NEW DELHI - Voters in the Indian capital city headed to the polls Saturday in a local election that will gauge the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government as it vows to press ahead with a controversial new citizenship law.
The poll for the state government in Delhi is Modi’s first electoral test after approval of the legislation, which critics call anti-Muslim, sparked nationwide protests.
As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tries to wrest control of the city government from the Aam Aadmi or “common man’s” party, it has made the protests against the citizenship law the centerpiece of a polarizing campaign. The law fast tracks nationality for non-Muslim immigrants from three neighboring countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
One of the most high-profile demonstrations against the law is being spearheaded by women in a Muslim neighborhood in Delhi.
Modi called the protests part of a “political design” and a “conspiracy” as his party sought to whip up sentiments among its Hindu base. Other BJP leaders accused protest leaders of trying to break up the country.
“The BJP believes that one way they could win voters is by coming up with a very strong, shrill nationalism agenda,” says Sandeep Shastri, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Jain University and coordinator of Lokniti, a political research group. “In desperation to be able to dislodge the ruling party, any means and every means seems to be OK to take it forward.”
Whether voters were swayed the party’s nationalistic pitch will be known on Tuesday, when votes are counted.
The stakes in Delhi are high for Modi’s BJP – although it won an impressive victory in national elections last May, it has lost a string of state elections since December 2018 shrinking its presence at the state level.
Unlike the BJP, the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party is hoping to win on its record of improving school education and healthcare facilities and providing cheap electricity and water to low-income groups.
In the city of 20 million people, many women lined up at election booths to cast votes said that development issues were of prime importance.
In a low-income area of the Indian capital where open drains flow and families are crowded in tiny tenements, Neelam Devi was satisfied because the water supply had improved and household electricity bills had come down.
A 90-year-old woman, Kanta Wazir, who came on a wheelchair to vote, said the bad condition of the city’s roads was of paramount importance to her. And in what is regarded as one of the world’s most unsafe cities for women, a chartered accountant Lopa Verma, said the most important issue was improving women’s safety and education for lower strata of society.
Others were weighing the Hindu nationalist pitch raised by the BJP including the citizenship law. “Indian culture embraces all the people come here. We don’t want this country to become Syria or Yemen or Afghanistan or Iran for that matter, said civil engineer S.S.P. Sinha as he came out after casting his vote. “We want to remain a secular country.”
Supporters of the BJP turned out as well. "BJP has a reputation for good governance and is a strong party. I am very satisfied with the work they have been doing in the country," says Rajeev Kohli, a former army officer.
Political analysts say the election in Delhi would have a “national echo.” A poor showing for Modi’s BJP in the capital would be another setback at the state level and would galvanize a weakened and fragmented opposition.
On the other hand, a win for Modi would further embolden his BJP to press ahead with a Hindu nationalist agenda that it has pursued aggressively since he won a second term in May last year – the government has scrapped the special status of Muslim majority Kashmir and is preparing to build a grand temple on a site where a mosque once stood.
“The question to be seen is how much will the shrillness of this campaign by the BJP help in cutting down the huge advantage with which the Aam Aadmi Party began,” says political analyst Shastri. “And if it will be enough to unseat the ruling government.”