Posted by: John Elliott | May 7, 2009

Muslim frustrations challenge Congress in Old Delhi

CHANDNI CHOWK: In a general election dominated by local issues, one of the most personalised contests has been waged in old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk constituency, where voting is taking place today. The debate is simple and straightforward – which of two public figures can fix things best to improve the area’s inadequate and dilapidated public services, and which can make a sizeable Muslim community feel cared for?

018209_editedIs it Kapil Sibal (left, with garland), the 60-year old MP for the past five years and India’s minister for science and technology? He appears on tv screens almost every night as a leading Congress Party spokesman, and has the national clout needed to achieve progress, but is criticised for not caring enough for the constituency.
Or is it 45-year old Vijender Gupta (below), the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate, who has for the past two years been chairman of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s powerful standing committee, which has extensive executive powers over a conurbation of some 16m people? He has prowled the Byzantine corridors of city politics so knows how to get things done, but has little track record in Chandni Chowk.

img_3803_editedIdeally, they would both win and merge their considerable talents. They would be a rather good team – the urbane globe-trotting lawyer and national politician who has become one of India’s most focussed and effective science ministers, and the energetic people-savvy urban fixer – but that is not possible.

As voters go to the polls, the odds are on Sibal – “The Candidate” as he is known by his team, which is credited by observers for running an effective campaign that has outclassed Gupta’s efforts. He has had a difficult job because the recent redrawing or “delimitation“ of constituency boundaries has massively enlarged the constituency from 400,000 voters, focussed in and around old Delhi’s famous and once elegant old walled city and the teeming bazaar-packed Chandni Chowk thoroughfare, to a much higher total of 1.4m.

The new boundaries have reduced the Muslim population – Congress’s traditional supporters – from 34% of the vote to 14%. The constituency now includes urbanised villages and more modern areas like Rohini, twelve stations away on the metro railway, where Gupta has been actively involved in local development as the local MCD representative.

img_3840_editedThe old Chandni Chowk area is a microcosm of India. Many of the people seen on the streets are not local voters –shopkeepers live in more comfortable areas of Delhi, and the porters and other labourers, who carry huge loads on their heads, pull overloaded trolleys, and drive bullock and horse-drawn carts, are immigrant labour from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Local families’ homes mostly lie behind the street fronts, far back among small alleys and lanes that lace through the area. Some are more visible, including a famous old haveli, known as Chunnamal (below), which has a 200-foot long frontage onto the main Chandni Chowk thoroughfare. Owned and still occupied in fading grandeur by the Pershad family, it is so large that there are 130 mostly tiny shops in the alleyways underneath.

img_3818_edited1But for me, as a foreign journalist, the most interesting facet is that the area reflects the frustrations of India’s Muslim minority, which feels “just a vote bank” in elections. Talking to a Muslim family in one of the many old havelis, I heard about these frustrations – expressed specially strongly by young people who are becoming better educated and more ambitious and impatient, but who despair of Congress. “It suits Congress to keep us backward and unrepresented,” said their father, a retired politician. “They think they can then count on our vote”.

There was special frustration that two of the constituency’s Muslim candidates, who are standing for smaller parties, have been scarcely visible in the campaign, especially Haji Mustaqeem, the candidate for the BSP, which is led by Mayawati, the high profile idiosyncratic chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Mayawati, who sees herself as a prime minister, is trying  to expand from her Dalit (low caste) UP base into other areas.

Mustaqeem “does not speak much – he just walks, taking quick steps,” the Indian Express reported a few days ago. “He’s been bought off,” a young Muslim journalist told me, adding other names who, he alleged, the Congress Party had paid, or rewarded in other ways, not to stand. The party would obviously deny this, but it fits in with widespread reports of elections being influenced by money. A BSP candidate in another Delhi constituency has gone further than Mustaqeem and backed the Congress candidate.

Removing or neutralising these candidates means that most Muslims have to vote Congress, since few would go for Gupta’s Hindu-nationalist BJP – or not vote at all. I wondered why Muslims did not organise themselves to implement a constitutional right to register at polling booths as non-voters. That however is a cumbersome process, but it would be different if India’s electronic voting machines had a “no vote” button.

As we talked, my hosts dreamed of a Mayawati emerging, either as a Muslim leader or of a party like the BSP or the Samajwadi Party that would form a reliable national alliance and make Muslims a significant force and not just a vote bank. They did not however think there was much chance of a national Muslim leader because they said, repeating the phrase, “he would be bought off”.

img_3795_edited1I have been with both Sibal and Gupta electioneering in the old city area over the past few days. In temperatures of 40C and more, both have walked the lanes and narrow alleyways of bazaars and tenements. Gupta (left) was relaxed as he was garlanded, and showered with orange and pink flower petals from balconies and roof tops, in Saddar Bazaar, led by three noisy drummers who beat out his path. “Local development is the main issues”, he told me. “People are angry the MP did not turn up for five years but I will be available and accessible and easily approachable”.

That is the main – indeed the only – complaint about Sibal, but I heard it everywhere, including from his supporters. “No doubt he is a good leader but he never visited here – though I’ll vote for him,” said a shopkeeper on the main Chandni Chowk thoroughfare. “He must become a patient listener,” said another.

Sibal signing a science agreement with Condoleezza Rice

Sibal signing a science agreement with Condoleezza Rice

In a way, Sibal’s personal achievements set him an impossibly high bar as a leading lawyer, a government minister, tv commentator, and even a poet – a collection of poems titled I Witness of his personal musings about contemporary society was published last year and sold out almost immediately. Many people – especially Muslims – told me that they had expected more when he became their MP and are disillusioned.

Sibal says he is available and has visited the constituency about 500 times for various events. “Even if I went every day I’d only meet maybe 20,000 in a year – there would still be people who had not met me,“ he said. He has used his influence as a central government minister to organise construction of a new local reservoir that will double the area’s water capacity, and has worked on a development plan for the historic Jamma Masjid area, as well as using his own science ministry’s resources to help road construction, healthcare and other developments.

Gupta has successfully turned unpopular increases in school fees into a significant election issue – he is patron of the Delhi Parents’ Association that has been campaigning against fee hikes for several months. His record as the MCD committee chairman includes boosting Delhi’s spending budget and various allowances for councillors, as well as increasing provisions for the aged.

Whoever wins will have a constituency that expects more of its MP. Just 30 to 40 minutes drive from parliament and ministerial homes, voters expect the winner to be visible, and regularly. It is ironic that a constituency located far away, where an MP would have to make long weekend journeys to fulfil his local duties, probably gets more attention than one so near the centre of the capital – one that was once itself the heart of the city.

This is a slightly extended and illustrated (and unedited) version of an article in Mint, an Indian business newspaper –



  1. been following ur blog for some time now…must admit that this article was quite nice 🙂

    at the head of the article, u fleetingly mention how it may be best to have both the candidates team up…lovely thought…!

    then again, as we’ve seen often, even if the best of minds coalesce, their egos form walls that rise oh-so-high, and ultimately the common man is the one that finds himself shut-out from any semblence of improvement.

  2. I am an Indian Muslim, politically unaligned, but committed to Muslim advocacy. I have a blog:
    You may find a few of my article relevant to how Muslims are reacting to issues, political parties and personalities in India and abroad – and my latest on Why CPI (M) is better placed than Congress or BJP to lead a stable coalition at the center and secure India.

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