Shaheen Bagh looms over electoral contest in Okhla constituency
New Delhi: Other than for its identity as an assembly constituency with a Muslim majority population, the Okhla Assembly constituency had hardly made headlines in Delhi elections. This year too, despite the anticipation of a tough triangular battle, the contest has been overshadowed by the ongoing protest at Shaheen Bagh that completed 43 days . With the BJP making it one of its key poll planks and at least two of its star campaigners facing action by the EC for alleged hate speech, both residents and contestants admitted the anti-CAA protest had cast a long shadow over the electoral battle.
The Aam Aadmi Party, which won the seat in 2015, by a massive margin of over 64,000 votes, has put the ball back in the BJP’s court, holding the party leaders responsible for failing to have engaged with the protesters and accusing the saffron party of using the issue for political gains in the light of the Delhi elections. The AAP insists the polls should only be fought on development and welfare.
Data shared by political parties show that Okhla is one of the six constituencies in Delhi with Muslim population exceeding 40%.
WHAT CANDIDATES SAY
“The BJP is trying its best to divert the attention by politicising the Shaheen Bagh protest,” said Amanatullah Khan of AAP, the sitting MLA from the seat who has been fielded again this year. Khan said the electoral battle will be decided by issues of public importance such as power, water, sewer, good schools and mohalla clinics.
The Congress’s candidate Parvez Hashmi is a heavyweight – a former Rajya Sabha MP and four-time MLA from Okhla. “The Shaheen Bagh protest is a people’s movement. Across India, the Congress opposes the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). But, in Delhi, development issues will be a priority. Voters know that very well,” he said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate, Braham, Singh said, “Our priorities will be resolving issues related to water, sewer, sanitation, schools and hospitals.”
“As far as the anti-CAA protests are concerned, we are trying to explain to voters what the CAA is and how it is helpful. In the end, the choice of candidate will depend on their opinion,” said Singh, a former state chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party who unsuccessfully contested two assembly polls from the Okhla constituency since 2013.
Since 1993, the BJP has never won the Okhla seat but they have always fielded a Hindu candidate, except for once – in 2009 by-elections in the seat. And that was the BJP’s worst performance in the seat in terms of vote share – hardly managing 3.12%. Caste too plays an important role. This is the fifth time since 1993, the BJP has fielded a candidate from the dominant caste in the seat. Singh is a Gujjar.
In his campaign, Singh is using the numbers to rather suggest that poor civic conditions in Okhla have a direct correlation with the BJP never coming to power.
SHAHEEN BAGH A FACTOR
Several residents of the constituency agree that the Shaheen Bagh protests would have bearing on how residents of Okhla vote.
“The anti-CAA protest is a major national issue and that is why a large number of people are protesting. But the same people also face problems pertaining to water supply, sewer, roads and other civic amenities. So, that can never be ruled out as a deciding factor,” said Ahmad Kamran Abid, a participant in the Shaheen Bagh protest.
Abid’s concerns are testified by leaking sewers, broken pavements, overflowing drains and damaged roads across the constituency.
Shakeb Ayaz, a researcher associated with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, said: “Okhla’s politics has moved beyond traditional identity politics. Now the new generation has showed the capability to connect their identity with India’s glorious national movement and the Constitution. With the CAA, protests there are chances the civic issues can get pushed to the back seat.”
Several residents pointed out how political parties too have factored in the Shaheen Bagh protests for their ongoing campaign.
The Muslim-dominated localities in Okhla are concentrated in the Jamia region. They include Zakir Nagar, Shaheen Bagh, Batla House and Abul Fazal Enclave. These areas comprise a mix of unauthorised colonies, slums and a few affluent pockets such as Ghaffar Manzil and Johri Farm. Lanes in these localities are dotted by posters of AAP and the Congress candidates, both Muslims.
The campaigns of Khan and Hashmi focus more on mohalla sabhas and local public gatherings, in which they stress on civic issues. But they are also regular visitors to the Shaheen Bagh protest site, though they have hardly addressed any gathering there in the last three weeks, the residents said.
Khan and Hashmi are leaders with a “following” said Shahnawaz Malik, a resident of Abul Fazal Enclave.
While most residents recall Hashmi as a veteran politician who helped get elderly people admitted in good hospitals, children in good schools and often provided financial support for events ranging from marriage to death, Khan is seen as the leader who emerged out of the politics that followed the police encounter against terror suspects in Batla House in 2008.
The BJP’s visibility is relatively high in the Hindu-dominated localities in the constituency, which is made up of unauthorised colonies and slums in Madanpur Khadar, Aali Gaon and Kalindi Kunj, and affluent pockets in Sukhdev Vihar, Sarita Vihar, Jasola Vihar and some parts of New Friends Colony.
Singh, the BJP candidate, has engaged a large group of party workers in a door-to-door campaign in these localities. In one such campaign on Sunday, Singh and his followers could be seen talking to people about civic issues as well as explaining how the BJP government helped bringing a law that confers ownership rights to people in unauthorised colonies and engagements over the CAA.
“Initially we focused more on explaining people about the new law but now we are trying to tap in the resentment against a blocked road which is causing inconvenience, especially to office-goers and school children,” said Vishal Choudhary, the BJP worker who help plan Singh’s campaigns.
Since December 15, protesters in Shaheen Bagh have blocked an arterial road that connects south-east Delhi with Noida and Faridabad. “It is actually a concern and it is legitimate for any political party to discuss that in the ongoing poll campaign,” said Mohit Sharma, a resident of Sukhdev Vihar.
Deepak Kumar, a resident of Madanpur Khadar, said: “Civic amenities are important and they have figured in elections for decades. Has anything changed? Right now, the thing that should be addressed urgently is the CAA and the protests concerning CAA.”