Chhath puja and the centrality of the Purvanchal community in Delhi politics
The ban on Chhath puja celebrations — the biggest event for the Purvanchal community — gained significance because the municipal elections are scheduled for early next year
New Delhi: The political slugfest over Chhath puja celebrations has intensified, once again, in the national Capital. While the demand for a public holiday on Chhath and arrangements at the ghats have been at the centre of the political tussle in the past, this time, it’s the ban on its celebrations by the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA).
The ban on Chhath puja celebrations — the biggest event for the Purvanchal community — gained significance because the municipal elections are scheduled for early next year. The community, with close to four-five million people in the city, plays a decisive role in Delhi’s electoral politics.
Chhath puja, a three-day festival, will be celebrated between November 8-10 this year. It is most popular in states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand (often referred to as Purvanchal), and parts of Madhya Pradesh.
The ban, the reaction
The DDMA — headed by lieutenant governor (L-G), Anil Baijal, with Delhi chief minister (CM) Arvind Kejriwal as a member — prohibited Chhath celebrations, for the second consecutive year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This, while it allowed Ramlila, Durga Puja, and Dussehra festivities in public places earlier this month.
The ban sparked a political row with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with northeast’s Delhi BJP Member of Parliament (MP), Manoj Tiwari, hitting out at Kejriwal for “hurting the sentiments of the community”. Even Delhi Congress president Anil Kumar condemned the ban, and held a protest outside the CM’s residence recently.
Under attack from the Opposition, Kejriwal wrote to the L-G on Thursday, urging him to allow the celebrations. “Other neighbouring states have allowed it with necessary protocols. I request you convene a meeting of the DDMA and consider allowing Chhath Puja in Delhi too,” he said in the letter.
The Delhi government also wrote to the Centre asking it to issue necessary directions regarding Chhath Puja celebrations.
While the BJP is claiming it as its victory, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) accused the BJP of politicising the festival for electoral gains, with its eye on the municipal polls next year.
On Chhath, the BJP vs AAP
Despite its second consecutive defeat in the Delhi assembly election in 2020 (it won eight seats out of 70), the BJP has been in power at the municipal level since 2007. It is now working hard to secure a fourth term in the municipal polls, but will face strong anti-incumbency.
The support of the Purvanchal community — once considered a Congress vote bank that later shifted to the AAP — was instrumental in the BJP’s victory in the municipal polls in 2017, despite anti-incumbency.
Senior BJP leaders admit that the appointment of Tiwari, who is BJP’s popular Purvanchal face, as Delhi BJP chief, and the decision to field around 27 people from the community played an important role in its 2017 victory. The move marked a shift in the BJP’s strategy (known as a party of Punjabis and Baniyas), and a tacit acknowledgement of the community’s growing strength in the city. The BJP not only won the three civic bodies, but also improved its tally from 138 seats (in 2012) to 181.
But this time, Delhi environment minister and senior AAP leader, Gopal Rai, said that the BJP knows it is going to lose. “Their defeat in Shalimar Bagh [a BJP stronghold] is an indication that people don’t want them. They know that they will not win in the municipal elections, this is why they are politicising the Chhath issue.”
But Delhi BJP chief, Adesh Gupta, disagreed and said that their protest is against the Delhi government which neglected the wishes of the community. “The government has hurt the sentiments of the community by banning the Chhath Puja in public spaces. When other festivals and gatherings are allowed, weekly markets and liquor vends are open, why ban Chhath?”
The Congress, which is struggling to stage a comeback in Delhi, has jumped into the controversy. Delhi Congress president Anil Kumar said, “The permission has been denied on the facile plea that it would spread the Covid-19 infection, though the government didn’t deny permission to hold other festivals.”
Calling the protests an election gimmick, AAP leader, Rai, asked that if the BJP was serious, why didn’t they meet central government ministers and the L-G to find a solution? “The DDMA is headed by the L-G. The Centre is yet to clarify the protocols regarding Chhath…. We want people to celebrate Chhath, but it can’t be at the cost of people’s lives. The Centre and the DDMA have to take a call on it,” said Rai.
Sachidanand Sinha, professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, said, “The government shouldn’t fall prey to any pressure to allow an event if there is any risk to people’s lives. The health of people can’t be sacrificed to allow any gathering. The AAP is not going to lose much if they take a firm stand.”
The demand for a public holiday
This is not the first time when a political row has erupted over the Chhath puja celebrations.
In 2010, when the BJP was the ruling party in the erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi, it raised, for the first time, the demand that Chhath Puja be declared a public holiday. It was not accepted by the then Congress chief, Sheila Dikshit, but the government made elaborate arrangements at the ghats for Chhath Puja celebrations.
In 2011, in the run-up to the municipal elections in 2012, the Delhi BJP stepped up its demand. The then Delhi Congress president, JP Agarwal, and even Bihar CM, Nitish Kumar, wrote to Dikshit requesting Chhath puja be declared a public holiday. The Centre declared Chhath a restricted holiday that year.
The BJP, which won the 2012 municipal elections despite the trifurcation of the civic body, passed a resolution in three newly-formed civic bodies declaring Chhath puja a public holiday. “Since 2010, we have been demanding Chhath be declared a public holiday. But the government didn’t agree. It was after we passed the resolutions in civic bodies, the Delhi government was compelled to declare it a holiday,” said BJP Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Rohini, Vijender Gupta, who was then the Delhi BJP chief.
Later, in 2018, the BJP, which is the ruling party in three civic bodies, and the AAP-led Delhi government indulged in a blame game over Chhath Puja preparations at the ghats. Last year too, the BJP and AAP sparred over the ban on Chhath celebrations, with Kejriwal asking Opposition parties not to politicise the event.
The Purvanchal vote bank
Sanjay Kumar, professor and co-director, Lokniti (a research programme of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) said that Chhath has become a political event in Delhi. Referring to the recent political slugfest in Delhi, Kumar said, “For political parties, Chhath has become an important political event to mobilise the support of the Purvanchal community, which today constitutes 30-35% of voters in Delhi. The BJP is trying hard to break one of the AAP’s strong vote banks.”
While multiple communities are living in the city, the Purvanchal community has emerged as a dominant force in electoral politics. From having a presence in just a few pockets in west Delhi in the early 1990s, the Purvanchal community today plays a decisive role in 25-30 assembly seats, said several political analysts.
With the community having the power to sway electoral fortunes in assembly seats, including Kirari, Burari, Karawal Nagar, Ghonda, Sangam Vihar, Nangloi Jat, Badli, and in parliamentary constituencies such as West Delhi, East Delhi, North East Delhi, North West Delhi, and South Delhi, they are on the radar of all major players.
Former Congress MP Mahabal Mishra, the party’s first Purvanchal leader in Delhi, said, “Today, the BJP is raising the Chhath puja issue. But BJP never bothered about the community when they were in power in the 1990s. Today, the community has become politically significant, and winning an election is not possible without their support.”
For the longest time, the Congress enjoyed the support of the community, which largely lived in unauthorised colonies and slums. Former Congress MP from northeast Delhi, JP Agarwal said, “The Congress always got their support as we did a lot of work for people living in these unauthorised colonies and slums. We also gave them representation in electoral politics.”
But in 2013, and later in 2015, the AAP was successful in winning the support of the community. The party’s promise of free electricity and water, along with its focus on education and health, paid dividends in 2015, when it won 67 seats in the assembly elections.
Rai said that the party gave substantial representation to people from the community, which was not done earlier by any party. “There were many people from the community who were associated with us before the party was formed. We gave many of them a chance to contest the election,” said Rai.
In the 2015 assembly elections, the AAP fielded 11 Purvanchalis, while the BJP and the Congress had fielded just three and two Purvanchalis, respectively. In the 2013 assembly elections, five of the nine Purvanchali candidates fielded by the AAP won.
Kumar said that political parties such as the Congress and the BJP earlier had people who acted as intermediaries between the community and the party. This helped garner the support of the community during elections. But the past few years, especially with the emergence of the AAP, this changed as the community itself was given electoral representation.
“The AAP adopted a strategy to give the community representation in electoral politics and it worked in their favour,” said Kumar.
In 2012, the BJP too gave tickets to people from the community. “It was one of the reasons for the party’s victory in municipal polls. The community has a presence on several assembly seats. No political party can ignore them. The BJP did get the support of the community in 2012 and 2017 municipal elections,” said Gupta, who was Delhi BJP chief then.
The BJP has been trying to make inroads in the AAP’s strongholds in unauthorised colonies and slums. The party fielded close to 12 candidates from the community in the 2020 assembly polls.
The BJP-led central government passed a law and announced the PM-UDAY scheme to give ownership rights to residents of 1,731 unauthorised colonies in Delhi just before the assembly elections of 2020. But it didn’t work in its favour, as BJP lost the election.
Kumar said, “While the BJP has been able to change its image nationally and gets the support of OBCs [Other Backward Classes], Dalits, Adivasis and so on, it has not been able to do so in Delhi. This is because they have not been able to change the nature of their leadership in Delhi. Though Tiwari was made the chief, it was for a brief period. For the BJP to win the support of the community, there is a need for long term measures.”