"These elections are going to be an election of the country", said Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a rally, days before Delhi votes on February 8.
Judging by the campaigners fielded by his party, it's obvious that this election is of great importance to the BJP. On February 4, when Modi reached the grounds of a DDA park in Dwarka, his words were telling: "Friends, Delhi elections are the first elections of the year", he said to a crowd chanting "Modiji ko Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram".
Modi continued, "These elections are going to be an election of the country…and the country's progress will depend on today's decision that you make…The capital will decide the roadmap for the next decade."
BJP'S divisive campaign
BJP MPs and Union ministers took the stage during election rallies to deliver communally charged rhetoric. The seriousness with which the central government is trying to make Delhi the third Union territory it rules, amongst another 14 states that it has under its belt, can also be seen through its list of star campaigners. Its exhaustive 40-person list includes 18 Union ministers, nine more Members of Parliament, four chief ministers, Rajya Sabha members, MLAs, national secretaries, the vice president of the BJP, and of course the Prime Minister himself.
There is growing concern that the Delhi election campaign is having a corrosive effect on society. There may be some truth to that. The capital city of India has seen unprecedented protests against the government's Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizenship. There have been a few violent attacks on peaceful protestors by armed goons. The police force has been dubbed as puppets out to stifle dissent, making the atmosphere even tenser.
One of the foremost purveyors of this discourse, MP Parvesh Singh Verma of the BJP, was banned by the Election Commission for 96 hours for saying that protestors of Shaheen Bagh will go into people's homes and rape their daughters and mothers. While he was back on the stage after his prohibition ended — he was banned again from campaigning a few days later after he called Kejriwal a "terrorist".
On February 4, as Verma and about 21 other leaders of the party waited for Modi, he couldn't resist mentioning Pakistan, asking the crowd to say 'Bharat Mata ki jai' loud enough to reach the neighbouring country.
This is of significance because in the Lok Sabha elections too, Pakistan and who could protect India from was the main poll issue. It also featured the rhetoric that claimed those who were "questioning us about surgical strike" were in fact siding with Pakistan. The term "surgical strike" for the operation conducted days after the Uri attack (September 18, 2016) which had left 19 soldiers dead was repeated by Modi in the Dwarka grounds — and also during the Lok Sabha elections eight months ago.
Raking up national issues like terrorism and Pakistan during the election campaign of a union territory (or a state like Maharashtra) has become a tried and tested method for BJP, even though it has not given them spectacular results. During the general elections, most BJP supporters said they feel the country is in danger and a leader like Modi is the armour the nation needs.
On February 5, Home Minister Amit Shah in a rally in Kondli took it a step further, saying "this election is related to the security of the country and Delhi." The election was "between two ideologies" and as he spoke further, it was clear what he meant. On one side, he said it was the AAP and the Congress which were opposed to the CAA, the Ram Mandir, and the abrogation of Article 370.
But BJP has a tough fight cut out for it. While national issues are always hot topics of discussion among voters, what also concerns the people of Delhi is its law and order, safety, healthcare, schools, water, electricity, jobs and infrastructure. And the biggest competition here is the AAP, which is fighting to retain the 67 seats it won in 2015, while also going after the three it lost to the BJP. Those three were Vishwas Nagar (which BJP won by a margin of 10,158 votes), Mustafabad (margin of 6,031 votes), and Rohini (5,367 votes).
While Congress is not a direct competitor, if we go by the election results of 2015, it has put out a list of 40 star campaigners as well. Its usage of these campaigners though has been the talk for the past couple of weeks. Their performance, however, has been tepid. There are rumours that it was a deliberate choice on Congress' part, so the AAP's votes are not divided.
The Gandhis stayed away from campaigning until February 4, when former Congress President Rahul Gandhi showed up to the campaign at Jangpura. He later joined forces with his sister, AICC General Secretary in charge of Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi, in Sangam Vihar.
They did so again the next day, before the end of the campaigning period. The others in the Congress' star campaigners list areInterim chief Sonia Gandhi (who has been unwell and was earlier admitted to a city hospital), former PM Manmohan Singh, five chief ministers, a deputy chief minister, two Rajya Sabha members, Shashi Tharoor, an MLA, party in-charges, and several former cabinet ministers.
For the AAP, amongst the 20-star campaigners, the most important of them is Arvind Kejriwal, who has held numerous roadshows. A few days before the polls, he held "jansabhas". Keeping him aside, the other star campaigners announced were five more sitting Delhi cabinet members, two more MLAs, and two Rajya Sabha MPs, amongst other members like Atishi and Raghav Chaddha.
AAP's campaign has mostly been based on self-promotion and countering the Opposition's claims, especially the allegation that AAP failed to keep its promises, and that the CM does not do his job. Twitter especially has been the fulcrum of mudslinging, but Modi in his campaign speech also made such remarks.
AAP released its report card in December last year, telling voters about its achievements in education, like constructing 20,000 classrooms; in health, with the opening of 400 Mohalla Clinics; on providing free 20,000-litre water, electricity subsidy, CCTV cameras and more.
After this, a 10-point personal guarantee card was released in early January. This includes free public transport for women and students, basic facilities for unauthorised colonies, good education for students until graduation, affordable and quality healthcare, better security for women, 24-hour electricity supply and a garbage-free Capital.
Away from the heat and dust of rallies, at a more serious level, all the parties get adequate opportunity to speak about exactly what they will do for Delhi citizens in their manifestos.
One issue that has received much attention is the healthcare system in Delhi, with a defiant Kejriwal not allowing the Ayushman Bharat scheme. The AAP government maintains that with free healthcare in its government hospitals, it does not need the Centre's scheme.
Modi said, "For the past five years, I have been seeing that they have been stopping the poor people from receiving benefits." Just as he said this in the rally, people chanted 'Shame, shame'. He then went on to sarcastically remark, that when a person travels out of the state and becomes unwell, "Would he run to a Mohalla clinic?"
But the AAP is not backing down. Its manifesto promises to provide healthcare through its Mohalla Clinics and 'state-of-the-art hospitals'. The party may have been the last out of the three main political parties in Delhi to release its manifesto, but it started with its promises much earlier.
AAP, which has been kindly judged for its education reforms, in its manifesto promises to provide "world-class education facility" for every child. Besides that, it promises to provide a public transportation system with over 11,000 buses, and extending its free bus rides for women to include students as well.
Keeping in mind its voter base from JJ clusters and unauthorised colonies, it has promised pucca housing for slum dwellers, basic amenities to unauthorised colonies and piped drinking water.
Furthermore, AAP, which came into being with the anti-corruption movement, promises to get the Jan Lokpal Bill passed by the Centre. Some of its other promises include Delhi Swaraj Bill, doorstep delivery of rations and compensation of Rs 1 crore to families of safai karamcharis who lose their lives during duty, 24x7 marketplaces and of course, the party's old promise of full-statehood for Delhi.
The manifesto of BJP promises to grant ownership rights to "40 lakh residents of unauthorised colonies in Delhi" apart from making Delhi tanker free, and providing "clean water on tap for every household by 2024"; 10 new colleges and 200 new schools; a bicycle to girls from economically weaker sections studying in Classes 9-12 "to promote education among poor girls"; and also a section called "justice to the victims of 1984 riots".
Modi has been listing his government's achievements, from Ayushman Bharat, "bank transfer of money for senior citizens and differently-abled", to GST and Beti Bachao. He also promoted things in fray such as "Ek desh ek ration card" (one country one ration card) and "Ek desh ek card" (one country, one card) which can be used "on the metro and also for shopping".
The BJP manifesto promises "employment opportunities to at least 10 lakh youth in the next five years". This appears to be a facile acknowledgement of one of the most critical problems in the country: joblessness. The Rajya Sabha was informed that the unemployment rate in the country was at 6.1 percent in 2017-18.
While the BJP's promises have been overshadowed by its campaigners who have been spewing hate over Shaheen Bagh's women sit-in protestors, the Congress has kept itself hidden, again by its own doing.
Its manifesto released a couple of days after BJPs has borrowed a thing or two from the AAP. But before that, a few welfare schemes which have been mentioned include a "Yuva Swabhiman Yojana", which would be an unemployment allowance. This would give Rs 5,000 per month to graduates and Rs 7,500 to post-graduates.
Then under "urban poor", its Lok Sabha promise makes an appearance with a promise of Rs 72,000 per year to five lakh "needy families".
It also assures that if it comes to power in Delhi, it would by February 21, pass a resolution in the Delhi Assembly demanding Centre drop the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Furthermore, it says it will not let the Centre implement the National Population Register (NPR) in its current form, nor the NRC.
But while it imitates AAP's free electricity provision by promising 300 units of it free, and free bus rides for senior citizens, women and students, it does not leave out the criticism for the party in the rallies.
Priyanka Gandhi spoke out against Kejriwal and the AAP. She pointed out that while the development of Delhi was done under the leadership of Dikshit, Kejriwal was taking credit for it. She also accused them of not building a single hospital when they had promised five. "All schools and colleges in Delhi have been built by the Congress."
Rahul and Priyanka took to the stage at Hauz Qazi, where they delivered their speech. With a clear focus in mind, Rahul started off his speech by talking about the unity between Hindus and Muslims, "without which the country would not have got its independence". He then took a hit at the PM and CM, saying that the biggest challenge for India was employment, which both had not addressed.
"Why was there no hatred between Hindus and Muslims before the arrival of BJP? Modi does not want people to get employment."
Let's start with the Matiala constituency, where neither the BJPs nor the AAPs candidates are famous contenders. But with that much star power on the stage (Dwarka rally) a few days before the election, can it be of much damage for the AAP's Gulab Singh who won the last time, dethroning BJP's Rajesh Gehlot in 2015 with a considerable margin?
Singh had received 1,27,665 votes, while Gehlot, who is again the candidate from here, received 80,661. Congressman Sumesh Shokeen received a drubbing, much like in the other seats with 20,284 votes. So, the answer as to why the grand old party has fielded him from the same spot again can only be a guess.
The man who has been in the news, albeit infamously, is BJP's Kapil Mishra who is a candidate from Model Town constituency. The former AAP MLA had received an enormous margin of victory from Karawal Nagar in 2015, with over 1 lakh votes (1,01,865). The BJP's Mohan Singh Bisht received almost half the votes Mishra did (57,434).
Mishra will be fighting it out with former colleague Akhilesh Pati Tripathi who had won with over 54,000 votes to BJP's 34,000.
Mishra has been religiously making religious and communal remarks when not on stage, through his Twitter account. At a pro-CAA rally, he chanted "Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro salo ko". He later tweeted that AAP must rename itself as Muslim League. Before that, the tweet which led to him being banned from campaigning for 48 hours by the EC was when he said that "India and Pakistan will compete on the streets of Delhi on February 8".
Before 2015 and 2013 when AAP won the Assembly elections from this seat, it was a Congress stronghold. It won three consecutive elections in 1998, 2003 and 2008. This time around, though, it is fielding 41-year-old Akansha Ola, who is a secretary in the Mahila Congress.
Model Town's population, according to the 2011 census, was 5,95,810, with a literacy rate of 83.9 percent. Its primary workers then were 32.6 percent, much more than its marginal worker population at 1.2 percent.
The total number of voters from here, according to the Election Commission, is 1,68,310.
Another member of the saffron brigade who has been spreading hate on Twitter and also has a history of violent behaviour is Tajinder Pal Bagga, BJP's candidate from Hari Nagar. The first-time contender in electoral politics has been fielded perhaps strategically from the Sikh-dominated constituency.
AAP is fielding Rajkumari Dhillon, a ward councillor with a Congress past. And the Congress has Surender Sethi.
The BJP won elections from 1993 to 2008 before AAP took over in 2013 and 2015.
Hari Nagar has a total vote share of 1,75,055, with 81,992 female votes and six in the third gender, the rest being male votes.
The other constituencies where the BJP hopes to win would be the three it won last time. MLAs from this party have again got the ticket could retain those seats. They are Vishwas Nagar's OP Sharma, Mustafabad's Jagdish Pradhan and Rohini's Vijender Gupta.
While in these areas, discontentment with the present dispensation is high, whether, like the last time, votes get divided between AAP and Congress, especially in Mustafabad, will have to be seen. In 2015, the BJP had won against Congress by a margin of 6,031 votes, with AAP trailing close behind with a margin of 2,566 votes.
It was one of the few constituencies where the Congress had come in second. Another one of those candidates from the Congress who had come in second but was not given a ticket is Shoaib Iqbal, who is now an AAP candidate.
Shoaib Iqbal is, in fact, one of AAP's big contenders to watch out for, as he has been MLA five times from Matia Mahal. He has been pitted against Mirza Javed Ali, from the Congress party. Ali had lost to Iqbal in 2013 when the latter was in the JD(U).
With a sizeable Muslim population, the BJP's chances of getting their candidate Ravindra Gupta into the Delhi Assembly are very slim, if they exist at all. While in 2015, Iqbal had lost with a considerable margin, bagging about 21,488 votes (less than half of then AAP's Asim Ahmed Khan who got 47,584 votes), BJP's number was even lower with then contender Shakeel Anjum Dehalvi, who received 9,105 votes.
AAP's bag is full of heavyweights. There's Atishi who lost in the Lok Sabha contest, but voters are aware of her role in Delhi's education reforms. Atishi has a good chance of beating BJP's (former area councillor) Dharamveer Singh and Congress' Shivani Chopra, the daughter of Delhi Congress chief Subhash Chopra.
While the father had won three times from this seat in 1998, 2002, and 2008, he had come in third in 2013 as well as the 2015 Assembly elections. The daughter might inherit his goodwill.
What works in favour of Atishi is that the constituency has JJ clusters where many would have benefited from AAP's schemes of free water and electricity, apart from giving their children the benefit of education in well-run government schools.
Another contender who could not win in the Lok Sabha polls is Raghav Chaddha. In South Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, this chartered accountant's rivals had tagged him as too posh to govern the people. In Rajinder Nagar constituency, with many Punjabis, he may find the winning formula.
On the other hand, Chaddha may have a close fight ahead of him with BJP's RP Singh, who won in 2013 elections but lost to AAP's Vijender Garg Vijay in 2015 by 20,051 votes.
The Congress has pitted an even younger contender than 31-year-old Chaddha with Rocky Tuseed, a 25-year-old former Delhi University Students Union president.
Other major contenders include Satyendra Jain from Shakur Basti, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia from Patparganj and of course, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal from New Delhi.
Jain, a Delhi cabinet minister and sitting MLA had won the elections in 2013 as well as the second time around in 2015. He had won by a margin of 3,133 to none other than his current BJP competition SC Vats.
Vats, interestingly, had come in third in 2013 on a Congress ticket, while in 1998 and 2003 he was a Congress MLA from here.
This time, Congress has Dev Raj Arora, a former ward councillor, who will most probably not be able to do much damage to Jain's tally.
From the Patparganj constituency, AAP's Manish Sisodia is hoping to get re-elected. An area with its share of JJ clusters but also with areas like Mayur Vihar has people who have benefited from AAP's welfare schemes and even its government schools. Sisodia, being the education minister, has a good chance of winning and securing a good margin against Congress' Laxman Rawat and BJP's Ravi Negi. With both being first-timers, looks like the two parties don't even want to make an effort here.
Sisodia won in 2013, and the 2015 elections won with a substantial margin. While he secured 75,477 votes, BJP's Vinay Kumar Binny came in second 46,716, with Sisodia winning by 28,761 votes.
The last AAP personality to put your bets on would be Kejriwal from New Delhi constituency. The man who defeated the three-time chief minister (late) Sheila Dikshit in 2013 has a lot riding on him. While he has been the face of the entire election campaign, the Opposition too has used his name ruthlessly.
Kejriwal has campaigned hard every day. Even his family has been going out into the streets to bolster voters' positive outlook towards him. The Opposition doesn't seem to have much hope of their candidates' victory as they have pitted Sunil Yadav of the BJP and Romesh Sabharwal of the Congress.
Yadav is the head of Delhi BJP's youth wing and Sabharwal, a former student leader.
Lastly, Congress' star power itself is AAP's former MLA Alka Lamba from Chandni Chowk Constituency. She won in 2015 by a margin of 18,287 votes against BJP's Suman Kumar Gupta.
Lamba was seen at the forefront of anti-CAA protests at Jama Masjid and told Patriot how she had mobilised women of the area to speak up. Her connection to the women here may work, but she would still find the going tough, with AAP pitting Parlad Singh Sawhney against her.
Interestingly, Sawhney is a former Congress member who lost to Lamba in 2015 by a margin of 18,826 votes. BJP has yet again put Gupta in the fray.
Another former AAP MLA who may bring in victory for the Congress is Dwarka's incumbent MLA Adarsh Shastri, the grandson of Lal Bahadur Shastri. After he was denied a ticket, Shastri decided to leave AAP. He won by 79,729 votes, while BJP's Pradyuman Rajput secured 40,363.
He will yet again go head-to-head with Rajput and AAP's Vinay Kumar Mishra. Dwarka has problems, especially bad roads, and law and order. While the latter does not fall under the AAP's jurisdiction, the roads do.
Another one of Congress' contenders to watch out for is Haroon Yusuf, who will be standing from Ballimaran. An area inhabited mainly by Muslims; Yusuf is a popular leader here, who has been a 5-time MLA, one even before the constituency's delimitation in 2008.
He also won in 2013, but later came third to AAPs Imran Hussain and BJPs Shyam Lal Morwal in 2015, respectively.
Yusuf has to fight it out yet again with Hussain, who had won by a good margin of 43,913 votes.
Lastly, Congress' Arvinder Singh Lovely from Gandhi Nagar has a good chance of winning. Lovely, a former Delhi cabinet minister and four-time MLA, has the incumbent AAP MLA Anil Bajpayee to defeat along with BJP's Naveen Choudhary.
What does February 11 have in store? If it really is the election of the country, as Modi said, then Delhi's verdict will decide its future.
This story was originally published in The Patriot.