New Delhi: Any sound resembling the whirring of a bulldozer sends across a wave of panic through the ever-narrowing lanes of Shakur Basti. If anything, the residents of this slum that falls within the Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha constituency have reconciled to the fact that getting attached to any place is futile. Uprooting communities like the basti (slum), they say, is easier than uprooting a plant. In the last four years, things have changed, but they are not certain whether the change is permanent.

“Our lives…where we end up…whether we have a roof on our heads depends on how those in power feel about those of us living in the jhuggis," says Anita Devi, a sweeper in a community toilet in the basti. This slum, like it is everywhere else, is a maze of dusty alleys and abutting settlements, but unlike in the past, it now has several well-maintained community toilets, mohalla clinics, and shelter homes. Each of these structures came up after the Aam Admi Party (AAP) won the assembly elections in 2015.

“(Narendra) Modi ne hamey Pakistan se bachaya, magar zameeni kaam toh AAP hi kar raha hai hamare liye (Modi saved us from Pakistan but the real grass-roots work for us has only been done by the AAP)," says Deepak Kumar, 20. Kumar’s view is shared by most of the residents, even though that doesn’t stop them from complaining about how there is still no electricity and no water supply in some of the households. But at least one thing had gone off their list of worries. Till a few years ago, a demolition drive here was almost like a ritual, performed every six months. “They would come…heartlessly raze through everything...even food cooking on our stoves," says Devi. Since 2015, when a large-scale demolition in the basti left more than 1,000 families homeless, there hasn’t been any such drive. The ongoing general election, however, has reignited that familiar feeling of insecurity.

Elections to Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats, including Chandni Chowk, will be held on 12 May, and around 13.6 million people enrolled in the electoral rolls are expected to vote that day. While the demolitions and sealing of shops witnessed by one class of city residents (traders) has received much attention, the absence of demolition drives in other parts of the city (some slums have seen a four-year hiatus) may matter as much when the votes get counted on 23 May.

End to alternative politics

The AAP, which began its journey as a middle-class movement against corruption, rode to power for the first time in 2013 on the back of sizeable support from slum dwellers. Some of that support base still remains, though all talk of “alternative politics" is all but over. The support for the AAP in pockets of the city, that too in a national election where the party hardly matters due to its limited geographic spread, is a manifestation of an ever-present class divide.

A glimpse through Delhi’s assembly constituencies shows that there is no homogeneous class composition. Being one of the most cosmopolitan cities, it is a melting pot of many classes, castes, and religions, ensuring no one identity defines the city, and that there is no one Delhi. But this heterogeneity also brings with it a range of differing expectations that the different layers of the city have of the governments they choose. Navigating through different classes across the city, the stark difference between Delhi and Dilli manifests itself.

Undoubtedly, there is an acknowledgement of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s work, but like in the rest of the country, love for Modi starts showing as soon as the discussions on “real" issues get over. In poorer parts of the city like Shakur Basti, there is ready acknowledgement of Kejriwal’s work. And those sentiments seamlessly coexist with an obsession for Modi. Sometimes, even for the toilets constructed by the AAP, which are adorned with big posters reminding residents who did the work, credit easily gets transferred to Modi.

In the basti, there are people like Pawan Kumar, who referring to demonetization, say: “Ghareeb to hamesha se dukhi thay, Modi ne ameeron ko bhi dukhi kar diya (The poor have always been unhappy. Modi ensured even the rich suffered and became unhappy)". And hence, his vote will go for Modi. There are others like Suraj, who say: “India ko koi nahi jaanta tha Modi se pehle, ab videsh mai hamari jai jai kaar hoti hai (No one knew about India before Modi, now the world is praising our country)." Devi, the sweeper, too, says people are being harsh on “bechara Modi". “The Congress ruled for 70 years and judging the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) for just five years is unfair.E

Early morning walkers at Lodhi Garden
Early morning walkers at Lodhi Garden

But, by and large, the AAP’s best shot is still in the city’s poorer pockets where support for the party is based on delivery of some very basic amenities, which are still a work in progress for nearly a third of the city’s residents, who live in unauthorized colonies and slums (an estimated 5.6 million people). “The AAP entered the political space focusing on the basic needs of the overwhelming majority of the city— the marginalized communities. Those living in the Defence Colonys and Maharani Baghs exist independent of the state," says historian and academic Sohail Hashmi.

Even though the question of class has always played a role in political choices, it started playing more of a role in Delhi after the entry of the AAP. Using issues like corruption, the party attempted to create a space for alternative politics. They appeared in the scene after the country went through large-scale agitations against corruption and protests against the 2012 Delhi gang rape. And it was the middle class which spearheaded these protests. From what it seemed back then, the middle class wanted a change, and wanted to go beyond the binary of the Congress and the BJP.

It was in 2013 assembly polls that the traditional pattern of middle- and upper-class voters supporting the BJP and the lower-class voters backing the Congress broke with the entry of the AAP. Findings from election surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies indicate that in 2013, the three parties got almost an equal share of the votes from the poor sections. Among the middle-class and lower-class voters, the BJP faced a stiff competition from the AAP, even though, eventually, the party emerged as the largest party due to strong support from upper-class voters. And the gap between the BJP and the AAP was the least among the lower- and middle-class voters.

By 2019, a section of the lower middle-class voters still remain with the AAP, but middle-class voters have largely deserted the party. The Congress is almost absent from the picture, particularly among the very poor and very rich.

Middle class dreams

In the living room of Chandra Lal, president, resident welfare association of Siddharth Nagar, a middle-class locality in south Delhi, a group of residents of the locality join in to talk about what matters to them. Lal, a practising Hindu, says his issue with the BJP is that it is Hinduwadi. “How can a country with so many religions be inclined to the welfare of only one religion?," says Lal. But his biggest issue is with how the Prime Minister “lies". “He is holding such an esteemed seat of power. If he hasn’t been able to deliver on certain things, all he has to do is say that he couldn’t and he will do it when he comes to power again. Why does he lie about jobs, about housing, about even history?" says Lal.

But Mahinder Dikshit, 52, a property dealer and a strong BJP supporter, says it is the only party in the country that has actually delivered. “Look at (Pradhan Mantri) Jan Dhan (Yojana), look at Ayushmaan Bharat, look at how Modi ji dealt with terrorism…the previous government just fell short of hugging the terrorists," he says. And just like Suraj from Shakur Basti, Dikshit too, says, “No one knew about India before Modi…no one even looked at the country." About the condition of minorities, he says, under the BJP government, no communal riots happened. “Baaqi minus plus to hota rehta hai (There will always be positives and negatives)."

Then, there are businessmen like Rajinder Saini, 60, who say they voted for the BJP believing in the promise of a combination of vikas (development) and ram mandir (Ram temple) both of which he says are unfulfilled. “Border pe goliyan chalaana vikas nahi hai (To take on your enemy at the border is not the same as development)," he says. But whether it is love or disillusionment with either the BJP or the Congress, the AAP doesn’t figure as an option in this middle-class neighbourhood’s story of the elections.

Shikha Dhusia, a 30-year-old PhD student, says, “At the state level, of course the AAP has done good, but they aren’t really anywhere at the national level. For the people who can see through the right-wing politics of the BJP, the Congress is the only option." She says a sustained campaign to tag one particular party as corrupt is misleading because at least in the Commonwealth Games scam that happened under the Congress, Suresh Kalmadi, chief organizer of the Commonwealth Games, was sent to jail. But offenders like Nirav Modi, who is implicated in a bank scam which happened under the BJP government, have left the country and no one is doing anything about it, Dhusia says.

Politics among the posh

Moving slightly higher up the class hierarchy reveals a different set of concerns. Walking through the sprawling Lodhi Garden, one can hear conversations around pollution, climate change, population control, waste management, better public transportation, and shrinking cultural spaces. There is almost a near uniformity in the response when asked about the AAP. “Some of their work is fine, but Kejriwal is immature," says Renu Chopra. Chopra, 65, a resident of Defence Colony, says the BJP is the only party which isn’t corrupt, and when asked about the ruling government being criticized for their divisive politics, she says, “I don’t think the BJP is not tolerant, or that they are spreading hatred. I think they are trying to create one India. He is just trying to keep the country together." Chopra says she has matured as a voter. “Earlier, it was more about voting for the Royal family—the Gandhi family. But I changed because too many scams came out."

Then, there are people like Raghu Vyas, a 62-year-old painter living in Lajpat Nagar, who says Modi is “righting all the wrongs" that have happened in India. “See what has happened in this country in the past 70 years. There is no doubt about how (former prime minister) Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was anti-Hindu. At least this PM has taken action against the killing of the 40 jawans in Pulwama," says Vyas.

So, is security the main reason behind a vote for Modi? “No, he has done so many things. He got the Aadhaar yojna…there are so many schemes he got." He says it is the “pseudo-seculars and intellectuals" like Naseeruddin Shah, (former vice-president) Hamid Ansari, and Digvijay Singh who have destroyed the country and are “misguiding the ordinary Muslims".

But there is also a 61-year-old businesswoman, living in Jor Bagh, who says, “I am basing my voting decision on the candidates, not parties, because no party deserves it." She requested anonymity saying, let that tell you about the times we live in. “I fear to give my name out," she says.

In Shakur Basti, when Pawan confidently says the BJP has done a lot for the country and will now ensure every farmer gets 6,000 (per year), Deepak interrupts him and says: “Did we get 15 lakh that he said we will get in our bank accounts?" Pawan’s answer: “That was a huge amount. This one is possible."

But beyond the class divide, no matter what context their lives are in, a sizable section of the city wants to appreciate what Modi has done for the nation. The explanations for why he is a better leader are the same; the language to justify the choice is the same; even the choice of words is the same. When Pawan praises Modi as being a great leader, or when Dikshit praises him in the living room of Siddharth Nagar, or when Vyas praises him while on an evening walk in Lodhi Garden, any further questioning, reaps almost nothing definitive. “Tell me what the Congress has done in 70 years," Dikshit counters. “There are many (reasons), how many do I list," Vyas asks.

Just like the Modi rallies which resemble an exercise in mass hypnosis, all his supporters in the city are also singing the same tune, and any criticism, even of one scheme, is taken personally. Like Dhusia says: “The entire country has been brainwashed in the name of dharam (religion). It is all like magic."

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