In a general election dominated by local issues, one of the most personalized contests has been waged in old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk constituency, where voting takes place today. The debate is simple and straightforward—which of two public figures can fix things best to improve the area’s inadequate and dilapidated public services, and which can make a sizeable Muslim community feel cared for?
Is it Kapil Sibal, the 60-year-old member of Parliament (MP) from the seat for the past five years and India’s minister for science and technology? He appears on TV screens almost every night as a leading Congress party spokesman, and has the national clout needed to achieve progress, but is criticized for not caring enough for the constituency.
Or is it 45-year-old Vijendra Gupta, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, who has for the past two years been chairman of the municipal corporation of Delhi’s (MCD) powerful standing committee, which has extensive executive powers over a conurbation of some 16 million people? He has prowled the Byzantine corridors of city politics so knows how to get things done, but has little track record in Chandni Chowk.
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Ideally, they would both win and merge their considerable talents. They’d be a rather good team—the urbane globe-trotting lawyer and national politician who has become one of India’s most focused and effective science ministers, and the energetic people-savvy urban fixer—but that is not possible.
As I write, the odds are on Sibal—“The Candidate” as he is known by his team, which is credited by observers for running an effective campaign that has outclassed Gupta’s efforts. He has had a difficult job because the recent redrawing or “delimitation” of constituency boundaries has massively enlarged Chandni Chowk from 400,000 voters, focused in and around Old Delhi’s walled city and the famous Chandni Chowk bazaar-packed thoroughfare, to a much higher total of 1.4m. That has reduced the Muslim population—Congress’s traditional supporters—from 34% of the vote to 14%. The constituency now includes urbanized villages and more modern areas such as Rohini, 12 stations away on the Metro railway where Gupta has been actively involved in local development as the local MCD representative.
For me, as a foreign journalist, the most interesting facet is the old Chandni Chowk area. It is a microcosm of India and in particular reflects the frustrations of India’s Muslim minority that feels it is “just a vote bank”. Talking to a Muslim family in one of the area’s many old havelis, I heard about these frustrations—expressed specially strongly by young people who are becoming better educated and more ambitious and impatient, but who despair of Congress.
“It suits Congress to keep us backward and unrepresented,” said the father, a retired politician. “They think they can then count on our vote”.
There was special frustration that two of the constituency’s Muslim candidates, who are standing for smaller parties, have been scarcely visible in the campaign, especially Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate, Haji Mustaqeem. He “does not speak much—he just walks, taking quick steps”, The Indian Express reported a few days ago. “He’s been bought off,” a young Muslim journalist told me, adding other names who he said the Congress party paid, or rewarded in other ways, not to stand. Consequently, Muslims had to vote Congress or not vote at all, since few if any would go for Gupta’s Hindu-nationalist BJP.
As we talked, my hosts dreamed of a Mayawati emerging, either as a Muslim leader or of a party such as the BSP or the Samajwadi Party (SP) that would form a reliable national alliance and make Muslims a significant force and not just a vote bank. They did not however think there was much chance of a national Muslim leader because, they said, repeating the phrase, “he would be bought off”.
I have been with both Sibal and Gupta electioneering in the old city area over the past few days. In temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius and more, both have walked the lanes and narrow alleyways of bazaars and tenements. Gupta was relaxed as he was showered with orange and pink flower petals from balconies and roof tops in Saddar Bazaar, led by three noisy drummers who beat out his path. “Local development is the main issues”, he told me. “People are angry the MP did not turn up for five years but I will be available and accessible and easily approachable”.
That is the main—indeed the only—complaint about Sibal, but I heard it everywhere, including from his supporters. “No doubt he is a good leader but he never visited here—though I’ll vote for him,” said a shopkeeper on the main Chandni Chowk thoroughfare. “He must become a patient listener,” said another.
In a way, Sibal’s personal achievements set him an impossibly high bar as a leading lawyer, a government minister, TV commentator, and even a poet—a collection of poems titled I Witness of his personal musings about contemporary society was published last year and sold out almost immediately. Many people—especially Muslims— told me that they had expected more when he became their MP and are disillusioned.
Sibal says he is available and has visited the constituency about 500 times for various events. “Even if I went every day I’d only meet maybe 20,000 in a year—there would still be people who had not met me,” he said. He has used his influence as a central government minister to organize construction of a new local reservoir that will double the area’s water capacity, and has worked on a development plan for the historic Jamma Masjid area, as well as using his own science ministry’s resources to help road construction, healthcare and other developments.
Gupta has successfully turned unpopular increases in school fees into a significant election issue—he is patron of the Delhi Parents’ Association that has been campaigning against fee hikes for several months. His record as MCD committee chairman includes boosting Delhi’s spending budget and various allowances for councillors, as well as increasing provisions for the aged.
Whoever wins will have a constituency that expects more of its MP. Just 30-40 minutes drive from Parliament and ministerial homes, voters expect the winner to be visible, and regularly. It is ironic that a constituency located far away, where an MP would have to make long weekend journeys to fulfil his local duties, probably gets more attention than one so near the centre of the Capital, that was once itself the heart of the city.
Formerly with the Financial Times, John Elliott is a Delhi-based contributor to Fortune magazine and writes a blog, Riding the Elephant, at http://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com. This is the last of a four-part series offering an outsider’s view of the biggest democratic process the world has seen.
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