Uncertainty over allying with the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi seems to be hurting the Congress. While AAP and the Bharatiya Janata Party are already out campaigning for the general election, the Congress is holding back until its central leadership makes a final decision about the prospective alliance.
“That may be so,” said PC Chacko, who oversees the Congress’s affairs in Delhi, when asked whether the delay in launching the campaign was because of uncertainty over partnering with AAP. “I don’t know when but we will come out with a decision in a few days. The election dates have been announced so we cannot carry this forward for longer. But this has to be decided by Rahul Gandhi.”
Delhi votes in the sixth phase on May 12.
Delhi Congress president and former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit did not respond to phone calls or text messages asking for comment.
Talks for an alliance between AAP and the Congress have been full of suspense, and confusion. On February 21, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of AAP said he was “tired of convincing” the Congress to form an alliance to defeat the BJP. The same day, Dikshit claimed Kejriwal had never spoken to her about forming a partnership.
AAP declared its candidates for six of Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats on March 2, claiming Rahul Gandhi had rejected an alliance with the party at an Opposition meeting in February.
On March 5, Dikshit said the Congress would fight the election on its own in Delhi. “The decision was taken in the presence of Rahul Gandhi, it is final,” she added. To this, Kejriwal alleged the Congress had a “secret understanding” with the BJP.
Yet, Dikshit met Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, on March 9 to discuss, according to The Indian Express, the pros and cons of allying with AAP.
Two days later, addressing a public meeting of Congress workers and volunteers in the national Capital, Gandhi hinted there would not be an alliance with AAP, saying the party has to “win all seven seats in Delhi”.
On March 13, the Congress sent a message through Shakti, its mobile app, to around 52,000 workers and volunteers in Delhi seeking their views on allying with AAP, The Times of India reported. The results of this exercise are yet to be declared. The survey, though, brought out the rift within the Delhi Congress. Dikshit questioned the validity of the survey while Ajay Maken, her predecessor, said it was “Rahul Gandhi’s decision”.
On March 17, AAP declared its candidate for the remaining seat of West Delhi, nominating the lawyer Balbir Singh Jakhar.
The uncertainty means that even though the polling day is less than two months away, the Congress is yet to roll out its campaign. Members of the party’s publicity and campaign committees said they have been meeting workers and volunteers at the district level, but are waiting for the candidates list to come out to actually start canvassing.
“We will not know much until the candidates list is out,” said Jitendar Kochhar, the Congress’s spokesperson in Delhi and convener of its publicity committee. “We have given out quotations for hoardings but we still can’t do much. The Delhi unit doesn’t want an alliance but we are just waiting for the final decision to be made on that.”
Surender Sethia, a member of the campaign committee, said, “Lists of booth workers have been prepared. Every booth will have 10 workers assigned to it. But the block meetings are yet to start. If there is an alliance, the lists would have to be changed.”
The chief of the party’s publicity committee in Delhi sought to play down the delay. “Alliance talks are still on but we aren’t really being delayed by them,” said Sumesh Shaukeen. “There is still time for Delhi to go to polls.”
Shaukeen, however, added that guidelines are “yet to come” from the leadership about “what all we need to keep in mind as the Model Code of Conduct is in place”.
Stealing a march
While the Congress is dithering, AAP and the BJP are implementing their campaign strategies on the ground.
AAP had already appointed a leader to oversee election preparations in each of the seven constituencies last year, said the party’s Delhi convenor Gopal Rai. In October 2018, the party started a “door-to-door campaign” to reach out to voters and collect donations from them, with Kejriwal claiming his was a “bankrupt party”.
“Since the beginning of this year we have held meetings of volunteers in all seven constituencies,” Rai said. “In March, we launched our campaign for full statehood which is our main issue this election. “The star campaigners of the party will start addressing rallies after March 17. Every Lok Sabha candidate will have their own rallies, meetings and marches in their constituencies.”
AAP and the BJP burnt each other’s election manifestos on March 14, after the former accused the latter of going back on its promise from the last campaign of giving Delhi full statehood. The BJP in turn accused AAP of making “false promises”.
The BJP started implementing its “Alp Kalik Vistarak Yojana” in February, said Manoj Tiwari, who heads the party in Delhi. “There will be one person, a vistarak, in charge of each constituency and they will supervise 52 volunteers, placed in 14 districts, 70 Assembly seats and 280 wards,” Tiwari said, explaining the programme. “We will be campaigning on how Delhi’s government has not been able to implement Ayushman Bharat scheme, the 10% economically weaker section quota as well as high rates of water and electricity and restrictions on the sale of liquor to hotels and bars.”
The saffron party, however, is “having some trouble getting volunteers to work in areas dominated by the Muslim community,” Tiwari added.