It is close to noon on January 17, a cold winter day in Delhi. Silence engulfs the Congress office on Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg. In stark contrast, the offices of the Aam Aadmi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, just 100 metres apart from each other in the same lane, are buzzing with activity.
The Assembly election is less than three weeks away, and the Congress is the only party among the three that’s governed Delhi for three consecutive terms. But the party's glory days seem far gone as it struggles to mark its presence in this battle.
The Congress’s masterplan this election is to base their entire campaign on Delhi's “golden days” under Sheila Dikshit. Dikshit served as Delhi’s chief minister for 15 years and . The party’s campaign song has lines such as, “Ek Dilli thi vo jo Sheila ne khud se sawari tha. Fir se Congress wali Dilli.” There was a Delhi that Sheila developed. It’s time again for Congress’s Delhi.
Surprisingly, though, the posters and banners that festoon the Congress office do not feature Dikshit.
Yet, other than that they’ll bring back “Sheila’s Delhi”, the Congress has no promises to make. Polling is on February 8, and there’s still no sign of the party’s manifesto. Instead, it has held a series of press conferences to attack AAP with allegations of corruption and scams.
At a press conference on January 14, for example, the Congress accused AAP of not conducting a single raid on markets hoarding grain and other essential commodities, saying this ultimately led to inflation. “Prices used to go up during Sheila Dikshit's time as well. But that was immediately controlled by raiding hoarders,” Subhash Chopra, president of the Delhi Congress, claimed. “This government is not doing anything.”
Speaking to Newslaundry, Mukesh Sharma, the Congress’s spokesman and Vikaspuri candidate, explained the quiet at the party’s office. He claimed it was because the party’s candidates are working on the ground. “We prefer working over showing off in front of the media,” he said.
Sharma claimed there’s an “undercurrent” against the incumbent AAP and that his party will perform as well in Delhi as it did in other recent state elections. He also lamented what he perceives as “bias” in the media.
“Before the election result came out in Haryana, ABP News showed a mere three seats in our account,” he said. “When the actual result came out, there was ‘1’ beside the figure ‘3’. This time, there will be ‘9’ beside the ‘3’. There’s a lot of displeasure amongst people for Kejriwal and his party. They have done nothing but survive on the work the Congress did, and this will show in the results.”
Surprisingly, the posters and banners that festoon the Congress office do not feature Sheila Dikshit.
Sharma was referring to the Congress’s performance in the Haryana Assembly election. The party won 31 of the 90 seats, a significant improvement over 2014, when it had managed only 15 seats.
But what is the Congress bringing to the table for Delhi 2020? “Rather than giving freebies, we will make a comprehensive plan,” Sharma said. “We will not take away the to them, but will give around 600 units with a considerable concession.”
Another issue is the Congress in Delhi has no single face associated with it. AAP has Kejriwal, and the BJP has leaders like Manoj Tiwari at the state level and Narendra Modi at the national level. But the Congress seems flummoxed about whom to pitch as their face during this election.
Sharma countered this. “We as a party don't have a history of nominating chief ministerial candidates before elections. We didn't do it in Haryana, not even in Rajasthan. Why would we do it here?” This is not completely true though: from 2003 to 2013 in Delhi, the party always projected Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate.
While Dikshit is consistently invoked during the Congress’s campaign, her son, Sandeep Dikshit, is not seen as a “main face” of the party.
Sandeep, who was an MP from East Delhi from 2004 to 2014, told Newslaundry: “If someone from the Congress calls me for campaigning, I will do it. I have not been asked yet. I have been an MP, that is true. But I have been away from politics for a while now. I am not associated with politics anymore.”
He also reiterated that AAP based its success on his late mother’s work. “This election would be better for the Congress as people have realised that this government is deceitful.”
The Congress in Delhi currently has no single face associated with it.
Sharma said the Congress, when it governed Delhi, worked “according to the demand”. He cited how the party built 70 flyovers during its tenure.
“We didn't go overboard wasting funds,” he said. “What is the point of more than 100 mohalla clinics when they could have built more hospitals, given the land they had?” Kejriwal had in October, and promised to build 500 more.
However, Abhay Kumar Dubey, a writer and scholar of social science, said the Congress’s model of development is problematic. “No one denies Sheila Dikshit's work. She has done tremendous work regarding the overall development of the city. But she couldn't connect to the people,” he said. “The flyovers helped people, but AAP giving free electricity and water, reducing conveyance charges — this is impacting people directly in their day-to-day lives.”
Harish Khurana, a BJP leader, mocked the Congress for relying so heavily on Dikshit’s achievements. “They reached zero based on Sheila Dikshit's work. They are aiming for the same by using her work again,” he said. “ The Congress is leaving the battleground on its own like that.”
Dilip Pandey, AAP’s candidate from Timarpur, has been attacking the BJP for not declaring their chief ministerial candidate. Why isn’t he targeting the Congress? Pandey told Newslaundry: “They are not even players. This was made very clear in the 2015 election. This time, they don't have a leader's face and no issues to fight on. They are irrelevant.”
Earlier this month, the Congress to AAP. Ram Singh, a former MLA, and Vinay Kumar Mishra, son of senior Congressman Mahabal Mishra, joined AAp after the grand old party denied them tickets. Singh, however, claimed he didn’t join AAP for a ticket.
“The Congress party has become like a private entity,” he told Newslaundry. “Only a handful of people get to have a say in the Congress. I have been observing AAP's work, and I admire the work they do.” Interestingly, Singh is now AAP’s candidate from Badarpur.
Sharma dismissed claims that the Congress is losing its members. “Those are the already rejected candidates of Congress,” he said, referring to Singh and Mishra. “What happened to the ideals of AAP, that said they would only take young, educated members in their party? Now they are roping in people who resigned from whichever party.”
The Congress’s dependence on Dikshit’s work is especially odd given the party’s loss in 2015 occurred under her leadership. Subash Chopra, the Delhi Congress president, had his own theory on this. “The 2012 anti-corruption movement, which was funded by the RSS and the BJP, led to anti-incumbency,” he claimed. “People in Delhi miss Sheila Dikshit's work and they have realised they have voted for a fake government which sustains itself on fake promises. What happened to the Jan Lokpal Bill that Kejriwal fought for?”
Dubey acknowledged that the anti-incumbency wave worked against Dikshit. “The anti-incumbency wave against the Congress at the Centre, and Arvind Kejriwal's image after the India Against Corruption movement, ruined Sheila Dikshit's image,” he said. “This ended her political career. Another reason was the kind of image her government had after the corruption during the Commonwealth Games in 2010. That turned the tables.”
After Dikshit’s death, and Rahul Gandhi’s after the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Chopra, a three-time MLA from Kalkaji constituency, was chosen to take over the reins of the party in Delhi. Here’s how the Indian Express explained why he was selected: “The reason for Chopra's appointment is simple: he is the least unacceptable to all the warring factions in the Delhi Congress. Put another way, Chopra has not been chosen for what he can do, but because no one expects him to do very much.”
The article quoted a senior Congress leader who said: “Every faction wanted its leader as PCC chief, and there was not one individual whom every camp would accept. It was in this situation that Chopra's ‘lottery lag gayi’.”
Mukesh Sharma, the Congress’s spokesman and Vikaspuri candidate.
Chopra will not contest this election. Instead, his daughter, Shivani Chopra, has been from Kalkaji. She will take on AAP’s Atishi and BJP’s Dharambir Singh. A senior Congress leader, on the condition of anonymity, told Newslaundry: “She is highly educated. Everyone knows that even if she is standing for elections, the seat's face is still Subhash Chopra.”
While the Congress’s features several old hands, it has a number of fresh faces too. This includes former municipal councillors, mayors, and student union leaders. Some new names are Rocky Tusheed, former president of the Delhi University Students’ Union; Priyanka Sharma, daughter of former MLA Yoganand Shastri; Yeduraj Chaudhary, son of former MLA Chaudhary Prem Singh.
Only 17 candidates who lost in 2013 and 2015 feature this time. One of them is Vipin Sharma, former MLA from Rohtash Nagar. In 2015, he managed to secure only 15,000 votes, losing to AAP’s Sarita Singh by a margin of over 40,000 votes. Then there’s Mateen Ahmed, who was MLA from Seelampur until 2013, when he lost to AAP’s Mohammad Ishraque by over 30,000 votes.
“Seats like Seelampur and Chandni Chowk are minority dominated and we have full hopes there,” a Congress leader told Newslaundry. “The citizenship law protests will certainly have an impact on the votes. We are expecting to sweep at least 25 seats.”