Delhi Assembly election 2020: How Shaheen Bagh became a springboard for BJP’s campaign | Opinion
One of the fiercely fought elections in recent times, Delhi Assembly election 2020 marked a new low in Indian electoral politics. The campaign saw covert incitement for violence, repeated use of religious imagery and barrage of personal attacks to gain power of a state, which ironically has barely any power. Well, it isn’t even a state.
The high-octane campaign between the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the main challenger Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gradually morphed into how parties reacted to the Shaheen Bagh stand-off.
The women, men and the children of Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi have been protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. This law fast-tracks citizenship to six religious minorities who entered the country illegally from India’s three Muslim-majority neighbours, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Protests erupted in the country soon after the law was enacted in December over apprehensions that the government would next go for an Assam-like pan Indian National Register of Citizens. The underlying concern, echoed by many critics of CAA, has been that Muslims who may not have the documents to prove their citizenship could be treated as undocumented immigrants, and as top government leaders had repeatedly promised, be thrown out.
In the protests that followed in Delhi, Shaheen Bagh - that is often seen as a Muslim ghetto - came to symbolise the agitation against the law and soon became its epicentre. As the women at Shaheen Bagh stayed put through much of the biting December cold - it was the coldest December in years - people from other communities also joined them to express solidarity.
But the women of Shaheen Bagh remained the face of the protest.
As elections approached, the political cauldron started to boil over this protest that blocked a major arterial road in South Delhi. For some of them, it remained a symbol of resistance but there were others who saw a deeply sinister conspiracy in scores of women spending day and night at the protest site.
Soon, Shaheen Bagh came to dominate the narrative with top BJP leaders including the Prime Minister calling it an experiment. Given how the BJP wove its political campaign in Delhi where it had little else to show for, it was clear that the campaign was aimed at polarising the election to counter AAP’s development plank.
Towards the tail end of the campaign, the firing incidents at the epicentre of the anti-CAA protest, Shaheen Bagh, at one point appeared to have made other issues irrelevant in the electoral debate.
During the entire campaign, AAP kept on trying to avoid prickly topics like Shaheen Bhagh, CAA and Sharjeel Imam, whose speech had triggered a huge row. When it was pushed to a corner by the BJP over Sharjeel Imam, Arvind Kejriwal challenged Union Home Minister Amit Shah to arrest the student activist over his alleged ‘seditious remarks’ on Assam.
The BJP’s efforts continued nevertheless. From BJP leader Anurag Thakur’s ‘goli maro’ slogan at an election rally and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s rhetoric that Arvind Kejriwal was feeding biryani to the people of Shaheen Bagh to New Delhi MP Meenakshi Lekhi’s retweet on Saturday that asked people to vote right. It was barely concealed dog whistling.
Lekhi’s tweet summed up BJP’s plank as the New Delhi MP sought a mandate against the voting sentiments of the Shaheen Bagh people, essentially against choice of the Muslims.
Along the way, pollsters who tracked the public mood improved the tally for the BJP as its campaign gained momentum after putting the spotlight on Shaheen Bagh. Even if BJP fails to win Delhi, a dent in AAP’s tally or vote share would largely be seen as success of BJP’s poll strategy.
(The views expressed are personal)