As the campaign intensifies for the Delhi Assembly election scheduled for February 8, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have attempted to fuel their campaign with high-octane nationalist issues, consistently mentioning passionate protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act that has been underway in the Shaheen Bagh locality for more than a month in their speeches and media interviews.

The amended Act fast tracks citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Critics fear that this along with the National Register of Citizens proposed by the BJP government could be used as a tool to harass Indian Muslims.

The protest at Shaheen Bagh has stood out from other demonstrations across India because it has been led mostly by Muslim women from the neighbourhood. They have been sitting on the road, swaddling their children in the winters, refusing to budge.

The BJP has not yet declared its chief ministerial candidate for Delhi. So far, its campaign has heavily relied on the personal appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and on national issues such as revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the promise to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya and amending the citizenship law.

On January 26, Union Home Minister Amit Shah asked the audience at a campaign meeting to “press the button with such anger that the current is felt at Shaheen Bagh”. Shah told the audience that their vote to the BJP could keep the “country safe and prevent thousands of incidents like Shaheen Bagh”.

Other BJP leaders have followed suit. On Tuesday, BJP MP Parvesh Verma claimed that protestors from Shaheen Bagh would enter citiezens’ homes and “rape their sisters and daughters and kill them”.

BJP MP Parvesh Verma with Union Home Minister Amit Shah at a roadshow on January 23. CreditL PTI

However, several voters across Delhi who spoke to said that they had not even heard of Shaheen Bagh, adding that it was not an election issue for them. Instead, they said that the government should focus on fixing the economy and creating employment.

“The biggest weakness is to be poor in India,” said DK Chaurasia, a 35-year-old shopkeeper who was among those who said that theyhad not heard of the Shaheen Bagh protests. Chaurasia is a resident and voter in West Delhi’s Uttam Nagar and said that his biggest concern was his work. “The business should be running properly but demonetisation really affected it,” he said.

‘We are in a very bad condition’

Over the past month, Shaheen Bagh has inspired women across India to start similar sit-ins. The places in which Shaheen Bagh-style protests are underway include Kolkata, Mumbai, Pne Allahabad, Gaya, Patna and Hyderabad.

These protestors have come in for intense criticism from BJP leaders. At a press conference on January 27, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claimed that Shaheen Bagh was offering a platform to the “tukde tukde gang”, a term coined by the BJP to malign its critics as people working to balkanise India.

It isn’t clear how effective this strategy will prove as the BJP tries to wrest the state from the Aam Aadmi Party. Among those who claimed to be unfamiliar with the locality and its significance was 32-year-old sales executive Mithilesh Kumar. He said he was more alarmed by the rising prices of commodities, adding that politicians were “creating issues to divide the public”.

Kumar lives in South Delhi’s Palam area. Just like Chaurasia, his main concern was unemployment. “I am tired of filling forms for government jobs,” he said. “Most of the people in my family are government servants. But there are no government jobs for my generation.”

Jobs are scarce even for those with the appropriate educational qualifications, Kumar said. “My wife is highly qualified but she works with a bank on a contract basis,” he said. “All my colleagues have masters’ degrees but we are all in the same job. What is this? I do not even have enough money to buy a small plot of land. We are in a very bad condition.”

A protestor at Shaheen Bagh. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Another voter said though he had heard about the nationwide protests against the citizenship initiatives, he had not heard about with the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh. “I do not know anything about it and why would I lie?” asked Anant Kumar Ojha, a 40-year-old who sells socks around West Delhi’s Kirti Nagar. “Those who protest have their own thinking but that does not mean that they are wrongBut I will not get any benefits by joining the protest.”

Ojha lives in North West Delhi’s Rohini and declared that the main issue for these elections is unemployment. “Logo ko apni rozi roti ki baat karni hai,” said Ojha. People want to talk about matters related to their daily bread. “What will people do if they cannot run shops like me? Everyone knows that there has been a rise in unemployment since Modi came.”

‘Only thinking of economy’

Some voters said that they had heard about Shaheen Bagh and criticised the protestors for blocking a main road. “If a law has been passed then it means that the whole country has to abide by it,” said 35-year-old Amandeep Singh, an entrepreneur. Singh said he had to pass through the area on his daily commute to work and had seen the protest. “I do not find what they are doing relevant,” he said.

Singh also heard about Amit Shah’s comments about Shaheen Bagh and agreed with them. “This [the protest] is creating a wrong impression,” he said. “What is the point of sitting on the road?”

However, Singh, who votes in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, said that Shaheen Bagh was not a priority for him on the list of electoral issues. “I am only thinking about the economy,” said Singh, who runs a dairy business.

The governments at the Centre and state-level had to make fixing the economy a priority, he said. “How do they plan on using that RBI money?” he said, referring to the record transfer of Rs 1.76 trillion by the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s central bank, to the government in August 2019.

Singh also criticised the media and the political parties for “taking advantage of the protests”. “The TV channels are talking Pakistan all the time,” he said. “What is this rubbish? Pakistan cannot do anything. They themselves are facing problems.”

Singh supported the amended Citizenship Act but said that it would not help the economy. The protests, he claimed, were a distraction from it. “The cash flow is down,” he said. “The demand is down. Our economy is very vulnerable. We survived the recession in 2009 but what will we do if something happens now?”