NEW DELHI: The last time Seelampur was in the news, was when the National Investigation Agency and the Anti-Terrorism Squad carried out a series of December “raids” in Delhi. These were intended, authorities said, to bust a fresh module of the Islamic State, the Harkatul Harbe Islam or the Islamic War Movement.
A country-made rocket launcher was reportedly recovered from Seelampur, and authorities also declared that they had foiled plans involving remote controlled bombs and suicide vests for terror attacks across the country. A number of arrests were made. The news disappeared.
A busy highway divides Seelampur into two sides, each referred to as “the other side of the road.” Old Seelampur falls within the East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, and New Seelampur in North East Delhi. The BJP won both constituencies in 2014, as well as Delhi’s remaining five. In 2009 the Congress swept all seven, and won six in 2004.
On our way to Seelampur we pass a vibrant BJP rally near Lakshmi Nagar. Top-order batsman Gautam Gambhir is glumly posed atop a tempo, flanked by partymen in sharp kurtas showering petals on supporters filling the road. He namastes them all. He is the party’s candidate from East Delhi.
Old Seelampur. We get down at a paan shop by the road. “We’ll vote for whoever works for us,” Tarunisha tells us, not letting the group of men gathered around get in a word. “My vote is going to the panja” she says, meaning the Congress hand. The men all nod.
“We voted for the jhaadu last time” – AAP’s broomstick – says Abdul Baig Khan, “but they haven’t done anything to benefit us.” “The poor haven’t got anything, the people by the railway tracks are still living there,” Tarunisha agrees, happily posing for a photograph.
Tarunisha in Old Seelampur
Abdul Baig Khan, seated centre, says the Congress has a good chance
Further inside we meet Mohammad Ali Shah, who says the entire area is backing the Congress candidate, Arvinder Singh Lovely. “Lovely has been the MLA many times from here. He will win.”
“AAP is fine for Delhi,” adds Mohammad Ansari, “but not at the Centre. This time people here will vote for the Congress.”
A well dressed man trundles past. “I voted for the BJP, I will vote for the BJP. Tiwari is a good man.” Manoj Tiwari the sitting MP from North East Delhi is up for reelection: the man must be from across the road.
Mohammad Ali Shah and Mohammad Ansari
Now in the wholesale market at Hallan Chowk, we meet a very vocal Ishtiyaq. “BJP rule has finished us,” he declares. “I used to earn 1500 a day, but since this government’s notebandi (demonetisation) I struggle to make even 2 rupees.”
“Can you help me?” he adds. “I lost 26 lakhs because of notebandi. It ruined me. Here’s what happened. Do you think you can help me get the money back somehow?”
“Business is finished,” Ishtiyaq expands. “People here have been ruined. I will vote for whoever can get me my money back.” He says there’s a heavy Congress vote in the area.
But he leads us across to another clothing store. Its owner Kuldeep Singh agrees that business has been affected by demonetisation and GST, but believes the BJP vote remains intact.
“Yes, business is down, but I support PM Modi. Demonetisation was a good measure. There was so much terrorism in the country, demonetisation has finished it off.”
“Finished what off?” Ishtiyaq bangs the counter. “Aren’t the stone pelters still there? Are they gone? Tell these people how bad business is, tell them how it’s finished.”
Singh keeps cool. “Muslims will vote for the Congress, Hindus for the BJP,” he tells us matter of fact.
Kuldeep Singh says the BJP vote remains intact
We make our way through the market. At another shop the assistants offer no comment, telling us to ask the owner just arrived. They listen.
“The fight here is between the Congress and the BJP,” Joginder begins. “Lovely has a good chance. He’s done a lot of work in the area. He made a school, a community hall, this bridge, that parking lot. Yes, many people voted for AAP last time… But Lovely has won the Vidhan Sabha election many times from here.”
Will the Balakot airstrikes impact the vote? Joginder shakes his head, “All I know is that today people are suffering. Things were better when the Congress was in power.”
Joginder says the Congress candidate Lovely has done a lot of work here as MLA
At a busy intersection leading out of Old Seelampur, standing next to his freshly painted auto, Suman Mandal tells us he will remain with AAP. “Auto drivers have finally got permits, and the police have stopped harassing us. In this area though, there’s a strong Congress vote,” Mandal adds.
Suman Mandal says AAP has secured auto drivers permits preventing police harassment
The Far Side of the Road
On the other side of the highway, in New Seelampur the roads are widened and cleaned and the shops are bigger. Here down the street a tall temple is under construction. In North East Delhi, BJP incumbent Manoj Tiwari is up against former chief minister Sheila Dikshit and Dilip Pandey of AAP, making it a fight between three Brahmin candidates, the only such contest in the capital.
“I’m very happy with the current government,” says a composed Kanti Lal who’s running the corner shop. “PM Modi is the best. Yes, work has suffered somewhat since demonetisation but it’s still okay. As for Balakot, I like PM Modi even more because of it. We should teach our enemies a lesson.”
Kanti Lal at the corner store has praise for MP Tiwari and PM Modi
Lal also has a good word for Manoj Tiwari and the work he has done. “I think the Congress has put up Sheila Dikshit,” he says, checking in his newspaper. “AAP has no vote here.”
A few shops down, Surendar and Rajinder Prasad Jain are tucking into a plate of hot samosas. “Manoj Tiwari is a useless man,” says Surendar. “No work has been done in the area. The BJP should have changed the candidate.”
His father’s all nods. “Of course some of the BJP vote will shift to the Congress, people are unhappy with Tiwari. There’s no AAP here, it’s between BJP and Congress,” he says.
Surendar and Rajinder Prasad Jain think the BJP should have picked a new candidate
At a chaat stall nearby, Arun unplugs his earphones for our questions. “BJP ka zor hai (it holds sway)” he says. “GST and demonetisation affected business adversely but I’m still with the BJP. I like the party, I like the prime minister.”
Bishun Sharma who is making the chaat, will have none of this. “Kaam poora pit gaya (Business took a bad hit). When the Congress was here there was work, but since the BJP has come life is very hard.”
“Congress has a chance,” Sharma concludes. No he doesn’t know who the party is fielding.
Bishun Sharma and Arun
At a larger shop down the road its proprietor Krishan Kumar offers a synthesis. “It’s all unclear. All three are in the fight here,” he says, “and it’s hard to say which way it’ll go. What else do you expect when all three decide to contest separately?”
“It’s simple,” Kumar proceeds. “Hindu minded people will vote for the BJP, and Muslims for the Congress or AAP. Their vote will get divided between the two. 75 percent of this area is Muslim” he says, pointing behind the brick temple across the road.
In the North East Delhi district one in three people are Muslim, twice the national average.
There across the road, sits an elderly gentleman on a small shaded cart arranged with clothes. “Modi ne pareshan kar diya, mamla kharab kar diya (Modi caused a lot of trouble, he’s wrecked the business or bargain)” says Mohammad Shabir. “There’s no work anymore. When the Congress was in power things were better.”
We ask who he thinks the fight will be between, and quizzical he hands back the question. “The fight? There should be peace, that’s all I want. Hindustan achha rahe. Hindustan ek sone ki chidiya hai (India should remain good. India is a golden bird).”
“I’m from this country,” Shabir adds. “I was born here, I live here, and all I want is for it to prosper.”
Mohammad Shabir says the rich will never understand the hardship of the poor
“Demonetisation ruined work. And things are so expensive – flour, dal – everything is out of reach. Only the poor will understand this hardship, the rich will never understand,” Shabir says.
Steps away a group of women buy lemonade for respite from the hot summer sun. “We’re supporting the Congress” they say, clearly not in the mood to elaborate. Steps away, a woman in a burqa tells us unblinking she thinks Modi will win.
The Meanings of Modi
We duck down an alley ourselves to escape the sun, stopping at a small stall. “Modi ji ne bahut mazboot kaam kiya (Modi ji did very enduring work)” says Ajit Prasad Jain handing customers refreshment. “I’m a shakhadari (someone trained at an RSS branch)” he reveals with pride. “I started training when I was just nine years old.” That’s the same age PM Modi joined the RSS.
“There’s never been a PM such as Modi, and there never will be,” says Jain. “It’s immaterial who stands from the BJP, the vote will go to the BJP. And Sheila Dikshit can stand, Rahul Gandhi himself can stand, it won’t matter. Manoj Tiwari will win.”
Over cups of tea which he gifts us, Jain elaborates. “Who knows when another Modi will be born?” We ask about former prime minister Vajpayee who joined the RSS at age 14. “Vajpayee was god incarnate. But I’ve never cast a vote, not for the BJP or anyone else.”
We ask about the perception that during elections the RSS cadre would typically be told to work for the Jan Sangh or the BJP. “The Jan Sangh, the BJP, the RSS are one. All three are cut from the same cloth. We are a family.” He slaps the salute against his heart.
Ajit Prasad Jain says there will never be another PM like Modi
“AAP is finished,” he replies. “This side, the vote is for the BJP – across the road it’s a Congress scene.” Old Seelampur. “The BJP made a mistake in fielding Gautam Gambhir. Lovely is a strong candidate, people in the area know who he is, he’s done a lot of work and has a solid voter base.”
As we leave New Seelampur, we stop to chat with a group of people sitting in the shade of a small covered cart. Mohammad Shamin and Jahan Mohammad tell us their freedom has been constricted since 2014. “Earlier we could go where we wanted, wear what we wanted, eat what we wanted… now all that’s changed.”
“The AAP government has done good work, especially in providing health, education, free water and electricity… but in this election the Congress stands a good chance. That’s if the elections are free and fair,” says Mohammad.
“If there is no deceit, it’s only a matter of time. Paper flowers have no scent, but paper can be perfumed. Even the truth can be hidden, if they’re all in it together,” he adds pointedly to us journalists.
“Modiji filled your fists with notes,” says Mohammad, “and you convinced people to vote for him. But Modi hasn’t fulfilled a single promise he made. He said we’d own homes and we’re out on the street. We were driving autos and now we ply cycles. Meanwhile this jetsetting government burns through the public’s money.”
The younger Shamin chimes in, “Our freedom has been compromised since 2014. We don’t have jobs. Demonetisation nearly killed us. We weren’t able to feed our families for days as no one in the family had cash, and my boss wasn’t paying wages due to the cash crunch.”
“Things were peaceful under the Congress government,” he adds. “At least, we weren’t scared for our lives.”
A Pyrrhic Victory
We make our way to another part of North East Delhi, a quiet residential area in Seemapuri near Dilshad Garden. Two men are sitting on the pavement, not playing cards. “Congress will win,” says Ikhlaq, and no he doesn’t know who’s contesting.
Then Pardip, stocky and young, barges into the conversation. “Prime Minister Modi will win. Demonetisation didn’t do any damage.” He works for the MCD. “I’m very happy with Modi,” he repeats.
Ikhlaq, left, and Pardip, centre
“But Mohamedans won’t vote for the BJP,” Pardip goes on, gesturing at Ikhlaq. We ask why – “Jativad,” he says – casteism, communalism.
“Politicians say it’s because of religion, but that’s not solely why,” counters Ikhlaq.
Another young man comes up. “PM Modi will come back,” he says, “and then…” He and Pardip swagger around the seated Ikhlaq, pointing at him behind his back.
At a small produce shop down the road, two young men show us their palms when we ask who they think will win. “The fight here is between the BJP and the Congress… there’s not much of an AAP vote.”
But just a little further on, Rashid a tempo driver has yet another take. “I leave home in the morning and return late at night. I don’t know who’s going to win. But I support Kejriwal. I’m getting good work, and my area’s got water and electricity,” he tells us.
This view is echoed at a small square further on. “My parents will vote Congress, but I support AAP,” says a young man who refuses to be photographed or identified. “AAP has done good work.”
“There has been development (vikas) under Modi, but without jobs,” adds a man on the next bench. “The problem is employment. And in Modi’s raj, the police is guzzling money, everyone is, because they know they can get away with it.”
In the face of the mighty BJP, a vocal Congress vote is in evidence in these parts of East and North East Delhi. An undercurrent of support persists for AAP. Last time the Congress was a distant third in all seven seats of Delhi, and it was reduced to a nonplayer in the 2015 election to the Assembly. Is its revival more limited than it seems, or will the Congress draw a consequential number of anti-BJP votes?
Delhi votes on May 12.
Co-reported with RIBHU RANJAN and AMAN KUMAR.
This article was first published in The Citizen.