“All those who want to serve the country have united this time going beyond their party affiliations,” declared Babu Sheikh, an Aam Aadmi Party supporter from Delhi’s Maujpur locality. Sheikh was among the thousands of AAP and Congress supporters attending a rally held on May 6 after the INDIA bloc candidate for the North East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, Kanhaiya Kumar, filed his nomination.

Kumar is one of the candidates the Congress has fielded in three out of seven Lok Sabha seats of Delhi. The Congress’ ally, Aam Aadmi Party, is contesting the other four seats in the national capital. The alliance hopes to present a challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won all seven seats of Delhi in the 2014 and 2019 general elections.

The alliance, however, has got off to a rocky start. Earlier in May, five senior leaders of the Congress’ Delhi unit, including state president Arvinder Singh Lovely, quit the party and joined the BJP. They have alleged that the Congress had undermined local leaders who were opposed to the alliance.

On ground, Scroll found that even as supporters and workers of both the AAP and Congress viewed the alliance as a shot in the arm, there remained some challenges in ensuring coordination between two parties that have been rivals in Delhi over the last decade.

Sheikh’s friend, Mohammad Shiraz, also an AAP supporter, summed up the challenge: “The exit of leaders like Lovely has created some confusion among Congress voters. We will have to convince them to tow the party’s line and not any leader.”

AAP-Congress: The arithmetic and chemistry

Given the BJP that has swept the Lok Sabha polls in Delhi twice, it should seem like an obvious decision for the Congress and AAP to put up a united front. But what appears to be common sense in terms of arithmetic, does not quite translate into seamless chemistry. The reason for this friction: the rise of AAP in Delhi since 2013 came at the cost of a decline in the Congress’ fortunes.

Naseeb Singh, a former Congress MLA, who joined the BJP along with Lovely regrets his former party’s decision in 2013 to help Arvind Kejriwal form a government in Delhi.

In the 2013 Delhi Assembly polls, the AAP making a debut in electoral politics, won 28 of the 70 seats, but failed to get a majority The incumbent Congress, with eight seats, gave outside support to AAP, paving the way for Kejriwal’s first term as Delhi chief minister. But the government fell after just 49 days as Kejriwal resigned citing his failure to introduce a Jan Lokpal Bill – a proposal to set up an independent anti-corruption body. After a year of President’s rule, AAP came to power in 2015, winning a stunning 67 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly.

“Supporting the AAP was a wrong decision then and it is a wrong decision now,” Singh told Scroll. “The Jan Lokpal Bill has not been implemented even today but the AAP managed to dislodge Congress in Delhi.”

Former Congress MLA Naseeb Singh.

Singh was correct when he argued that the AAP benefited in Delhi at the Congress’ expense. In 2015, when AAP came back to power, its vote share went up to 54.3% from 29.5% in 2013. The BJP managed to keep its share almost intact, but the Congress fell from 24.5% to less than 10%. In the 2020 Assembly polls, Congress’ vote share dipped even more, and the BJP gained, further consolidating Delhi state elections as a bipolar contest between the AAP and BJP.

But when it comes to Lok Sabha elections, the Congress cannot be ignored as a spent force, said Ashutosh, a former journalist, who contested Delhi’s Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha seat on an AAP ticket in 2014.

“The Congress’ vote share in the 2019 general elections actually went up from 2014 while the AAP declined,” Ashutosh told Scroll. “This shows that voters saw AAP as an alternative to the BJP at the national level in 2014 but that bubble burst by 2019. To defeat the BJP in Lok Sabha, AAP definitely needs support from the Congress.”

AAP supporters Babu Sheikh (extreme right) and Mohammad Shiraz (next to him) were among the thousands who attended a rally after Congress candidate Kanhaiya Kumar filed his nomination for the North East Delhi seat on May 6.

Is Ashutosh’s point backed up by election data? Yes and no. In 2014, in six of the seven seats in Delhi, the combined votes of Congress and AAP outnumbered the BJP. In 2019 though, the BJP got more votes than the two parties’ combined tally in all the seats.

However, Abhay Dubey, a professor at Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told Scroll that the 2019 election results should be seen as an outlier because a rise in nationalist sentiments after the Pulwama attack helped the BJP. “This time the alliance will pose a stiff challenge to the BJP,” Dubey said. “Anti-BJP votes, and especially Muslim votes, will not get divided between the AAP and Congress.”

The faultlines

Dubey, however, warned that for a smooth sailing of the alliance, it was necessary that the Congress set its house in order. “The exit of Lovely and other leaders has shown that there was a difference of opinion about the alliance between the central and state leadership of Delhi,” Dubey said.

Lovely, who contested the East Delhi Lok Sabha seat on a Congress ticket in 2019, resigned from the post of the party’s Delhi unit chief on April 28. A week later, he joined the BJP. Speaking to Scroll, Lovely refuted the claims that he quit the Congress as a result of being denied a ticket. He instead blamed the party’s central leadership.

“I was asked to sack four party members who had spoken against the alliance,” Lovely claimed. “I found it more suitable to resign as party president.”

Lovely also criticised his former party’s candidate selection in Delhi, saying that it reflected that Congress had taken to the “tukde tukde” ideology. The phrase often used by BJP leaders to pejoratively refer to its critics as separatists was a jibe at Kanhaiya Kumar. Lovely alleged that the Congress high command had ignored local leaders in nominating “outsiders” Kumar and Udit Raj, the North West Delhi candidate.

Former president of Congress' Delhi unit Arvinder Singh Lovely.

Former Congress MLA Naseeb Singh was more direct in his criticism of the Congress leadership. “Rahul Gandhi has surrounded himself with people who have no connection with ground level workers,” Singh told Scroll. “He is so ill-advised that he has agreed to this unequal alliance with a party that once abused Sonia Gandhi and Sheila Dixit.”

The exodus of senior leaders like Lovely has led to some faultlines on the ground as well. Abhishek Atri, general secretary of the Congress’ youth wing in Delhi, told Scroll that Kuldeep Kumar, the AAP candidate in the East Delhi seat, had not been doing enough to ensure cooperation within the alliance.

“He has not reached out to Congress workers in our constituency,” Atri complained. “Even his hoardings do not feature photos of Congress leaders. As a result, Congress workers are not taking part in the campaign.”

A group of women volunteers of the AAP that Scroll met in the Shankar Nagar area of East Delhi also expressed concerns over lack of outreach on Kumar’s part. “Even though Lovely lost this seat, he has great ground presence among voters from the poorer sections in our locality,” said Taranpreet Kaur. “If we do not convince these voters, we could end up losing their support.”

Kaur’s neighbour Neerja joined in: “I have personally asked Kuldeep to include Congress leaders in his campaign but he has not.”

Neerja (extreme right) and Taranpreet Kaur (centre) are women volunteers of AAP in the East Delhi seat.

In the face of such local-level chinks in the alliance, the workers of the two parties are relying on matters of larger importance to consolidate the fight against the BJP. Kaur expressed confidence that women voters would vote for the alliance candidates because Kejriwal’s policies to provide cheap electricity and water supply has helped them curtail household expenses.

Sakshi Gupta, an AAP functionary in Kanhaiya Kumar’s North East Delhi seat, said that her party’s message to the voters was to vote to “save democracy and the social fabric of the country”.

Sakshi Gupta, an AAP functionary in the North East Delhi seat.

“The way Kejriwal ji has been put in jail shows the state of democracy in the country,” Gupta said. “This is not a fight of any one party but of the entire INDIA alliance.”

Leher Sethi, the campaign manager of Udit Raj, echoed a similar sentiment. “There were some initial reservations among Congress workers about allying with a party that took over power from our party,” Sethi said. “But this is a fight of two ideologies and leaders like Lovely have compromised with their ideology. In a way, this has strengthened the resolve of those who have stuck with our party.”