Shadow of Anti-CAA Protests Looms Over Delhi Assembly Polls

AAP is attempting to keep the focus on its governance over five years even as the BJP is trying to make sure the polls are fought on the back of a polarised polity.

New Delhi: The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the protests against it could not have come at a worse time for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Clearly perturbed at the communal colour being given to these protests, the party has been walking a thin line on the issue – eager not to antagonise a large number of Hindu voters while keeping its support base among Muslims in Delhi intact.

With the assembly election process has already started and the city is headed for polls on February 8, AAP is trying hard to keep the focus of the elections on its governance over five years. In pursuance of this line, it also stayed away from the all-party meet called by the Congress to discuss the violence during anti-CAA protests and at Jawaharlal Nehru University, claiming it had not been invited for it.

Though national spokesperson Sanjay Singh said the party was not called for the meet, the manner in which Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress, which is ruling in West Bengal, that also goes to polls next year, also stayed away, clearly indicated the discomfiture of the parties in poll-bound states when it comes to dealing with the anti-CAA protests.

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal along with AAP leaders Manish Sisodia and Gopal Rai while releasing his government’s report card in New Delhi, December 24, 2019. Photo: PTI/Arun Sharma

AAP became the favourite of Muslims in 2015, wants to stay that way

The reasons for AAP being wary of both the Congress and the BJP – which are its main political rivals in Delhi – when it comes to anti-CAA protests is not difficult to comprehend. The party had bagged a record 67 seats in the 70-member assembly in 2015 at the back of a huge support of nearly 54.5% voters – which comprised members of all communities.

Also read: February 8: Another Exciting Electoral Battle Awaits Delhi

More importantly, it had managed to dislodge the Congress from the pedestal in as far as support of the Muslims, Scheduled Castes and Sikhs went. After ruling Delhi for 15 years, in the 2013 assembly elections, when a then-one-year-old AAP won 28 seats and BJP 31, the Congress was reduced to just eight.

Of these eight MLA, four – Haroon Yusuf from Ballimaran, Mateen Ahmed from Seelampur, Hasan Ahmed from Mustafabad and Asif Mohammad Khan from Okhla – won from seats with significant Muslim population.

Muslims have significant presence in 10 seats

Incidentally, there are 10 such seats in Delhi. Of these five – Matia Mahal, Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk, Okhla and Seelampur – have over 40% Muslim population while the other five, namely Rithala, Shahdara, Seemapuri, Babarpur and Mustafabad, have between 30-39 % Muslim population.

The fact that in 2015, all these seats were won by AAP indicates the support it got from the community which realised after the 2013 results that now the fledgling party was better placed to keep BJP out of power.

Now that the anti-CAA protests have erupted before the assembly polls, AAP has been careful to not lose its support among any of the communities. While its Okhla MLA Amanatullah Khan was at the forefront of the protests at Shaheen Bagh from day one, its senior leadership – in particular Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia – have only mouthed their support but not gone to any of the protest sites.

AAP thinks CAA is dangerous, an attempt to distract from real issues

However, the party has made its stand clear. Kejriwal had questioned the “logic of the law” and termed it “dangerous”. He also noted that it has been brought when the country was facing an economic slowdown. Other AAP leaders like Sanjay Singh have stated that the Modi government was only using CAA-NRC-NPR to divert the attention from its failures.

Even in parliament, AAP’s lone Lok Sabha and three Rajya Sabha members voted against Citizenship Amendment Bill last month.

Also read: Delhi Polls: Jan Manch Urges Parties to Make Food, Social Security Electoral Issues

The party does not want to give BJP an opportunity to twist the anti-protests into a communal issue. As its national spokesman, Saurabh Bharadwaj, said last month, the Delhi elections will be “contested on local issues – roads, electricity, water, sewer, education, health”.

In fact, Sanjay Singh had also spoken about how “without even our going there, they are blaming AAP for the violence” and how “if Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had gone there, they would have blamed us even more.” So, he said, the best way for AAP was to “stay at a distance and urge people to remain peaceful.”

Congress smells an opportunity for a comeback

The Congress, however, smells an opportunity for a comeback in the protests. It believes that with the AAP leadership staying away, it should try hard and woo the Muslims back. It also sees in the protests an opportunity to expand its shrinking base across the country. This has been one of the reasons why its senior leaders have been attending and organising the anti-CAA protests from the word go.

Soon after the protests started senior leaders led by Priyanka Gandhi came out openly against the CAA and attended protests at India Gate. Thereafter, other leaders like Shashi Tharoor have also visited Shaheen Bagh and JNU and attacked the divisive policies of the Centre.

The party has also not missed an opportunity to attack the AAP leadership for not turning up at the protests at Jamia, JNU or Shaheen Bagh. Its spokesperson Mukesh Sharma asked why Kejriwal did not go to Jamia Milia Islamia University or Shaheen Bagh even after five days of violence. The question being asked is why are AAP leaders so fearful of being implicated by BJP. “You need to be seen with the people who elect you,” said Sharma.

BJP would love to see the anti-CAA fire burn

At a time when some opinion polls have predicted a thumping return for AAP in Delhi, the BJP appears happy playing the anti-CAA game. In fact, it has not made any serious efforts to ensure that the protests at Shaheen Bagh are called off. With the Kalindi Kunj road leading from South Delhi to Noida blocked off for several weeks now, the party is also hoping to encash on the ‘anger’ of residents of nearly areas. On Sunday a protest was held by locals against the blockade of the important road.

Also read: How Real Are AAP’s Chances in the Delhi Assembly Elections?

Making this election another polarised one, as it managed to do during the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, also suits the saffron party. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Delhi it had got nearly 46.6% votes and won all seven seats. Last year it polled an even higher 58% votes and retained all the seats. But as the 2015 Assembly polls showed, a large number of its support shifted towards Kejriwal less than a year later. This time it would be hoping that a larger number of those who supported it during the Lok Sabha elections would support it in the assembly polls too.

For that it needs similar issues to keep simmering. Though it is talking of development and its plans, for the moment, it would be hoping that the `divide’ does not bridge.

Encouraging signs for AAP

As for AAP, an encouraging sign ahead of the polls is the continuous coming in of senior leaders from other parties. While former Congress MLA Shoaib Iqbal had joined it earlier, on Monday another former Congress legislator Ram Singh Netaji, and son of former party MP Mahabal Mishra, Vinay Mishra, too joined it – indicating that day-to-day issues and local problems are what people may ultimately vote for.