BJP Move in Delhi: Will AAP Profit?

If AAP dominates both state and local elections, the move for unification may become the illness for the BJP instead of the medicine it was supposed to have been, reports Aditi Phadnis.

You could smell it before you saw it: The mounds of garbage, in every crack and crevice of the slick roads, yellow, black, brown… dogs and pigs nosing and eating from it alike. The mass steamed as it stank, vapours rising lazily into the air.

That was the scene in East Delhi in August 2015. And in January 2016. And in January 2017, September 2018, May 2019, and January 2020.

Sanitation workers in East Delhi have gone on strike every year, sometimes twice a year, since 2015.

Every time they go on strike, they claim they have not been paid arrears, retirement benefits, allowances, and every time the East Delhi Municipal Corporation claims it cannot pay sanitation workers because the Delhi government has not released funds.

‘They have the funds. Here are the accounts. What has happened to the money? Where has it gone?’ snarled Delhi deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, in the middle of the last strike.

Sanitation employees have also gone to court, not once, but several times, and each time the court has asked the state government to pay the municipal corporations, so that they, in turn, can pay their employees.

The state government says there is massive corruption afoot, and instead of the employees, the money released by the government is going into people’s pockets.

To end the squabbling and take control, the Union government took a hand.

The Union Cabinet approved the reunification of the three municipal corporations of Delhi. On March 30, the Lok Sabha passed the The Delhi Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill, 2022.

The move came just as the state election commission was going to announce the schedule for municipal elections in Delhi almost exactly five years after they were last held in 2017.

Several political parties — including the ruling party in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party — have claimed the move has been engineered by the Bharatiya Janata Party to gain time for elections.

There is no doubt that the reunification will have profound implications for the political economy of Delhi.

Cutting of the MCD melon

Delhi is not a full state and the elected government does not have complete control over the corporations.

The Centre had control over the corporations after the MCD was created by Parliament in 1957 through the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act and was led by the municipal commissioner of Delhi, who was appointed by the ministry of home affairs.

Through an amendment in the Act in 2011, the corporation was trifurcated and now the home ministry appoints a commissioner to lead each of the three corporations.

The 2011 amendment also led to the creation of the post of director of local bodies to coordinate the functioning of the three corporations.

But this is only part of the complexity of moving parts that is Delhi.

The real issues, like anywhere else, are only two: Power and money.

It is now well known that Delhi’s trifurcation was effected because the then chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, was facing a lot of resistance from former chief of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, Ram Babu Sharma, who had also been mayor and controlled supply chains of both power and money closely.

Sharma was insistent that the will of the party, not the government, should be supreme.

Dikshit responded to this by cutting up the melon, thus diffusing the sources of power.

It worked, for a while. But then Sharma died, the Congress lost power in Delhi and the BJP was unable to regain it.

As the AAP put down roots, it moved quickly into the power vacuum.

There was a time when Delhi was still confined to the limits of Old Delhi settlements, inhabited mainly by refugees of Partition.

The Bharatiya Jana Sangh claimed total control over the city ruled by the metropolitan council, which was then considered the citadel of power more important than Raisina Hill.

But Delhi’s sprawl continued unabated.

H K L Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler became the new czars and many unauthorised colonies came up in Delhi.

An informal survey by the Congress during Dikshit’s chief ministership revealed that 90 per cent of Delhi was built illegally.

“The amount of revenue foregone — because clearances have been obtained by diverting money into people’s pockets instead of the government — can’t even be quantified,” said one of Dikshit’s advisors frankly.

This has naturally meant that a strong and unassailable lobby of builders has come to dominate local politics in Delhi.

Added to this are other entities that live off government contracts — for cleaning, road-building, pavement and park maintenance and, of course, the new power of Resident Welfare Associations. All these forces are intensely sensitive to state and local government politics and try to influence it as much as possible.

Advantage AAP?

The Congress believes that the AAP shines when there are micro-campaigns.

“They don’t have much to say on bigger policy issues. We have our work, but that is all in the past. The BJP has temples and nationalism. In local elections, that doesn’t jell beyond a point. But the AAP has its finger on the pulse. What it lacks in organisation, it makes up by capitalising on voters’ disappointment, with both us and the BJP,” said a Congress source.

As a result, local ward-level leaders are now thronging to the AAP: Just months ago, Mukesh Goel, a five-term Congress MCD member, joined the Arvind Kejriwal-led party.

Rekha Dixit, the councillor of Anarkali ward in east Delhi, and Shravan Dixit, who was the BJP district general secretary in Shahdara, also joined the AAP.

Delhi BJP spokesperson Praveen Shankar Kapoor was quoted as saying: ‘A few people who have failed in their duties as councillors and senior office bearers, and have learnt that they are not going to be given tickets for the next polls at any cost, are leaving the party and it is surprising that the AAP is happily welcoming them.’

The traffic — from both the Congress and the BJP to the AAP — suggests the local calculation is that the AAP is well placed to win the municipal elections.

If it dominates both state and local elections, the move for unification may become the illness for the BJP, instead of the medicine it was supposed to have been.

Delhi’s local politics and the interplay of pressure groups will see a new exciting phase in the weeks to come.

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