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Modi Looms Over India's Smallest Lok Sabha Seat

May 24, 2024 10:44 IST

'It is necessary to have a person at the top who can make strict decisions without hesitation. Modiji has done that.'

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party MP Manoj Tiwari addresses a roadshow in support of party candidate Praveen Khandelwal at Shalimar Bagh in Chandni Chowk, New Delhi, May 16, 2024. Photograph: Ishant/ANI Photo

In the bustling Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha constituency, each lane, each shop, and each vendor has a story to tell, a grievance to air, and a hope to share.

From inflation to weak demand, competition from e-commerce, GST rationalisation, and even the presumably muted political activity amid election heat, the issues here are as diverse as its electorate.

At a stone's throw from the famous Ghalib Ki Haveli in Ballimaran's Gali Qasim Jaan, Mohan Das, a 58-year-old rickshaw puller, takes a break from the scorching heat, his eyes momentarily leaving the mobile screen for a sip of water. "Is baar chunaav me koi yahan nahi aaya hai," he laments.


A few meters away, two brothers running a footwear shop echo his sentiment, claiming low footfall. "Inflation has broken our back," adds one of them.

Created in 1956, Chandni Chowk, the smallest Lok Sabha constituency in the country in terms of area, holds a special significance. It's a hub of economic activity, and its cultural and political significance, bolstered by a considerable population from minority communities, is unparalleled in Delhi. In other words, it's a microcosm of India's economic and political landscape.

The constituency comprises 10 assembly segments: Adarsh Nagar, Shalimar Bagh, Shakur Basti, Tri Nagar, Wazirpur, Model Town, Sadar Bazar, Chandni Chowk, Matia Mahal, and Ballimaran -- each with its unique set of challenges and aspirations.

For many in Chandni Chowk, Matia Mahal, and Ballimaran, the goods and services tax regime has simplified things, but its rationalisation remains a key issue. "It does not make sense to have 18 per cent GST on food items but 3 per cent on diamond jewellery," argues Mahender Gupta, a shop owner at Paranthe Wali Gali.

Also, inflation remains a major concern, with everyone from street vendors to big showroom owners complaining about its impact by underscoring weak demand.

"Last year, even demand during Diwali was not what it was 6-7 years ago," complains a vendor of lighting items at Bhagirath Palace. "Demand seems to have fallen after the Covid pandemic."

Their other gripe is e-tailers eating into their business by offering similar products at a lower price. "Everything has become online nowadays. Nobody wants to take the pain of coming here and buying things at a higher rate," says Raju Minocha, another shopkeeper at the same market.

In the heart of the Lok Sabha constituency, a palpable sense of uncertainty loomed over the popularity of the prominent candidates. Backed by the Aam Aadmi Party, the Congress has fielded Jai Prakash Agarwal, who has previously represented this constituency way back in 1984, 1989 and 1996. He is pitted against the BJP's Praveen Khandelwal, who is associated with the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT).

Yet, public sentiment in the bustling markets across the region leaned towards a government that could take "decisive" actions. Rakesh Gupta, proprietor of the 160-year-old Balaji Chaat Bhandar, located opposite the revered Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, offers a compelling analogy.

"Ek ghar me chaar maalik ho jaate hain toh ghar barbaad ho jaata hai, ye toh desh hai," he says, encapsulating the desire for a strong leadership.

This sentiment echoes through the narrow lanes of Dariba Kalan, where flags bearing the inscription 'Jai Shri Ram' flutter outside nearly every shopfront. This scene is replicated in Kinari Bazar, Krishna Market, and Khari Baoli.

A bookstore owner at Nai Sadak, emphasising the sense of security provided by the current central leadership, underscores: "There is security to us as long as he (Narendra Modi) is prime minister."

At the same time, the busy streets of Chandni Chowk are also whispering tales of change: The once chaotic main market has undergone a metamorphosis, its face altered by a redevelopment project that has breathed new life into its ancient veins.

IMAGE: Congress and Aam Aadmi Party joint candidate Jai Prakash Aggarwal goes on a door to door election campaign in Chandni Chowk, May 6, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

In September 2021, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal unveiled this transformation. A 1.3 km-long stretch, extending from the Red Fort to Fatehpuri Masjid, now gleams with red sandstone and granite. The area is adorned with benches and plants and security has been enhanced with the installation of CCTVs, besides it is a 'no-traffic zone' from 9 am to 9 pm.

This change has been welcomed by the market's patrons. Saroj, a shopper preparing for her daughter's wedding, expresses relief at the reduced chaos: "Now there is not much hassle on this road. Earlier we used to be worried about accidents with bikes and autorickshaws. But now coming here has become easier." Pramod Kumar adds to her comment, stating that the redevelopment had alleviated his "anxiety" about the crowd.

Rickshaw pullers, too, have found their lives eased by the changes. Mohammad Alam, who has been ferrying customers in this crowded locality for the past 23 years, says: "Abhi kisi se ladai nahi hoti hai (now we don't need to get into fights with anyone)."

Promising further evolution of this constituency, the BJP's Praveen Khandelwal has pledged to "comprehensive development" of the region if elected. His ambitious plans include a 200-bed multi-speciality hospital, a senior citizen recreation centre in every assembly segment, a startup incubation centre, and the uplift of people living in the slums.

"In light of the vision of the prime minister, my primary focus is on making life easier for people here," he tells Business Standard. Khandelwal, a local and secretary of the CAIT, was given the ticket after the incumbent MP, Dr Harsh Vardhan, decided to not contest the polls this year.

His opponent, Jai Prakash Agarwal criticised the BJP for lack of parliamentary questions about Chandni Chowk, calling it a "failure". He vows to focus equally on all 10 assembly seats, stating: "I have a list of 20 issues for 10 seats and for me, all of them are equal."

"They (BJP) haven't addressed any major issue of the place in the past 10 years," he adds.

This year, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party are contesting the elections in Delhi as a united front, with Agarwal affirming "complete cooperation" between the two parties.

In the residential assembly constituencies of this Lok Sabha seat, such as Model Town, Adarsh Nagar, and Shalimar Bagh, inflation remains a concern, but a significant number of residents also desire a PM who can stand against "foreign pressure".

Umesh Bhardwaj, a resident of Model Town, said: "It is necessary to have a person at the top who can make strict decisions without hesitation. Modiji has done that."

With the polling for all seven seats in Delhi approaching on May 25, will the BJP retain the seats, or will the winds of change usher in a major rejig? Only time will tell.

Raghav Aggarwal
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