Chandni Chowk’s Bania community is satisfied with AAP but wants Modi at the centre

In Chandni Chowk, even though the Aam Aadmi Party commanded visible support, the area’s Bania traders were largely in favour of a Narendra Modi government at the centre. The BJP leader Harsh Vardhan is contesting the seat against AAP’s Pankaj Gupta and Congress’s JP Agarwal. Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
11 May, 2019

Since the 1980s, the Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha seat has been held by either the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party. But in 2014, the political dynamics of the constituency and the national capital changed with the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party. In its debut parliamentary elections that year, the AAP won 33 percent of the total votes in Delhi. In the contest from Chandni Chowk that year, the AAP’s Ashutosh won nearly 31 percent votes—around 13 percent more than the Congress leader Kapil Sibal, and second only to the BJP candidate, Harsh Vardhan. The next year, the AAP won 67 out of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly elections, including in the Chandni Chowk area. Since then, the party appears to have held on to the goodwill of Chandni Chowk’s constituents. Yet, for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, the constituency’s traders are leaning towards the BJP—and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalism-focused campaign.

The BJP’s popularity is despite the AAP starting its Lok Sabha campaign in Chandni Chowk in June 2018, months before the BJP or the Congress. The AAP had appointed prabharis, or in charges, for five Delhi constituencies, and they were eventually declared as its candidates from the respective seats, in early March this year. In Chandni Chowk, the AAP has fielded Pankaj Gupta, the party’s national secretary, who has been associated with it since its inception. Gupta will contest the seat against Vardhan, the BJP’s incumbent member of parliament, who is also the union minister of science and technology, and Jai Prakash Agarwal, a 74-year-old Congress veteran who won from Chandni Chowk thrice in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Chandni Chowk constituency is spread over parts of Delhi’s central and north districts, and comprises ten assembly segments, all of which are currently held by the AAP. I visited three of these segments—the Ballimaran, Ajmeri Gate and Chandni Chowk assembly constituencies—and found that the sentiment on the ground was largely in favour of a Modi government at the centre. Even though the AAP commanded visible support, the constituents, who predominantly comprised of Bania traders, the country’s most powerful business community, did not consider them a national party.

“AAP is a state party, Congress and BJP are national parties. Why will we vote for AAP?” Yogesh Singhal, the president of the Bullion and Jewelers Association, which represents around a thousand shops in the constituency, said. “They will have two-three seats. What is that going to achieve?” Similarly, Chanchal Giridhar, a 72-year-old Punjabi from the Bania community, who owns a hardware shop in Ajmeri Gate, told me that the AAP had reduced the cost of electricity, provided free water and facilitated better transportation in the capital. But he added that if he votes for any party other than the BJP, his “vote will go to waste.”

According to media estimates, the Bania community constitutes around 40 percent of the constituency’s population. The representatives of various trader associations in and around Chandni Chowk, who were largely from the Bania community, said they had been aggrieved by two of Modi’s biggest economic policies—the decision to demonetise high-value currency notes, followed by the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax nine months later. “Just when we started recovering from demonetisation, we were hit by the GST,” Mukesh Sachdeva, a Bania trader who works in Chandni Chowk, told me. Sachdeva is the general secretary of the Delhi Hindustani Mercantile Association, or DHMA, a body of textile traders that represents around five thousand shops in Chandni Chowk. He added that the new taxation system had stabilised, but continues to cause traders inconvenience.

Despite the discontentment with Modi’s policies, the Congress and the AAP have been unable to significantly dent the BJP’s prospects. Bhagwan Bansal, a Bania resident of Chandni Chowk and the vice president of the DHMA, said that even though the traders are “troubled and upset” because of demonetisation and GST, they would still support the BJP because of “the way Modi addresses issues of national relevance.” Bansal added, “Traders have always aligned with the BJP, and will continue to align with the BJP.”

Naresh Adlakha, the senior vice president of the Confederation of Sadar Bazar Traders Association, also argued that “national issues are relevant for the elections.” He highlighted national security, the international perception of India, and whether the country is able to defend itself, as the prominent issues of the election. “The country needs a prime minister like Modi ji so I will naturally vote for him,” Adlakha added.

Though AAP and Congress have both fielded Bania candidates, representatives of all three parties denied to me that they had tailored their campaign for Chandni Chowk’s dominant Bania communities. Amit Agarwal, the Congress candidate’s son and the election incharge for the area, told me that even after his father’s term in Chandni Chowk was over, he had maintained personal relations with the constituency’s residents. Amit said that the constituents would often invite him to different functions. “Jaise shaadi hoti hai toh Baniye log toh bulaate hi bulaate hai”—Whenever there is a wedding, the Baniyas always call.

I asked Aakash Verma, a member of Gupta’s team, whether the AAP candidate’s Bania identity would help him. Verma said he personally does not vote on the basis of caste, before adding, “But Baniye agar iss cheez pe support karte hai toh bohot achi baat hai, ismein galat kya hai”—But if the Baniyas support us because of this, it is a very good thing, what’s wrong with that.

Both the AAP and the Congress have also addressed the sealing drive in the national capital—over six thousand properties have been sealed since December 2017, on the instructions of a Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee—during their campaign. The AAP’s main electoral plank is the demand to grant Delhi full statehood. As for the Congress, Amit Aggarwal, told me that its main issues this election were water and electricity—ironically, later during our conversation, he said, “Kejriwal has only done bijli and paani—electricity and water—what else has he done?” Indeed, several residents had praised the AAP government for its work on these issues. According to Sultan Malak, the general secretary of a footwear association in Ballimaran, the chief minister Arvind Kejriwal “has given us a direct benefit—he has reduced our expenses.” Malak added, “He has given us 20,000 litres of free water, electricity charges have been reduced.”

The BJP, on the other hand, has stuck to its standard script this election season—national security, terrorism and the Narendra Modi brand. “Problems related to electricity and water will stay for life, no matter what one does,” Ashok Sharma, one of the BJP’s Chandni Chowk in charges, told me. “People will vote for us in Modi’s name. You’ll see that they don’t care about Dr Harsh Vardhan, Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari—they only care about Modi.”

The BJP’s strategy of relying on Modi’s name has proven to be effective. After critiquing GST and demonetisation, Sachdeva said, “Zaadatar jhukaav jo hai vyapari ka, woh BJP ki taraf hai”—The traders are largely leaning towards the BJP. According to him, the United Nations designating Masood Azhar, the chief of the Pakistan-based extremist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, as a “global terrorist” and the recent aerial strikes by the Indian Air Force within Pakistan’s territory led to increased support for Modi. Singhal, too, mentioned similar points while referring to the support for Modi in the area, though he refrained from siding with any particular candidate. But he added, “We will go for those who slogan around digital India, who promise ease of doing business,” referring to commitments made by the BJP.

In addition to the Bania community, Muslims form an important demographic in Chandni Chowk, constituting around 15 percent of the constituency’s electorate, according to media reports. The community is considered to be a traditional vote bank of the Congress, but in the 2014 elections, the vote was split between the Congress and the AAP—to the BJP’s benefit. For the ongoing elections, the Congress and the AAP representatives both said they were confident that they would win the Muslim vote again because the community is opposed to the BJP returning to power. Yet, conversations with the constituents indicated that this confidence may not be entirely well founded.

While no one expressly criticised the Congress’s candidate, Muslim residents I met did not seem to consider Aggarwal a strong contender. “People have forgotten who JP Agarwal is,” Mohammad Nasir, the president of the resident’s welfare association of Ballimaran, said. It has been over a decade since Aggarwal contested from Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha seat—in 2009, he won from the North East Delhi constituency, which he lost to the BJP leader Manoj Tiwari in 2014. Nasir added that Gupta, the AAP candidate, was unknown in the area and did not have a strong personality. “People don’t like the candidate AAP has fielded,” Nasir said. “Ashutosh was better.” Masroor Ahmed Khan, a 73-year-old resident of Ballimaran who was formerly a member of the All India Muslim League, echoed the assertion. Khan said the party should have fielded “those who have an individual identity, like Ashutosh—he should have fought the election again.”

Nonetheless, Khan claimed that “Muslims are with the Aam Aadmi Party … The aim is to defeat the BJP.” However, Vardhan and Aggarwal both share an advantage over AAP’s Pankaj Gupta—they are both known at a personal level in the constituency. For instance, Singhal told me that Vardhan was his family doctor. He said his family members used to go to him and say, “Doctor sahaab kaan mein dard hai, Rs 10 le lo aur kaan saaf karao”— Doctor, my ear hurts, please take Rs 10 and clean it. Shashi Bansal, a resident of Shalimar Bagh who has been running Rubia Point, a textiles store in the Chandni Chowk wholesale market, for 26 years, said she knows both the candidates, though not through campaign outreach. She said that Vardhan is a family friend and that she and Aggarwal’s wife are both in the same kitty, and that she does tailoring-related work for Aggarwal’s wife. Gupta, she added, “has no presence here.”

On the other hand, Alka Lamba, the AAP’s MLA from the Chandni Chowk constituency, appeared to command great respect among her constituents. “If we call Alka Lambaji for any work, she comes and instructs the departments to sort it out,” Sachdeva, the general secretary of the DHMA, said. In December 2018, Lamba objected to a Delhi government resolution to revoke a Bharat Ratna given to the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Since then, she has often expressed her disdain for the party leadership. Sachdeva told me that when Gupta had started his campaign, Lamba was vocal in her support for him, but not anymore. In early May, she tweeted that she had refused to attend a roadshow by the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal in Chandni Chowk because she was asked to walk behind Kejriwal, while the other MLAs would be in the car with him. “If Alka Lamba comes and pressurises us to vote, then we will have to give some thought to voting for the AAP as whenever we call her, she is there,” Sachdeva said. “But woh koi zor nahi laga rahi hai”—But she is not campaigning. He estimated that the AAP would lose at least “10–15-percent” votes in the area because she has not campaigned.

Masroor also expressed his support for Alka Lamba, and multiple residents spoke highly of the AAP MLA Imran Hussain as well. For most traders I spoke to, however, it did not seem like Lamba’s or any other MLA’s presence would have made a difference—they were clear that the AAP was not a contender for national elections. “The AAP has worked, I’m not saying they have not worked, but because of national issues, the traders are looking towards the BJP,” Bansal, the vice president of the DHMA, told me.

When I asked the traders about the national controversies surrounding the BJP, such as corruption allegations related to India’s deal with the French company Dassault Aviation to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft, they were largely dismissive of them. “Whichever party comes, their name will always be associated with some allegation or the other,” Adlakha told me. Similarly, Bansal said, “Allegations of corruption keep going on.” He added, “The public is concerned only with what steps are taken,” referring to the Indian Air Force’s aerial strikes in Pakistan. After this, he said, the “people are in favour of Modi.” Even traders such as Singhal, who were critical of Modi’s economic policies, were not dissuaded from supporting the BJP. “Whether it is GST, or demonetisation, or sealingall these issues have been dwarfed in the face of nationalism and security,” he said.

None of the Muslim voters I met supported the BJP. “Harsh Vardhan ji sirf Modi ji ke aas paas ghoomte hai, uske ilawa unhone kuch nahi kiya”—Harsh Vardhan just roams around near Modi, he has not done anything apart from that—Malak, the general secretary of the footwear association, told me. Yet, several Muslim residents of Chandni Chowk were not clearly aligned with any other party either. Yousuf Jamal, the secretary of the Ballimaran Residents Welfare Association, said that he does not think that Vardhan is secular and that he was not pleased with the Congress’s work either. When I asked if that meant he is considering the AAP, he said, “This is not a state election, so why will we consider the AAP?”