It is a battle of two Biharis in Northeast Delhi

The choice of candidates highlights importance of Purvanchali vote in Delhi politics

24-BJPs-Manoj-Tiwari-during-his-campaign-in-Timarpur Amplifying modi: BJP’s Manoj Tiwari during his campaign in Timarpur | Kritajna Naik

Manoj Tiwari, 53, the sitting MP from North East Delhi, has been on a relentless campaign for more than a month now. It is a high-octane espousal of issues such as nationalism and Ram Mandir, and it is centred on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as a leader who has delivered on his promises.

As Tiwari’s road show enters a narrow lane in Burari, his entourage plays the song ‘Ram ke the, Ram ke hain, hum Ram ke rahenge [We were, are and will be Ram’s]’ that he had sung to commemorate the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. The actor-singer turned politician waves to people gathered on balconies and terraces and appeals for their vote with folded hands. The two-time MP also reminds them about his own track record as their representative and claims to have undertaken works to the tune of 014,600 crore in the constituency.

Religion though dominates Tiwari’s campaign, and his Lord Ram song is played wherever he goes. His speeches are replete with references to the Ram Temple, and he rounds them off with the slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. The youthful spiritual leader of Bageshwar Dham of Madhya Pradesh, Dhirendra Krishna Shastri, held an event in North East Delhi bang in the middle of election season, and Tiwari was on stage, seeking his blessings.

Up against Tiwari is the wild card entry, Kanhaiya Kumar, 37, of the Congress, who has moved fast from student politics to electoral politics at the national level. For him this election could be a stepping-stone to a bigger role in Delhi politics. Kanhaiya’s padyatras are accompanied by slogans in praise of Lord Krishna, his namesake. Kanhaiya and the local leaders and workers accompanying him hand out the party’s guarantee cards. He touches the feet of elders, poses for selfies with youth and urges people to vote for change.

At a corner meeting in Braj Puri, Mustafabad, Kanhaiya engages with people, telling women that it is not enough to listen to the speech and that they have to go back home and tell their families to vote for the Congress. “I am the poorest candidate in Delhi. I don’t have a helicopter. I am not even married that my wife can go and campaign for me. So all of you have to campaign for me,” he tells the crowd. And then, pointing to a group of youth who had approached him for selfies, he says, “Make me win. I will be here for five years. You can then click selfies with me five times a day.” His speech is peppered with potshots at Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

North East Delhi is witnessing a contest between two Biharis, one a popular Bhojpuri actor-singer and the other an upcoming leader known for his oratory, making it the most keenly watched electoral battle in the capital. The constituency has a large population of migrants from Purvanchal―parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar―and Jharkhand, which explains the choice of candidate for both the BJP and the Congress as also the growing importance of the Purvanchali vote in Delhi politics.

The constituency was carved out of East Delhi in 2008, and has around 24 lakh voters spread across 10 Assembly constituencies. The Aam Aadmi Party has eight MLAs here, and the BJP two. Majority of the unauthorised colonies in the capital are situated in this area, which borders Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. There are some pockets that might qualify as middle class or upper middle class, but most of the people are poor or lower middle class. The constituency has a large number of slums, with narrow roads, overflowing drains and poor garbage disposal.

Around 40 per cent of the population comprises migrants from the Purvanchal region. Around 21 per cent are Muslims and 16 per cent are scheduled castes, followed by around 12 per cent Brahmins, 8 per cent Gurjars, 5 per cent Vaishyas and 4 per cent Punjabis.

Tiwari had won the seat in 2014, defeating the AAP’s Anand Kumar by 1,44,084 votes. He increased the victory margin to 3,66,102 votes in 2019, defeating former chief minister Sheila Dikshit of the Congress. Tiwari polled a whopping 53.9 per cent of the vote share, with Dikshit getting 28.85 per cent and the AAP’s Dilip Pandey just 13.06 per cent. The result here mirrored the overall mood in the capital, with the BJP making a clean sweep of all seven seats and getting 56.5 per cent votes. The Congress got 22.5 per cent, while the AAP secured 18.1 per cent. Congress and AAP leaders say that the 2019 result was because of a Modi wave, which is missing this time, and by allying, the two parties have prevented a split in the anti-BJP vote.

The BJP has sought to project Kanhaiya as an outsider here and talks about Tiwari’s work in the last 10 years. Tiwari has also been highlighting the controversial statements allegedly made by Kanhaiya when he was president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union.

In response, Kanhaiya has pointed out that Tiwari, like him, comes from Bihar, and that by raking up old allegations, he was trying to divert attention from the issues that mattered, which included the Modi government’s failures and his own shortcomings as MP.

The assessment of the Congress and the AAP is that the alliance has a chance in Delhi in the wake of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest by the Enforcement Directorate in an excise policy case. Kejriwal has, upon his release from jail on interim bail, campaigned for the alliance candidates, including Kanhaiya.

On ground, public opinion is split. What works for Tiwari is a general feeling that Modi is still the best bet to lead a government at the Centre. “Modi has enhanced the country’s pride. There is no alternative to him at present,” said Sushil Kumar, a resident of Milan Vihar.

However, there are many people who openly say they will vote for a change this time. What is helping Kanhaiya is the palpable discontent against Tiwari, with people saying he has not been accessible and has rarely visited the constituency.

“Kanhaiya is talking about the right issues,” said Manjulata Devi, another Milan Vihar resident. “Price rise is making it difficult for us to afford even vegetables and dal. We want good education and jobs for our children.”