any attempts at environmental improvement and berates the government no longer sells. Urban India will soon include a third of all Indians. Perhaps Delhi is a portent that the politics they will prefer is of a new and different sort.