Civic elections in Delhi have usually gone unnoticed in the past, generating little or no interest among the people. The voter turnout has never been known to be high and the campaign has generally been low-key.

But Sunday’s election to the three municipal corporations of Delhi has turned out to be like no previous election. Never before has the Capital witnessed the kind of frenzied activity for a corporation election that it has these last three weeks.

All the political players – the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party – have upped the ante and run hectic campaigns as this election is a high-stakes battle for each of them. With the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party posing a serious threat to the two national parties, the BJP and the Congress have made a determined effort to derail the new party. On its part, the Aam Aadmi Party has fought back valiantly in its bid to consolidate on the gains it made in the 2015 Delhi elections, when it came to power by winning 67 of the 70 seats in the Assembly.

Flush from its victory in Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and four other states as well as in local elections in Maharashtra and Odisha held between February and April, the BJP was in no mood to cede ground to any other party. It went into this election with the same killer instinct it displayed in the earlier polls. The panchayat polls in Odisha, where it emerged the second largest party, were important for the BJP because it wants to expand its footprint in that state. The Maharashtra civic polls – where it was victorious in eight of the 10 municipal corporations in February and then wrested the Latur civic body from the Congress on Friday – were also crucial because the BJP wanted to put its warring ally, the Shiv Sena, in its place and underline that it is the senior partner in the state.

BJP fights anti-incumbency

The Delhi corporation elections are equally critical for the BJP and especially so for party president Amit Shah. He has obviously not forgotten that it was the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party that cut short the BJP’s winning streak in the 2015 Assembly polls, when the party won a paltry three seats in the House of 70 members after a string of electoral victories starting with the general elections in 2014. Shah had personally supervised the Delhi elections while Prime Minister Narendra Modi had run an extensive campaign.

It has, therefore, become a prestige issue for the BJP to retain its hold over the municipal corporations in Delhi. Not only will this help the party in the next Assembly election but, more importantly, it will stop the Aam Aadmi Party from spreading its wings.

Consequently, Shah took it upon himself to micro-manage the Delhi civic polls. He kickstarted the campaign last month with a convention for party workers, set up a special committee comprising Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman, Jitendra Singh and Sanjeev Balyan to monitor the elections, and pulled out a host of Central ministers, chief ministers and state leaders for the campaign.

Realising that the party faces massive anti-incumbency after 10 years in power, Shah decided that no sitting councillor would be given a ticket. Although this move led to a lot of resentment among those denied tickets, the BJP president believed this would help the party stave off charges of corruption and mismanagement by its political opponents. He was also convinced that the rumblings among the cadre would fail to make any serious impact because Brand Modi would carry them through this election.

Both the BJP and the Congress have hired flash mobs for their campaigns. (Sonu Mehta / HT)

Congress in it for revival

If the BJP has shown determination to notch up another victory by winning the Delhi civic polls, the Congress has also run a high-pitched campaign, seeing this election as an opportunity to revive the party and retain its political relevance. The party has been pushed to the margins since its rout in the last Assembly polls, when it failed to win even a single seat. This was particularly galling for the Congress since it had been in power in Delhi for a record three terms.

The Congress believes it has a chance to stage a comeback, especially after its performance in the bye-election in Rajouri Garden last month, where it came second with a higher vote share than the last time. However, the Congress has not pitched its ambitions too high. It realises it has a long way to go before it can come back to power. For the moment, it would like to use the municipal election to improve its position so that it is seen as the main Opposition party.

This election is especially important for Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken, who has been given the task of reviving the party in the Capital. As a contender for the chief minister’s post, this election is a major personal challenge for Maken as it will determine the future trajectory of his political career.

Like the BJP, the Congress also involved its senior leaders in the campaign. While Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi launched the campaign last month with a public rally at the Ramlila Grounds, the party fielded former finance minister P Chidambaram to release its roadmap to make the three corporations sustainable while former Union ministers Shashi Tharoor, Jairam Ramesh and Salman Khurshid were also involved in the exercise. Senior leaders also fanned out to different parts of the city to interact with morning walkers on issues such as public health and education services.

AAP seeking more control

As in the case of the Congress, Arvind Kejriwal’s party also has a lot riding on Sunday’s municipal election. It is contesting these polls for the first time after it swept the Delhi Assembly elections two years ago. After its outstanding debut, one would expect the Aam Aadmi Party to be the natural choice of Delhi citizens in the civic polls. But the party’s halo has dimmed considerably.

Although it has substantial support among the poor, its ambitious plans to expand outside Delhi didn’t fructify as it failed to live up to expectations in the recent Assembly elections in Punjab and was a non-starter in Goa. This was followed by its humiliating defeat in the Rajouri Garden bye-poll, where its candidate not only lost his deposit but placed third after the BJP and the Congress. Since its plans to go national came a cropper, the Aam Aadmi Party has to necessarily wrest the municipal corporations from the BJP if it is to tighten its grip over Delhi and be viewed as a serious political player and not just a temporary phenomenon.