A battle over welfare

Delhi, the Union Territory (UT) that hosts India’s capital city, might lag behind several States in total population and in area, but it enjoys outsize significance in terms of media and political attention. With 1.47 crore electors spread across the largely metropolitan national capital region and its pockets of rural voters in some suburbs, Delhi is expected, in polls scheduled on February 8, to reprise the three-cornered electoral fight which has been the norm in recent elections. The Aam Aadmi Party, which graduated from a social movement to a political party less than a decade ago, will now seek to stand on its governance record, five years after nearly sweeping the Assembly results in 2015. The Bharatiya Janata Party will hope that unlike in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, the legions of voters who supported it in the Lok Sabha election will not transfer their votes to its competitors, while the Congress will seek to regain the support of the UT’s poorer and marginalised sections, most of whom shifted allegiance to the AAP in 2015. The AAP, if multiple opinion polls are to be believed, is on a strong wicket despite its setback in the Lok Sabha election where it won only 18% of the votes for the third place behind the BJP’s 56.6% and the Congress’s 22.5%. A Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti survey of May 2019 found that most of Delhi’s voters who voted against the AAP for other parties in the national elections wanted the party to return to power in the Assembly election. This dichotomy in support could be explained by the reasonable satisfaction among voters with the welfare and development work done by the Arvind Kejriwal led-government.

A PRS Legislative Research report has shown that Delhi spends the most — nearly 40% of its overall Budget allocation compared to an average of 23% elsewhere in India — on education, health, water supply and sanitation between 2011 and 2019. The AAP’s focus on improving government-run primary education, health care (the Mohalla clinic scheme in particular), lowering electricity and water supply costs besides easing public transport woes (through schemes such as free ridership for women in government-run buses) has earned the party strong campaign points. This could not yield it dividends in May, as the party still does not have a coherent ideological position or a national presence, while voters were concerned with other issues such as national security that favoured the BJP. The AAP’s incoherence on questions related to ideology was a drawback then, and that is the reason why it will seek to turn the polls into a referendum on its tenure. The BJP hopes to challenge the AAP on this turf after passing a Bill in December 2019 that came up with a legal framework to provide ownership rights to those living in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies. Whether this recent gesture, that is of importance to the roughly five million people in such areas, will sway voters remains to be seen.

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