New Delhi: Delhi BJP president and the party’s candidate for North East Delhi, Manoj Tiwari, appears to have learnt the politics of turning taunts into trophies from the best in the business: Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Tiwari took a caustic jibe thrown at him by Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal about his cinematic past and has turned it into a window of opportunity to appeal to “his people”, the Purvanchali residents of Delhi.
“Manoj Tiwari dances very well. Dilip Pandey (AAP candidate) doesn’t know how to dance, he knows how to work,” Kejriwal had said on 4 April. “This time, vote for someone who works. Do not vote for a dancer.”
A visibly irked Tiwari responded, saying, “By abusing me, he has directly insulted the people of Purvanchal and the same people will now show him what are the consequences of it.”
Tiwari’s campaign managers have also seized on the comments to reinforce the Bhojpuri star’s claim on the Purvanchali vote.
“Arvind Kejriwal said Manoj Tiwari is a ‘Purvanchali singer-dancer’,” said B.N. Jha, sub-head of BJP Purvanchal Morcha, to the crowds in Mukherjee Nagar waiting for Tiwari.
“But, Manoj Tiwari has struggled, he has played the harmonium in Varanasi, lived in Gopalpur jhuggi (slum) on one meal per day, to earn a living. Kejriwal is raising questions on his art and hard work.”
The BJP made Tiwari its Delhi president in November 2016, an elevation seen as an attempt to appeal to the sizeable Purvanchali voter base in the national capital. The Bhojpuri singer had won his first Lok Sabha seat just two years before that, riding on the Modi wave in 2014. His elevation also mirrors the growing political clout of a community previously vilified politically as well as Delhi’s belated acceptance of migrants from UP and Bihar.
The Purvanchali vote
Purvanchalis, or the people from Eastern UP and Bihar, make up nearly a third of Delhi’s 20 million population. A majority of them reside in jhuggi, jhopdis and unauthorised colonies.
Once blamed for rising crime in Delhi, the Purvanchalis are now considered a decisive force who can swing elections in the national capital.
This was evident last year when in the run-up to Chhath Puja in November, both AAP and BJP had indulged in an acerbic blame-game, in a clear attempt to appease the Purvanchali voter.
While the BJP had accused the Delhi government of not making adequate arrangements for the festival, the AAP went a step ahead and accused “BJP goons” of attacking their own Purvanchal wing office-bearer.
“If the BJP is attacking its own Purvanchali leader, what will they do to ordinary Purvanchalis in Delhi,” AAP spokesperson Raghav Chadha had said.
But even before the BJP, it was AAP that recognised and harvested their political clout. AAP’s 13 Purvanchali MLAs recorded significant wins in the 2015 Delhi assembly elections, prompting the party to woo the community even more aggressively in the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign.
“AAP had decided to go a step forward and actually give tickets to several Purvanchali candidates in 2015. That move alarmed the other parties and they all became cognisant of such a voter base,” Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) told ThePrint.
“Wait till the next assembly elections in Delhi, we will see several Purvanchali candidates fielded by all political parties,” he added.
Even though most Delhi voters are firmly positioned as loyal party voters, Kumar said that having a Purvanchali candidate can “definitely be an icing on the cake”.
A three-pronged battle
North East Delhi, which votes with the rest of the national capital on 12 May, is set for a three-pronged battle. Tiwari, the sitting MP, faces another Purvanchali candidate, AAP’s Dilip Pandey, who is originally from Gazipur in UP, and the Congress’ three-time chief minister Sheila Dikshit.
“You mean Sheila Dikshit is contesting against me?” a defiant Tiwari remarked when ThePrint asked him on how he feels about contesting against the former Delhi chief minister. “I thank Sheilaji. The contest has become exciting since she joined,” he said. “Everyone is suddenly so excited about the North-East seat.”
He also said that he doesn’t see Pandey as a threat. “I am searching for AAP with a microscope but I still don’t see them anywhere in the contest,” Tiwari said.
On the campaign trail, Tiwari deploys his crowd-pulling repartee skills while Pandey projects the ‘common man’ image.
“How can someone who was never been stuck in the jams in Wazirabad, Khajoori Chowk or Shastri Park understand what the people face every day?” Pandey asked, adding that AAP is loved by all sections and castes.
Dikshit’s campaign, on the other hand, exudes confidence and experience. When she isn’t speaking against Kejriwal, Dikshit reminds voters that she was “the chief minister of Delhi for 15 years”.
“I know every constituency and people of Delhi love us, our party,” she said.
The constituency is predominantly a concentration of a migrant population, slum-clusters, and hangout spots for Delhi University North Campus students.
Among his achievements in the constituency in the past five years, Tiwari counts the Signature Bridge and schools. In an interview to ThePrint’s MP tracker, MY543, Tiwari also claimed he spent Rs 7 crore for a road in Khajuri Khas, a bus terminal in the Sabhapur village.
But he said one of his life’s most remarkable experiences was commuting in the metro he started in his constituency. “Our constituency did not have good metro connectivity. We started a metro line extending from Shiv Vihar to Gokulpuri to Badarpur,” he had said.
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Beyond the optics of one-of-our-own candidate, Tiwari’s appeal in his constituency as a hitherto Bhojpuri superstar is limited.
“Why should we vote for Manoj Tiwari? Why doesn’t he contest from Bihar?” asked Urmila, a 62-year-old who hails from Bihar but is a resident of Sanjay Basti in Timarpur region of North East Delhi. “Just because there are a lot of Biharis residing in Delhi, he wins from here.”
The neighbourhood is fraught with issues of water scarcity and lack of electricity. Residents complain that children have had serious accidents when they’ve gone to fetch water from across the road.
“There is no water facility inside the basti. You have to struggle to access water from elsewhere,” Jaggo, a resident of Sanjay Basti for 20 years, told ThePrint.
But, for a lot of people, the name Manoj Tiwari still conjures up the image of him delivering one superhit Bhojpuri song after another. A voice from behind the curtains of one of the houses in the cramped neighbourhood calls out, “Manoj Tiwari is a singer, he is a hero, and he is also a BJP leader!”
Sixteen-year-old Kirti happily hums one of Tiwari’s songs while making rotis for dinner.
Sometimes, residents here don’t know who to take their grievances to or who to give credit to in Delhi’s multiple power centres — AAP government, or BJP’s central government or the BJP-dominated MCD.
Even for something like getting an overgrown tree cut to avert an accident, Rekha Devi says she has complained to everyone who has visited her neighbourhood but to no avail.
“The voters living in these jhuggi-jhopdis can be easily manipulated by party candidates,” said Kumar of CSDS. “The AAP can blame the BJP, and the BJP can blame the AAP for not fulfilling promises.”
Then there is the Modi factor. At a recent public meeting in Mukherjee Nagar, a group of children under 10 cheer for the BJP wearing party caps and holding cutouts of Modi and Tiwari. “Pakistan Murdabad” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai” are their slogans of choice.
They don’t know what Tiwari has done for them. But they all know Modi, and say he has got them roads, toilets and subsidised homes.
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