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'Kejriwal is poor, he will look after the poor'

By Sahil Makkar and Anjali Puri
Last updated on: February 12, 2015 11:47 IST
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The Aam Aadmi Party’s promises of reduction in electricity, gas prices, and protection from harassment from the police helped the party secure the votes of the underclass, which eventually led to their landslide victory, observe Sahil Makkar and Anjali Puri.

AAP's Arvind Kejriwal interacts with an elderly man while out on his campaign trail. Photograph: AAP/Facebook

Ramesh Kumar, 42, has been selling orange juice at a roadside kiosk on a busy road in East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar for more than 20 years. It only takes a few minutes of conversation to understand how vehemently he feels the Bharatiya Janata Party is a party that rides rough-shod over vulnerable people, trying to eke a living in a harsh metropolis. He winces when he recalls its previous reigns in the city and at the Centre, when, he says, hawkers were sent off the streets to clear encroachments.

The BJP did not factor in the fear and loathing for the police among members of the capital’s underclass when it declared Kiran Bedi the party’s chief ministerial candidate in the election. Kumar and other street vendors in various East Delhi localities believed Bedi would make it difficult for them to earn their living.

”The BJP did not give us any assurance either that things would be different,” says Kumar. Nearby sits Pannu Singh, a migrant from Bihar. He sells socks and handkerchiefs on the stairs of a big shop near the Laxmi Nagar Metro station.

“Twice, AAP supporters came to me and asked about my problems. I was really touched. They even gave me their phone number and said I could call if I had a problem. The BJP people didn’t care to stop by while passing through,” says Singh. He echoes what many exuberant vendors on this stretch have to say: “A party of the poor has won the Delhi elections for the first time.”

As one moves among low income people in the aftermath of the party’s stunning victory in this election, it becomes clear how much leg-work has gone into consolidating, over three elections, AAP’s hold over the capital’s underclass, which according to the National Sample Survey Office constitutes 60 per cent of Delhi’s 17 million population.

Full coverage: Battle for Delhi

Reduction in electricity and gas prices, and relief from harassment by police and civic agencies during Arvind Kejriwal’s 49-day tenure as chief minister provided fertile ground for the party’s volunteers to mount their campaign. February 14, 2014, was not only the day that Kejriwal resigned. It was also the day, many tell you, when policemen appeared again to demand their monthly hafta (protection money).

”The very next day, the beat constable not only took Rs 500 for the current month, but also collected arrears for the previous month, saying Kejriwal was no longer in power and we had to pay like we did earlier,” says Mehboob Ali, who sells peanuts and popcorn from a cart.

Residents of nearby East Angad Nagar describe how policemen resumed the practice of soliciting money from people constructing houses. In government offices, too, the customary demand for bribes resumed. Kejriwal, during his first term between December 2013 and February 2014, had suspended many Delhi government employees for corruption.

In several instances, ordinary citizens recorded bribe demands made by government staff on their mobile phones, and passed these on the city government for action.

With AAP’s spectacular win, expectations are sky-high. Priorities differ even amongst the poorest because luck and location have played their part in determining the extent to which migrants are able to find a life of dignity in a city like Delhi.

In a cluster of around 150 jhuggis near the Kali Bari, in Kejriwal’s New Delhi constituency, hopes are clearly centred around one issue -- a permanent house, with a title deed.

Residents of this area, mainly workers in service jobs, were allotted homes in Dwarka and Bawana by the previous Congress government in Delhi. Despite the distance from their places of work, most agreed to move to end the insecurity of jhuggi life, and even raised the money to pay for the allotment, Rs 72,000 for general category applications, Rs 26,000 for those in the Scheduled Caste category.

Since then, most have run themselves ragged from one government office to another to secure the documents demanded from them. However, they are still to get their homes. Most of them voted for the Congress in the 2008 elections but some began to look for options in 2013. Many voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. “Modi did nothing for eight months. Our lives did not change,” complains Dharmendra Kumar, a daily wager.

Many of Kali Bari’s residents were won over when volunteers of that party began to move around the constituency as soon as the Lok Sabha elections were over to seek suggestions for disbursement of Kejriwal’s MLA’s fund of Rs 5 crore.

Those in the Kali Bari cluster might well get their homes now but can AAP transform the lives of a thousand-odd labourer-families who have been subsisting, for the past five years, in the jhuggi cluster of Ghiaspur, in a neglected clearing off Mathura Road in south Delhi. These migrants from UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, are leading lives of almost pre-industrial misery near upscale Delhi neighbourhoods.

The promises made by parties during the election to the urban poor -- cheaper electricity, free water, free sewer lines, etc -- mean nothing to them. Electricity is illegally supplied, and bulbs are routinely smashed by BSES workers when bribes of around Rs 300 a month are not paid. Water comes only through a hand pump, and is brackish. Illegal homes, with mud walls and roofs of straw and polythene, have been destroyed time and again by the police. They have had to pay bribes to rebuild them.

All adults work here, the men as daily wage labourers, gantry operators and the like for salaries in the range of Rs 6,000-7,000 a month, the women as maids and cleaners for around Rs 3,000 or so. Most voted Congress in the previous Delhi election; this time, it was AAP. If you ask why, they point to their surroundings.

”Kejriwal is poor himself; he will look after the poor,” says Anita Devi, a migrant from Bihar. What can the AAP do for them? The women of Ghiaspur, who switch on their mobile phones for light so that we can converse in the darkness, are not short of words. They want proper homes that no one can demolish, drinking water, regular electricity, toilets and a school near enough, so their children need not cross an arterial road teeming with traffic. Ghiaspur, a distillation of urban misery, would be the place to visit a year on to judge whether AAP has met the aspirations that propelled it to power.

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Sahil Makkar and Anjali Puri
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