New Delhi: It’s Sunday, 26 January, just under two weeks from the Delhi assembly elections. The Congress candidate from Rajinder Nagar, Rocky Tuseed, is spotted strolling outside his election office, then sitting and receiving advice from his aunt, a former councillor.
Until this day, Tuseed has not received permission from the Election Commission to start his campaign, because he had delayed some documentation.
Compare that to his rivals Raghav Chadha of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and R.P. Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who have begun walking through the constituency and meeting the electorate.
Tuseed, the 25-year-old former president of the Delhi University Students’ Union, has only attended a few residents’ funerals, and not done much else.
Fast forward to the present day, and while there are some signs of life in some Congress candidates’ campaigns, most of the 70 candidates are in a similar boat as Tuseed. For instance, Romesh Sabharwal, the Congress candidate contesting against Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP from New Delhi, spent the first few days of his campaign chatting with a few residents over samosa and tea in the constituency.
While AAP and BJP star campaigners make headlines, churn controversies and try to visit every home in their constituencies, the Congress, which ruled the city for 15 years from 1998-2013, seems to be taking it easy. The polls take place Saturday and campaigning ends Thursday, but no one from the party’s first family — the Gandhis — has appeared at any event so far.
Film actor Nagma is the among the few known faces to campaign for the Congress, appearing for senior leader Arvinder Singh Lovely in the Gandhi Nagar constituency last week. Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh addressed a rally Monday in the Punjabi-dominated Kalkaji for Shivani Chopra, daughter of Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee chief Subhash Chopra. And now, former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi are also said to be deployed over the final couple of days of the campaign.
But overall, the sense one gets from the Congress campaign is one of disinterest from the top leadership, lack of fund-distribution, and that old bugbear of the party — internal politics.
Tale of the numbers
The Congress has spiralled in Delhi since Sheila Dikshit’s three-term government was voted out in 2013. In those polls, which marked the AAP’s electoral debut, the Congress polled 24 per cent of the total vote. But in the Lok Sabha polls held just six months later, it received just 15 per cent votes.
In the 2015 assembly elections, the Congress hit rock-bottom with a 9.7 per cent vote share, as the AAP, which has a similar voter base, romped to power, winning 67 out of the 70 seats.
Since then, the Congress’ fortunes improved, as it bagged nearly 21 per cent of the vote in the 2017 municipal polls in Delhi. In the May 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it climbed back to the No. 2 spot behind the BJP with 22 per cent of the votes, pushing the AAP to the third spot. However, the AAP is expected to be a much stronger force in the assembly elections, and the Congress seems to be unable — or even unwilling — to give the other parties a fight, barring a handful of seats.
An analysis by ThePrint shows the Congress has fielded strong candidates in assembly segments where it was ahead of the AAP in the Lok Sabha elections, including Seelampur, Mustafabad, Gandhi Nagar, Badarpur, Karawal Nagar and Chandni Chowk.
In Seelampur, for example, its candidate is Mateen Ahmed, who had won five successive elections since 1993, until he lost amid the AAP wave in 2015. Similarly, Lovely was a four-time Gandhi Nagar MLA who lost in 2015, but is expected to do well.
Another strong candidate is Alka Lamba, who was elected from Chandni Chowk in 2015 on an AAP ticket, but returned to the Congress fold after falling out with Kejriwal’s party.
In some of these constituencies, the AAP has fielded former Congress candidates. But Lovely said this strategy will go against the AAP, especially because candidates like Naveen Chaudhary (alias Deepu) and Anil Vajpayee are his former supporters.
“Naveen was campaigning for me three days before he got the ticket from AAP,” said Lovely.
Tussle between two top leaders
The DPCC office near ITO generally wears a deserted look, especially when contrasted with the bustling AAP headquarters just a few metres away. Sunday saw a turnout at the DPCC office for the release of the Congress manifesto, but the party’s campaign committee chief and former BJP MP Kirti Azad was conspicuous by his absence.
Party sources said even though Azad was speaking to Chopra until after midnight ahead of the manifesto release, he wasn’t invited to the function. The sources added that Azad wasn’t even aware until about 1 pm Sunday that the manifesto had been released.
The sources said there had been several confrontations between Azad and Chopra during meetings, which had led to a lot of internal politics. ThePrint has learnt that Azad even wrote to the party’s interim chief Sonia Gandhi, saying the campaign had been sabotaged, and that most of his suggestions to counter the AAP’s schemes at a 1 December meeting had been ignored. He is also learnt to have told Sonia Gandhi that he had “failed her”.
Approached for his response, Azad refused to comment on the exact details, but said the party president had asked him to keep her informed about things.
Azad had recommended two firms, Niksun Limited and Golden Rabbit Communications, to run the Congress campaign in terms of advertisements and songs, among other things. The two firms are still on board, but their impact on the campaign isn’t being felt, according to party insiders.
Azad’s suggestion that the campaign be built around crisp punchlines such as #BadalDo (in reference to changing the AAP government in Delhi) were allegedly ignored. Some of these suggestions had even been made before the Election Commission announced the poll dates. But the tussle between Chopra and Azad put paid to any chances of this campaign materialising.
Congress candidates allege privately that they have been left to fend for themselves as far as the campaign is concerned. ThePrint followed a few leaders on the campaign trail, including Gandhi Nagar candidate Lovely and Chandni Chowk candidate Lamba, and found them managing everything pretty much on their own.
One Congress candidate told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity: “The party is supposed to provide Rs 27 lakh to each candidate for campaigning, but I don’t think some of us have even got Rs 10 lakh.”
Others claim they haven’t even received that much, and that they’ve been running the campaigns from their own pockets — such as for printing pamphlets, badges and party caps.
The lack of institutional support is visible — at a padyatra under the North-West Delhi Lok Sabha seat, only about 12-15 Congress supporters made up the cavalcade, as opposed to AAP and BJP roadshows that have received an overwhelming response.
Congress candidates are also accompanied by groups of older supporters. For example, this correspondent witnessed a 69-year-old woman raising slogans in the name of Rahul Gandhi, but she was asked to take Sonia Gandhi or the candidate’s name instead.
Some candidates, however, feel the Congress’ stand against the Citizenship Amendment Act will go in its favour. Arvinder Lovely told ThePrint: “The Muslim voters will be with us, as they’ve seen how we’ve not refrained from taking a stand, unlike the AAP, which has been dilly-dallying on the issue.”
DPCC chief Chopra, meanwhile, said the AAP and the BJP’s aggressive campaigns are a sign of desperation and insecurity. “We have been at work… Who starts the campaign for assembly polls this early? They started this early because they are insecure,” Chopra said, adding that he was confident of the Congress getting a majority.
Asked about the allegations that the candidates were left to fend for themselves, Chopra said: “We don’t always need star campaigners; we trust our own candidates.”
Gandhis unlikely to join campaign
Sangeet Ragi, professor of political science at Delhi University, said the Congress’ attitude towards the campaign seems like it has waved the white flag.
“The Congress is aware it isn’t going to win, and hence, it can’t afford to have the bigwigs campaigning and later be discredited for it,” he said.
Party sources also said due to Sonia Gandhi’s ill health (she was hospitalised for a short while over the weekend), she will not join the campaign, and that her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who has been an increasing presence in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, is unlikely to be included because it would harm her image if the party loses.
At the DPCC office too, there is no clarity on whether Priyanka would campaign sometime this week.