Poll date: 10 April

New Delhi

Key candidates: Ajay Maken, INC I Ashish Khetan, AAP I Meenakshi Lekhi, BJP

In Satya Niketan, near Delhi University’s Sri Venkateswara College, at 10 on a drab, dishcloth-grey morning, a group of students, first-time voters, watched as a motley group of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) volunteers walked down the street chanting slogans. At the group’s centre was former investigative journalist Ashish Khetan, bearded, reserved, holding his AAP-issue cap in front of his chest. Khetan, who has, as his campaign flyers say, “reported fearlessly" on everything from the 2G scam to the Gujarat riots is now standing for election to the Lok Sabha on an AAP ticket.

On the fringes of the knot of AAP supporters is lawyer Rahul Mehra, stringy and unsmiling in jeans and Aviator sunglasses. Mehra is a founding member of AAP and a prominent and scathing critic of The Board of Control for Cricket in India and the Indian Premier League. As Khetan glad-handed students and residents, Mehra softly berated an organizer for the low turnout. Still, he said, “Five years ago, there was a huge amount of cynicism in society that the status quo would always be and that politics and politicians would always remain corrupt. All that, to some extent, has changed with the coming of AAP".

Meenakshi Lekhi on her way to file her nomination paper. Photo: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times

Another group of students, a mix of boys and girls, said that while they agreed with AAP’s message that the two main parties could not be trusted, they wondered if voting for AAP would be effective. “I live in Malviya Nagar," said one girl, “and I voted for AAP in the assembly elections but I was disappointed by Somnath Bharti’s actions and by the way even Arvind Kejriwal acted. But I don’t think that I would want to see (Narendra) Modi as PM." This remark received several boos from her friends, even those who said they wouldn’t be voting.

Walking around the New Delhi Lok Sabha constituency—made up of 10 assembly segments, from centrally located Karol Bagh to Greater Kailash in the deep south of the city—it is instructive to see how few voters recognize their candidates and how little the candidates talk about grass-root issues. The stakes, for a national election, are larger than “mere" local concerns. And the candidates appear to be stand-ins for other faces, for the leaders and parties voters would like to see form a government at the Centre. At an evening meeting in Malviya Nagar, for instance, Khetan spent far more time deriding Modi and Rahul Gandhi than his direct opponents.

What is her name? Everywhere Meenakshi Lekhi, the BJP’s national spokesperson, has gone on padyatras, she has been dogged by this question. This, despite her visibility as a talking head on English news channels, her clashes with talk show hosts memorable enough to be set to music.

In the narrow, sludgy lanes off Tank Road, a busy shopping street in Karol Bagh, Lekhi waves at children leaning from balconies. All the noise is being made by her vociferous BJP claque. Photo-ops with young skullcap-wearing Muslims are sought. As the procession moves on, when asked if they’ll vote for Lekhi and the BJP, most offer only an incredulous glance. One shopkeeper, in a narrow storefront on filled with fat rolls of cloth, who identifies himself only as Mubin, says Lekhi’s appearance is only “for show".

In any ordinary election year, New Delhi would appear to be a pretty safe Congress seat. “Makenji has done a good job for the city," many people in Karol Bagh said. “We’ve met him before and he is a clean man, honest." Except, the contest isn’t really about Ajay Maken or Meenakshi Lekhi and their fitness to represent New Delhi in the Lok Sabha.

If it were, Lekhi wouldn’t display Modi’s face right next to hers on every poster. She and her supporters often chant the “Har, har Modi, ghar ghar Modi" slogan that has been disapproved of by some Hindu religious leaders. It is a slogan that the BJP and Modi himself have distanced themselves from, recommending instead the official “Abki baar, Modi Sarkar". In stump speeches, Lekhi has admitted that the New Delhi election is not about her but about ending the Congress’ years of misrule.

Meanwhile, Maken, like the Congress’ other candidates for Delhi’s Lok Sabha seats, was at Sonia Gandhi’s shoulder early on 30 March, at a rally in Karol Bagh’s Ajmal Khan Park. It was a symbolic venue, one where Indira Gandhi began her bid to become prime minister again after losing the 1977 general election. “The Congress is the only party for the poor", a man at the rally said, a sentiment undermined by the smirks from him and his companions as soon as he finished his sentence.

When Maken assured the poor in Sanjay Camp, a fetid slum surrounded by the money, power and fragrant greens of Chanakyapuri, that the Congress was the only party that had their interests at heart, you wondered how his audience kept straight faces. Wasn’t Maken their MP already? Why were the residents of Sanjay Camp still surrounded by garbage and stagnant water?

No one in Sanjay Camp was immune to the irony. Several residents noted how politicians were only ever seen at election time, how no one did anything about the filth and the stench until someone like Maken rolled through with his convoy, the cars too wide to fit into the narrow lanes of most jhuggis.

What enthusiasm there is among New Delhi’s voters seems more for the spectacle provided by the political circus than for the candidates’ ideas. Many wanted symbols of a politician’s visit—an AAP cap, a selfie with Maken, or to put a garland around Lekhi’s neck—but few bothered to ask any questions. Not that there aren’t serious issues to address: Khetan, spending a night in Kathputli Colony, accused Maken of being corrupt, in league with builders. So, could AAP spring another surprise? The answer, in this most unpredictable of elections, remains elusive.

What is certain in this three-cornered election is that it will not be won by the fourth candidate, the 77-year-old Bengali star, Biswajit Chatterjee, the Trinamool Congress’ curious, quixotic choice for its Delhi debut. No one, even in Chittaranjan Park (CR Park), the city’s Bengali hub, appeared to know he was running. “He was in Chowringhee," one woman said in CR Park’s Market 2, when told that Chatterjee intended to run, “with Uttam Kumar. I will definitely vote for him." And then she laughed, long and loud.

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