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Festival of democracy enters Delhi

BySaurya Sengupta, New Delhi
May 25, 2024 05:05 AM IST

Between Saturday morning and evening, 15 million of Delhi’s 20 million residents will make their voices heard during the world’s largest democratic exercise.

The unforgiving May sun slices through a sheet of haze. Its inescapable tentacles grip the dry ground. The air is a smothering 45 degrees and it feels much worse. The earth hasn’t tasted a raindrop in weeks.

New Delhi, India - May 24, 2024: Polling officials with EVM machines as they collect and sort polling material ahead of the 2024 Loksabha elections to be held tomorrow, at Gol Market in New Delhi, India, on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Photo by Raj K Raj/ Hindustan Times) (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)
New Delhi, India - May 24, 2024: Polling officials with EVM machines as they collect and sort polling material ahead of the 2024 Loksabha elections to be held tomorrow, at Gol Market in New Delhi, India, on Friday, May 24, 2024. (Photo by Raj K Raj/ Hindustan Times) (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

But the air is restless, the streets throbbing. There’s chatter in the markets, the colony parks thrum after sundown, the tea stalls are packed. The bars are shut, as are the schools. But even indoors, a similar thread ripples through households. “Kya lagta hai, kaun aayega?”

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From the sprawling farmlands of Najafgarh to the ghost plots of Narela, from the lush lawns of India Gate to the thick forests in Chhatarpur, from the veiny lanes of Karawal Nagar to the industrial corridors of Badarpur, Delhi is on its marks. Between Saturday morning and evening, 15 million of Delhi’s 20 million residents will make their voices heard during the world’s largest democratic exercise.

Its voters are spread across seven segments – New Delhi, Chandni Chowk, North West Delhi, West Delhi, South Delhi, East Delhi and North East Delhi; each beset with its own electoral proclivities, each fissured with its own socio-economic cleavages, but each an unflinching strand in the eccentric mesh of the national capital.

The voters are spread across seven segments – New Delhi, Chandni Chowk, North West Delhi, West Delhi, South Delhi, East Delhi and North East Delhi.
The voters are spread across seven segments – New Delhi, Chandni Chowk, North West Delhi, West Delhi, South Delhi, East Delhi and North East Delhi.

The city of hearts, the city of monuments, the city of rallies, the city of dissent, the city of smog – each will head to a voting booth on Saturday, under the piercing gaze of the Delhi sun, and cast its ballot, either for change, or for continuity.

At hand are two distinct contenders.

The first is the incumbent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has held all seven of the city’s seats in the Lok Sabha since 2014, in lockstep with its electoral dominance on the national arena. The party has held a vise grip over the city’s parliamentary presence, even amid its fledgling presence in the Vidhan Sabha and its diminished control in the municipality.

The second is the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) coalition between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which governs the state and its civic body, and the Congress, which controlled the state for three unfettered terms between 1998 and 2013. A seemingly unlikely seat-sharing plan between the bitter rivals culminated in the AAP agreeing to contest four seats – New Delhi, South Delhi, East Delhi and West Delhi – and the Congress three – Chandni Chowk, North East Delhi and North West Delhi – in a compromise meant to fend off the might of the BJP.

Each has distinct visions for the national capital.

The BJP has pinned its campaign on its decade-long experience of administering the city’s seven segments, on its success at delivering central programmes to the last mile and conjoined these with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “guarantees”.

The AAP, rejuvenated by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s release from prison just over two weeks ago, has leant on its trademark balance of delivering welfare programmes, providing concessions for various demographics groups and shoring up the Capital’s basic infrastructure.

The Congress, shunned from Delhi’s state assembly for nearly a decade and near-absent in the civic House, has forged its campaign around social justice, welfare and the promise of increased reservations for backward groups and women.

All BJP candidates who interacted with the media at Delhi BJP office on Friday afternoon said they did extensive campaigning. “During the 84 days of election campaign we received a lot of love from the people who are determined to make Narendra Modi the Prime Minister of India for the third time. The people say that under Modi borders are secure, national security is strong, rapid highways and infrastructure development took place… ” said Ramvir Singh Bidhuri, BJP’s candidate for South Delhi Lok Sabha seat.

Delhi Congress chief Devender Yadav said the INDIA bloc’s campaign was “extremely effective”

“The people of Delhi will vote to save democracy and the Constitution. The INDIA bloc’s candidates are set to win the Lok Sabha elections,” said Yadav.

Across the vast expanse of this century-old city, voters have a swathe of expectations.

Chandni Chowk, once framed on its east by the now withered Yamuna, for instance, is crying out for a fresh infusion of life. A crippling shortage of water, unenviable traffic, skyrocketing expenses and dwindling profits among traders have together snuffed much of the vibrance that once trickled through Shahjahanabad’s narrow lanes.

In the deceptively named New Delhi constituency – which comprises several of Delhi’s southern neighbourhoods – voters baulk at the swelling population, consequent congestion and overawed infrastructure.

Over in East Delhi, residents who live across the Yamuna point to the menace of the Ghazipur and Okhla landfills that smother all neighbouring life, a permeating absence of safety and sanitation, and the near-constant influx of migrants.

Saturday’s vote will be the city’s first parliamentary polls since the communal violence that consumed North East Delhi in February 2020, killing 53 and injuring more than 700. The riots left deep fissures through the diverse region, which houses a significant population from eastern Uttar Pradesh (known as Purvanchalis) and Muslims, and time has acted as scant salve. These chasms coexist with little access to education and meagre healthcare infrastructure in some pockets, even as businesspeople stare at ever-widening losses.

When the biting Saturday afternoon makes way for a stuffy Saturday evening, Delhi will have made its mark. When the crowds trickle out of the polling booths onto Sunder Nursery, Lodhi Gardens and India Gate, the centuries-old city will once again ask: “Kya lagta hai, kaun aayega?”

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