At around 12 pm on Wednesday, a man in his 20s was giving the final touches to three large posters that lay on a pavement outside 14, Pandit Pant Marg, the headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi unit in the Capital. The posters bore the images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and the party’s Delhi unit chief, Manoj Tiwari, along with the message “Bhajpa ki prachanda jeet par Delhi ko naman” For the BJP’s fierce win, we bow before Delhi)

Forty-five minutes later, the BJP was leading the vote count for the municipal elections, which were held on Sunday, in 65 seats in the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, 49 seats in the East corporation and 68 in the South corporation. The final results were yet to be declared.

On the party office premises, Tiwari addressed a small gathering of BJP members and media personnel inside a saffron tent. His speech was not yet over when Union Minister for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and Information and Broadcasting Venkaiah Naidu walked in and announced to those gathered, “The major victory of BJP [in the Delhi municipal polls] is yet another indication of the mood of the nation, which wants development across the country under the leadership of Narendra Modi.”

Minutes later, a group of volunteers took out a victory march outside the office – a rather subdued affair compared to the celebrations that followed the party’s win in Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and other states last month. The volunteers were under instructions to keep the celebrations low-key in deference to the killing of 25 soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force by Maoists in Chhattisgarh on Monday.

By evening, the final result justified the BJP’s premature celebration: the party had swept the municipal elections with 181 of the 270 seats in the three corporations, 43 seats more than in the last civic elections in 2012. The Aam Aadmi Party managed to bag 48 seats, and the Congress 30.

A poster celebrating the BJP's win in the Delhi civic polls gets a finishing touch. Credit: Abhishek Dey

Sanitation stalemate

Around 13 km away, outside the office of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation in Patparganj, around a dozen sanitation workers staged a sit-in protest over unpaid wages under the hot afternoon sun. “It is the 112th day of our protest and for the past one month, we tried keeping the protest low-key to ensure that the law and order situation does not get disrupted ahead of the municipal elections,” said Sanjay Gehlot, president of the MCD Swachh Karamchari Union. “But we shall continue as long as our pending wages are not paid.”

The BJP has ruled Delhi’s municipal corporations for 10 years. And its victory signals a continuation of the three-way stalemate between the East corporation’s 23,000-odd sanitation workers and other employees – such as teachers of municipal schools, doctors and attendants at municipal hospitals – the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party government. It also indicates more trouble ahead for residents of East Delhi, who have had to put up with piles of stinking garbage on arterial roads because of frequent strikes by sanitation workers.

Of the city’s three municipal bodies, which came into being with the trifurcation of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in 2012, the East corporation is the most troubled. It has failed to pay its employees on multiple occasions, citing low revenue generation from house tax and advertisements. In the last two years, the city has witnessed five major strikes by sanitation workers. The last one, in January, ended after the Delhi government released an advance of Rs 119 crores to the East corporation. The amount, however, was insufficient to settle the dues at that stage.

At the centre of the controversy is the Fourth Delhi Finance Commission report, which was tabled in the state Assembly in 2015, nearly three years after it was submitted to the state government. The BJP has been demanding that the Aam Aadmi Party government implement its recommendations, which would lead to the civic bodies receiving a higher percentage of the taxes collected by the state government. The Delhi government, on the other hand, is adamant on delaying the same till the Centre increases Delhi’s share from central taxes.

Who is to blame?

“So far, the sanitation workers are still to receive wages for two months, let alone pending arrears in adherence to the recommendation of the Delhi Finance Commission report,” said Rajendra Mewati, president of the Delhi Pradesh Safai Mazdoor Union. “Now after BJP’s win, it seems like there is no hope for us. We fail to understand how the same leaders who have failed us for 10 years can now say that they will solve the crisis in three months.”

However, Sanjay Gehlot of the MCD Swachh Karamchari Union holds the Delhi government responsible for the crisis in the municipal corporations.

There are around eight municipal workers unions in the city, of which two are directly or indirectly associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh – tghe ideological parent of the BJP – and the Congress, while the others claim to be politically independent.

Though municipal workers have not struck work since January, the sit-in protest outside the East corporation quietly continues with sanitation workers joining it in rotation after their day’s work is done. Most days, there are not more than 20-30 protestors at any point of time, said a participant who did not want to be identified.

Though their numbers may be small at the moment, they are a reminder that another crippling strike may not be too far away.

Inside the Delhi BJP office, a tribute to CRPF soldiers killed in a Maoist ambush in Chhattisgarh. Credit: Abhishek Dey