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Delhi polls: In Muslim-dominated areas, Congress harps on CAA, AAP treads with caution

In places such as Okhla, the common refrain among AAP supporters is that "Kejriwal khul kar nahi aaya, par kaam toh kiya hai (chief minister Arvind) Kejriwal didn't openly support us on CAA, but he has done work”, hinting that the community might vote for Delhi’s ruling party.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 27, 2020, 12.35 PM IST
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NEW DELHI: As the Congress harps on the emotive issue of the citizenship law and national citizenship register in Delhi’s Muslim-dominated constituencies of Seelampur and Okhla, the Aam Aadmi Party is treading carefully on localised issues of garbage collection, reduced electricity bills, medical treatment and drinking water, avoiding direct confrontations over who is backing the anti-CAA-NRC protesters more.

In places such as Okhla, the common refrain among AAP supporters is that "Kejriwal khul kar nahi aaya, par kaam toh kiya hai [(chief minister Arvind) Kejriwal didn't openly support us on CAA, but he has done work]”, hinting that the community might vote for Delhi’s ruling party. The Congress, meanwhile, hopes that its strong anti-CAA-NRC stand would help it build on the support it got in the Lok Sabha elections, when the party came second in five of Delhi’s seven constituencies including North East Delhi and Chandni Chowk, which have a sizeable Muslim population.

Over the past seven years, while the AAP has successfully weaned away the Muslims, who have long been considered a traditional Congress vote bank, the community has also overwhelmingly voted for the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls.

The dilemma in the AAP over whether or not to take an open stand on CAA-NRC is most apparent in Seelampur, where Congress leader and former MLA Chaudhary Mateen Ahmed is seeking to gain from the sentiment among Muslims.

An army of workers, both Muslims and Hindu Gurjars, has been deployed to carry out his campaign. They tell Muslim voters how Chaudhary “saab” was fighting for their rights on the CAA issue, and the Hindus of Usmanpur, Gautampuri and Bhagatpuri about how he, as a Maula Gurjar, came forward to stop the demolition of a part of the Shyama Giri Temple in Shahdara. Another claim is how he, as a member of the Delhi Jal Board, got them “the water of the Ganga that is purer than the water of the Yamuna, which is coming into their houses now.”

According to his supporters, the locals are preventing AAP candidate and East Delhi councillor Abdur Rehman from campaigning in the constituency, showing him signs of “Go Back”, because of the party's lack of support for the anti-CAA-NRC protests.

Nearly 10,000 people had come out on the streets of Seelampur on December 17 when anti-CAA protests turned violent, leading to police firing. Both Chaudhary and Rehman were blamed for instigating the riots. Since then, around 70 women have been sitting on the Seelampur-Jaffrabad main road and have vowed to not leave until the Act is repealed.

"It is Chaudhary saab's dabanggai (aggression) that is standing between the police evacuating us … He has also given us a room full of mattress and quilts," said Guddu Chaudhary, a protester at the site who was quickly asked to shut up by other protesters. "This is a protest by the women of this area … No one should discredit them. They are the ones sitting day in and day out," said Tasmeel Ahmed. The protests began with a silent candlelight march but spread in due course of time, he said.

On Saturday, Chaudhary was in the Seelampur market attending a public meeting, feeding his voters bananas, samosas and hot tea, telling them that CAA-NRC would never come if they supported him. "I am supporting them, because they are my sisters. Today, in the whole country, it is the congress that is standing up for Muslims, against the BJP. In Delhi if the Congress cannot form the government, we will make sure that the government will not be formed without us," he told ET.

For some voters, however, Chaudhary is also the story of broken promises.

"On the main road there was no divider for many years and there would be a traffic jam all the time,” Abdur Rehman Jhandewalan, who sells plastic items in the Seelampur market, said, adding that the AAP had built it after it came to power. “I have in all saved Rs 6,000 on electricity (becasue of the AAP government’s policies). I consider my vote as already bought."

More than Rehman, the AAP candidate, his wife Asma, a former councillor herself, has been reaching out to the constituency. Among her achievements include transforming the "gadde-wala" (pot-holed) MCD primary school in Chauhan Bangar into a functional school with a park and a playground. "There is at least garbage collection once in two three days now … the place used to stink earlier," said Salma Mohammed, a homemaker.

The story is quite different in Okhla where the incumbent MLA, Amanatullah Khan of the AAP, has made it a point to go to Shaheen Bagh protests often, but at the same time, not making his campaign all about CAA-NRC.

He is seen in the constituency as someone who readily helps his people get medical treatment in hospitals such as Escorts and Apollo with just a letter. "Also, the lights have been put up. This used to be a dark place, and now there are much fewer power cuts too," Anwar Aslam, who drives a battery-operated autorickshaw, said.

Khan’s office is barely a few metres away from the Shaheen Bagh protest site. "I go there every day, I visited the students who were victims of police brutalities. I have given monetary help to whoever wants. This is as much as a fight for me as it is theirs," he said.

To send out a message of solidarity but also not make it flashpoint, he has kept his campaign low profile, taking only five people to fill up his nomination. "I am doing over 15 indoor meetings everyday … there is a little bit of water problem here which I have promised to solve. The sewer lines are already being put in place," he told ET.

Just a little away, former Congress MLA Asif Mohammed, who was denied the ticket this time from Okhla, was seen talking to his supporters about the chances of Congress candidate Parvez Hashmi and BJP’s Brahma Singh, who was earlier with the BSP. Mohammed was detained by police on Wednesday for about eight hours, for his alleged involvement in violence in Ashram.

"Kejriwal na aaya na bola … this has really disappointed the people of Okhla that has been the place of origin of the anti-CAA protests, be it Jamia or Shaheen Bagh. This is the 90s, when some students of Jamia Millia Islamia faced attacks from outside elements, leading to police force entering the campus, beating innocent students, Sheila Dikshit, and more Congress leaders reached the campus to know the situation on the ground. That healing was missing from the CM this time," said Mohammed.

Congress candidate Hashmi is a four-time MLA and former transport and PWD minister in the Sheila Dikshit government. According to some party workers, he has influence in more pockets of the constituency with over three lakh voters, than Mohammed.

"The centre of the protests has been Shaheen Bagh where the sentiment of anger has been growing every day, particularly because no government delegation has come to meet us … On January 12, there was a fake news that became viral that an UN team is visiting the camp, so nearly 50 buses came from western UP. This place is not restricted to local politics anymore but the voters will vote intelligently," said Samar Faizuddin, a 45-year-old former government employee in Kalindi Kunj.

While a little over 11% of Delhi’s population is Muslim, five of 70 assembly segments have a Muslim population of 40% or more. These are Walled City’s Ballimaran, Matia Mahal and Chandni Chowk constituencies, Okhla and Seelampur. Five other constituencies — Rithala, Shahdara, Seemapuri, Babarpur and Mustafabad also have a significant Muslim population.

Sanjeer Alam of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies said while CAA-NRC is an important issue for the Muslims, in Delhi, it was likely that the community would go for a "performance-based" decision. "There are pockets where the Congress has fielded strong Muslim candidates. That might impact the AAP slightly. But overall the community does not seem to mind that the AAP is not aggressively backing the anti-CAA protests."

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