For an ancient city, Delhi has a curious branding problem. While Mumbai is characterised by its enterprise, Kolkata its culture and Chennai its civility, the capital is perceived merely as a political power centre. But the truth is that Delhi has been more cosmopolitan - the first prerequisite for a modern city - than any other Indian metros.
Outfits such as Shiv Sena have been playing the card of ‘Marathi manoos’ to polarise Mumbaikars for decades. Till recently, Amra Bangali was active in Kolkata and defaced, if nothing else, signboards and hoardings written in any script other than Bengali. Chennai has an unforgiving tradition of stonewalling Hindi-speakers.
But such sentiments never gained ground in Delhi. Even top politicians, chief ministers included, had to hastily backtrack on every rare occasion they tried to test the waters by blaming the influx of poor migrants from the eastern neighbourhood for the city’s over-stretched infrastructure and rising crime graphs.
Of course, regional prejudices do exist in the mind of an average Delhiite. But these sentiments never became political capital because there was never any decisive vote bank for identity politics in Delhi. While Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai has Marathis, Bengalis and Tamils, respectively, as bona fide sons of the soil, it is impossible to identify more than a handful of original Dilliwallas in Delhi.
Yes, the North Indians are obviously the majority here. But they are not, thankfully, a homogenous majority. Delhi is truly a city of migrants where no single community - be they Punjabis, Biharis or Malayalis - holds a decisive numerical edge. Likewise, no minority groups in Delhi are insignificant enough to become political outcasts.
Indeed, even those gruesome killings of 1984 could not keep the victim community off Delhi’s social, economic and political mainstream for long. Barring that sordid exception, Delhi’s unique demography has discouraged political meddling in identity politics which in turn helped nurture a cosmopolitan tradition that denies socio-political sanction for taking out private prejudices in the public.
That tradition is suddenly at risk.
Like Delhi, its chief minister and the ruling party have a branding issue. It was never going to be easy for Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party to negotiate the exigencies of the establishment and honour their anti-corruption and pro-empowerment mandate. But their unorthodox ways have already earned them uncharitable tags such as populist and anarchist.
Frankly, Kejriwal’s heart seems to be closer to the socalled right place than many are inclined to believe. But his refusal to apologise for his minister Somnath Bharti’s midnight swoop on Ugandan women in Khirki Extension, and subsequent approval of anti-African videos posted by his party in the social media, shows that he is indifferent to the means to what he considers rightful goals.
It is possible that a few Africans in the area were guilty as charged. It is also very plausible that a section of police are colluding with these crime rackets. But instead of seeking an investigation, Kejriwal threw his political weight behind the anti-African prejudice of a section of citizens.
Like in other parts of India, many Africans living in Delhi narrate horrific stories of discrimination. So do people from the northeast. Even Muslims have problems renting homes. But such prejudices seldom had political backing in Delhi till the ruling party decided to spin its case against the police around anti-African sentiments.
Kejriwal wants that the Delhi Police be shifted from under the Centre to his administration. There is merit in his demand. But to rally public sentiments, he picked on a few policemen who refused to give in to his minister’s demands.
Ironically, the AAP knows better than to believe that stirring anti-African sentiments will earn them enough votes to sweep even a single constituency.
For Kejriwal, this is merely a shortcut to his righteous goals at the cost of, for now, a dispensable expat minority. But this could prove costly. Delhi wants the chief minister to make its police force accountable, but not at the cost of the very character of Delhi.