On March 25, on the sidelines of an Aam Aadmi Party rally in Delhi, Harish Kumar, 50, sought more clarity on what full statehood meant. “Does it mean that all the Biharis who come here for jobs will leave?” asked Kumar, who runs a photo studio in New Delhi’s Karol Bagh. “What is the benefit of this for us?”

He elaborated: “The biggest issue for us is unemployment. If we get full statehood, will there be more vacancies? [Narendra] Modi also spoke about jobs but we did not get any. I am a graduate, but I did not get a job and I opened a studio. I do not want the same for my children who have completed higher education.”

The Aam Aadmi Party’s main campaign plank in Delhi for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections is the demand for full statehood. In rallies held in the city since March, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and other AAP leaders have repeatedly made this demand.

With the 69th Constitution Amendment Act, 1991, Delhi got a popularly elected Assembly and a chief minister. However, the chief minister does not have executive power over the key areas of police, public order and land.

“We have to take permission from the Central government for everything,” Kejriwal said at a rally in East Delhi’s Trilokpuri on March 24. “Other states do not have to do this. We asked why, they said because Delhi is not a full state. So we said then make it one…why is Delhi a half state? Don’t we pay income tax? Delhi residents pay the maximum income tax to the government.”

But what convinced AAP to focus on this issue in a national election?

According to AAP’s Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha candidate Pankaj Gupta, the matter was first highlighted by its workers when the party started preparing for its election campaign in August. “This was in the feedback we received from those in charge of their constituencies and volunteers,” Gupta said. “People complained about housing for which we need land, unemployment and education. These are all linked to full statehood. We cannot interfere in these matters because of the Centre.”

However, it is not certain if the demand resonates with Delhi’s voters. The National Capital goes to the polls on May 12, in the sixth phase of voting.

Scroll.in asked voters across the Capital if full statehood mattered to them. Most of them said that unemployment was a bigger concern, while others cited matters like demonetisation and safety.

‘Bigger issues’

Mohammad Sajjad, 45, attended Kejriwal’s rally on March 24 in Trilokpuri, East Delhi. A resident of the area, he said he first heard about the demand for full statehood 15 years ago when Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit made mention of it. “Full statehood means everything under the chief minister,” Sajjad said. “Our mohalla clinic is operating from a rented space. Our MP Maheish Girri did not give a plot for it. If we had full statehood we would not be facing this problem.”

Another resident of Trilokpuri, who was also present at the March 24 rally, said that he heard about full statehood for the first time at the rally itself. “I will not vote on the basis of full statehood,” said Mohammad Alam, 28, who works as a driver. “They have just made it into an issue for votes. I just want brotherhood and I will vote for that.”

According to Ram Pal, 69, a retired officer, unemployment is a bigger issue. “It is an election issue [statehood],” admitted Pal, a resident of South Delhi’s Malviya Nagar. “But even if we get it, what will happen? The government is very weak and there is just no will to improve our situation. Even if we get full statehood, nothing will happen of it.”

Pradeep Kumar, 51, a trader, eagerly listened to Rajya Sabha MP and AAP leader Sanjay Singh’s speech at his rally in Karol Bagh on March 25.

Singh made a pitch for full statehood during the rally, linking it to the “sealing issue” that, between December 2017 and January, saw the shuttering of at least 10,533 commercial units running from illegal spaces in the city.

But Kumar did not seem convinced by Singh’s pitch. “It is very difficult for Delhi to get statehood because it is the Capital,” he said.

Kumar said there are bigger issues that plague residents of Delhi. “Demonetisation ruined us,” said Kumar. “Education, safety and unemployment are other issues that need more importance. People still don’t understand the meaning of full statehood so it is not that big an issue just yet.”

Sheela Devi, 70, a shopkeeper in Karol Bagh, whose shop was at the periphery of the rally, just wanted her pension to be started again. “I will vote to get my pension,” she said. “My pension stopped coming under Modi’s rule. That is what I need the most now.”

Arvind Kejriwal with AAP East Delhi Lok Sabha candidate Atishi at a rally. (Photo credit: AAP media cell).

How the demand began

The demand to grant Delhi full statehood is not new. At the core of the issue is Article 239 AA of the Constitution, which gives Delhi the special character of a Union Territory, with a Legislative Assembly that has a lieutenant governor as its administrative head.

While in power in Delhi, both the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998 and Congress governments from 2000 till 2015 had demanded statehood. However, both parties have now avoided supporting AAP on the matter.

Delhi Congress spokesperson Jitender Kochhar said full statehood was not an concern for the party. “We raised the issue earlier and we did not get it [statehood],” Kochhar said. “But it does not mean that we do not continue to work. Sheila Dikshit continued to work without it for 15 years. It is not an issue that voters can relate to.”

The Hindustan Times reported on March 14 that Delhi BJP chief and North East Delhi MP Manoj Tiwari criticised Kejriwal for raising the issue just before the elections. Scroll.in attempted to contact Tiwari but he did not respond to phone calls.

After AAP won the Assembly elections in Delhi in 2015, it clashed with the Centre on several issues such as land, law and order and administration of the services department, which resulted in a legal battle.

In February, the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict on the issue. The court referred the matter over jurisdiction of the services department to a larger bench while also ruling that the Anti-Corruption Bureau would come under the Union government. It said other aspects like appointing special public prosecutors, making electricity reforms and revision rates for agricultural land would lie in the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government.

What experts say

Though experts agreed the the demand for statehood was a valid one, they were sceptical about whether it would resonate with voters.

“The Aam Aadmi Party’s decision to make full statehood of Delhi a campaign issue is neither novel nor electorally rewarding,” said Praveen Rai, a political analyst at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.

Pradip Datta, a professor who teaches at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that he was unsure if the demand worked as an issue for a national election. “I am sceptical as to whether it will have much purchase in a national election where the stakes on who will form the next government at the Centre is very high,” he said.

Rai argued that voters in Delhi had other concerns, and another narrative would dominate the elections. “The voters in Delhi are more concerned about governance and AAP will be judged on how far it has succeeded in providing good governance,” he said. “The party’s strategy of linking issues such as sealing, law and order and land makes a valid ground for full statehood. However, this issue will not resonate with the voters, as BJP’s nationalism narrative will dominate the elections.”

Datta differed on this point. He said that while issues like sealing and land were important, they would not resonate with AAP’s core constituency. “But given the fact that AAP’s core constituency are the lower classes, I would have thought that they would have linked statehood to new social welfare objectives in addition to schooling and health,” he said.

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