BJP expected to gain as Congress' outlook appears dim

Delhi's seven parliamentary seats will see voting today, and the results in the national capital and its suburbs may well be emblematic of the fortunes of the Congress Party that governs India.

It is now in control of all seven seats, and the betting odds are that India's oldest political party, which won three consecutive elections to fill the Delhi state legislature until last year, will be lucky to retain even one seat.

Most likely, polls and pundits say, a wipeout is on the cards. The big gainer: the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Some 12 million voters are eligible to vote in today's Delhi poll and 150 candidates are in the fray, a third of them independents. But only three parties count - the resurgent BJP, Congress, and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Hindi for the Common Man's Party.

The fledging AAP won a stunning victory in the state assembly polls last year, drawing support from Delhi's Muslims and underprivileged classes. Their votes were swelled by a surge of sympathy from middle-class voters drawn by pledges of reduced utility bills and a cleaner government.

But AAP quit government after a mere 49 days because it failed to push through an Ombudsman Bill that the party's temporary backer, Congress, and arch-enemy BJP refused to endorse. Since the AAP did not have a clear majority and ruled with outside support from Congress, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, AAP's founder, chose to step down.

The perceived immaturity of AAP leaders and their anarchist ways - AAP cadres picketed police lines at a time when the party held charge of Delhi - have dented its popularity somewhat. Even so, it still has large pockets of influence.

"AAP has consolidated the lower-class votes and Muslims will vote for whoever they figure has the best prospects against BJP," retired home secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai, a Delhi resident, told The Straits Times. "AAP will benefit from minority votes because of the perception that Congress is on the ropes."

With AAP chipping away at the Congress vote bank more than BJP's, the anti-BJP vote is effectively split, giving the Hindu nationalists a major advantage.

The Congress' dismal outlook in Delhi underscores everything that has gone wrong with the party headed by Mrs Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, legatees of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has produced three prime ministers since Independence in 1947.

Fifteen years ago, when Congress unseated BJP to take power in Delhi state, Delhi-wallahs welcomed the change excitedly. Then Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, a diminutive, sari-clad figure from Congress, was seen as a clean, efficient and accessible leader and a world apart from the favour-trading, parochial satraps of the BJP, who wielded influence over specific zones in the city.

Drains were unclogged before the onset of the annual monsoons in late June, so flooding was limited. Delhi's Metro Rail service became an icon for the nation's determination to fix its infrastructure ills, its construction headed by a reputed technocrat who not only built the network in record time, but also insisted his workmen cleaned up after them. In short, while the Dikshit government was only doing what governments are supposed to do, it still was a big deal for an India that had progressively lowered its expectations of its leaders.

So popular was Mrs Dikshit that she was popularly referred to as "Aunty-ji", the "ji" denoting respect. Indeed, her widespread acceptance among the people and polished speech in English and Hindi marked her out as a potential national leader, raising insecurity in the Gandhi household.

At one point, the Gandhis tacitly backed a rival figure in the Delhi Congress in order to keep her off balance.

But towards the end of her second term, graft grew endemic in Delhi. Crime rose and was dramatically highlighted by the brutal beating and gang rape of a young woman, who was later flown to Singapore for emergency treatment and died there.

The Commonwealth Games, which it hosted in 2010, became a byword for corruption, with massive over-invoicing of construction and purchases. Indeed, key figures involved in the Games preparation are said to have demanded bribes so outlandishly extravagant that some of the city's most hardened businessmen declined to bid for contracts, sure that graft investigations would catch up with them.

Mrs Dikshit's electoral fortunes were sealed last year when Mr Kejriwal stood against her in the state assembly elections and trounced her on home turf.

Congress itself won just eight of the 70 state seats, while AAP got 28 and the BJP 31.

Fearful that Mrs Dikshit may be arrested for corruption by Mr Kejriwal or a new national government, the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to her rescue, appointing her as governor of the southern state of Kerala. Unlike chief ministers, state governors cannot be prosecuted without permission from the President of India.

Congress leaders figure her new post may give her a measure of protection - Mr Pranab Mukherjee was a long-serving Congressman and Cabinet minister until his elevation as President.

 

This article was published on April 10 in The Straits Times.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.