NEW DELHI: On a Sunday afternoon, the narrow lanes of Nizamuddin Basti were prepping for the arrival of Atishi, Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) candidate for the East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency. There’s a buzz of anticipation as she’s a popular figure because of her work as an advisor in the state government.
“Atishi is a good candidate. The Delhi government has done good work on water, electricity, education and health. AAP has made a difference to our lives and deserve a chance. But it will not be easy," said 38-year-old Islamuddin, who runs a grocery store.
In Delhi, AAP is banking on the performance of its four-year-old state government and the promise of full statehood for the national capital territory. It is up against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won all seven seats in 2014, and Congress. In 2014, in East Delhi, AAP fielded scholar Rajmohan Gandhi, who didn’t win but pushed the MP at the time, Congress’ Sandeep Dikshit to third place. This time, AAP believes its best chance is in East Delhi.
The party has a long history here. It was in East Delhi’s Sunder Nagri, an area with unauthorized colonies, that AAP national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal started his non-profit Parivartan in 1999 to address citizens’ grievances.
In Nizamuddin Basti, a busy neighbourhood with lanes leading to the shrine of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, voters have slowly shifted from Congress to AAP. During padyatras, AAP campaigners talk up what are considered its four main achievements: provision of free water and electricity, the improvement in government schools and the setting up of mohalla clinics.
Just 13km away, across the Yamuna, Arshad Chowdhary (20) and Amir Sheikh (21) are sitting outside a store in Sunder Nagri. The changes they’ve seen have made their choice clear. “The same school where we sat on the floor to study in Seelampur looks like a university. The government is planning to install air conditioners. AAP has done so much," Chowdhary said.
Atishi, a Rhodes scholar who went to the University of Oxford, is credited with bringing about much of the change to Delhi’s government schools.
AAP, which was formed in 2012, grew from an anti-corruption movement. In 2014, making its Lok Sabha poll debut, it cut deeply into Congress’ vote share, pushing the national party to third place in all seven seats. In the state elections, which it has contested since 2013, it displaced the Congress that had ruled the state for 15 years. It swept Delhi in the 2015 assembly poll, winning 67 of 70 seats.
This time, the main contenders in East Delhi are all contesting their first Lok Sabha poll. Atishi is up against former cricketer Gautam Gambhir of BJP and Arvinder Singh Lovely of Congress. AAP announced its candidates more than a year ago, while BJP and Congress took a while to settle on its contenders.
“We support AAP, and will vote for it in assembly polls, but they don’t have a national presence. The fight this time is between BJP and Congress. BJP is strong on national security," said Satish Goyal (51), a shoe trader in Seelampur.
AAP has deployed star campaigners, including actors Swara Bhaskar and Gul Panag, independent MLA from Gujarat Jignesh Mevani and actor-turned-politician Prakash Raj. Changing its strategy from 2014 when AAP contested over 400 seats, this time it is fielding candidates in fewer than 40 seats across the country.
“This election is being fought on two levels—on national and on local issues. There are people disillusioned with the promises made by the BJP and now favour the strongest option in the opposition. BJP has fielded Gautam Gambhir, who doesn’t know anything about the seat," said Atishi.
This poll is crucial for AAP. Analysts say that after a historic win in the state and failed alliance talks with Congress, AAP has to be prepared for the possibility of loss in all seats. “AAP is making a noise but may have overplayed this election," said Subrata Mukherjee, a political analyst.
AAP’s promise of full statehood for Delhi to improve governance has received mixed reactions. “Statehood may be important for the government to function but it is not something I base my vote on. It will be difficult for them to get support for statehood with just seven seats," Islamuddin said.
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