With the BJP deciding to give the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) a contest, the focus in Delhi has shifted to the 6 January election for the positions of Mayor, Deputy Mayor and three posts in Municipal Corporation of Delhi's standing committee.
The BJP firmly believes that it has a chance. "Look what happened in Chandigarh," is a common refrain among Delhi BJP leaders, who remind how the party managed to take of the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation through alleged defections from AAP.
AAP is quietly optimisitic and say that the BJP has failed to engineer any major defections in Delhi.
If AAP retains its numbers, its candidates Shelly Oberoi and Aaley Mohammad Iqbal will be elected as Delhi's Mayor and Deputy Mayor respectively and Sarika Chaudhary, Mohini Jeenwal and Aamil Malik would be elected as members of the standing committee.
The fact that AAP nominated Muslim councillors in two out of the five posts - Aaley Mohammad Iqbal and Aamil Malik - is being seen by many as AAP's course correction among Delhi's Muslims. This is especially after the party faced some reverses in Muslim concentration areas in Northeast Delhi and Okhla in the MCD elections.
This article will look at three aspects:
Why these choices are important
Why the need for this 'course correction'?
The ups and downs in AAP's relationship with Muslims and why it is still a work in progress
The Importance of Choosing Aaley Mohammad Iqbal and Aamil Malik
In many ways, Aaley Mohammad Iqbal was a natural choice for one of the key positions. Despite being just 32, he is among the most experienced AAP councillors, having won from Chandni Mahal thrice in a row. As AAP would be running the MCD for the first time, it may benefit from having an experienced councillor as Deputy Mayor.
Son of six-time MLA from Matia Mahal, Shoaib Iqbal, Aaley Mohammad Iqbal has a good connect in the area and is known to be a hard worker. Despite reverses in other Muslim pockets, AAP managed to sweep the Muslim pockets in Old Delhi.
Iqbal's supporters say he is the first Muslim to hold this position in several decades. Delhi did have a Muslim mayor in 2006 - Farhad Suri of the Congress. Suri lost to AAP in Daryaganj ward, that is adjacent to Iqbal's ward Chandni Mahal.
However, the need for a course correction among Muslims is also said to have been a factor behind his selection. This is more evident in the choice of first-time councillor Aamil Malik. Malik was the only Muslim candidate from AAP to win in Northeast Delhi. AAP lost a sizable part of its support among Muslims in the Northeast Delhi area to the Congress, Independents and AIMIM. In Okhla, the gainer was mainly the Congress.
However, this shift wasn't uniform. Outside of these areas, AAP still remained the main choice for Muslim voters, especially in areas where they are in a minority.
Besides resentment over the performance of MLAs and councillors, in Northeast Delhi the AAP's losses were also due to AAP's alleged "silence" during the 2020 riots.
CM Arvind Kejriwal, Deputy CM Manish Sisodia and AAP's MLAs in Northeast Delhi were accused of not doing enough to stop the violence or speaking out against hate speeches that were given.
In some ways this was a repeat of the 1993 state elections, when the Congress got punished in several Muslim concentration areas in Delhi and Independents or Janata Dal candidates got elected, including Shoaib Iqbal.
Why Did AAP Feel the Need for this Course Correction?
Soon after the MCD results, AAP realised that it would need a new leadership in Muslim concentration areas where it had fared badly, as there was some resentment against its local leaders.
As a result, discussions were initiated with Congress leader from Mustafabad, Ali Mehdi, son of former MLA Hasan Ahmed. Mehdi met CM Arvind Kejriwal and councillors loyal to him joined AAP in a public function. However, protests broke out in Mustafabad among locals who were upset at him joining AAP. Mehdi had to take a U-Turn and put out a video announcing that he is a committed Congress worker. The others who had joined with him also returned.
The incident gave AAP an indication that it won't be easy for the party to revive its base among Delhi's Muslims.
Though AAP won a majority of seats in the MCD polls, the BJP managed to increase its vote share compared to 2017, giving clear proof of the stability of its base.
This is important in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
If BJP can increase its vote share at the MCD level despite 15 years of being in power, it is highly unlikely that AAP will be able to dent it in any major way during the Lok Sabha elections.
Therefore AAP's prospects would be dependent on consolidating non-BJP votes.
AAP is keen to avoid a repeat of 2019, in which it was reduced to third position in five out of 7 Lok Sabha seats. A major reason for this is the massive shift in Muslim votes to the Congress.
Many in the party say that this course correction was necessary in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
Ups and Downs in AAP's Equation With Muslims
AAP emerged in Delhi's political scene by winning 28 seats in the 2013 Assembly elections, a year after its launch and two and a half years after the India Against Corruption agitation.
However, it failed to make an impact in Muslim dominated seats, which were mostly swept by the Congress.
This changed within a matter of months. AAP's emergence as the main anti-BJP force in Delhi led to a clear shift in support among Muslims. According to surveys, AAP got over 60 percent Muslim votes in both the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 2015 Assembly polls. AAP chief Arvnid Kejriwal's decision to fight against PM Narendra Modi in Varanasi in 2014 also strengthened his image as an anti-BJP leader.
But the 2019 debacle proved to be a watershed event, with AAP falling behind not just the BJP but also the Congress in terms of vote share.
Rajendra Pal Gautam, then a minister in the AAP government, made a comment to the media saying that Muslims didn't vote for the party.
The 2019 result prompted AAP to take a less stridently anti-BJP stand and also adopt what it calls a more "cautious" approach on the communal-secular debate. It was after this that AAP's efforts to showcase its Hindu credentials started.
Ironically, three years later, Rajendra Pal Gautam himself became a casualty of this approach as he had to resign following protests from Hindu groups due to his participation in a mass conversion to Buddhism.
Under this approach, Arvind Kejriwal openly spoke about how he would have "removed" the Shaheen Bagh protest if he had "control over the police". AAP was also accused of stigmatising the Tablighi Jamaat during the first COVID-19 wave.
As a result of these developments as well as AAP's "silence" during the 2020 riots, it lost a considerable degree of support among Muslim voters. The first signs of this could be seen in AAP's defeat in the 2020 Chauhan Bangar municipal bypoll.
However, AAP insiders say that the party always had a layered stand on issues concerning Muslims.
"AAP voted against the CAA, the Triple Talaq Bill. We even voted against the UAPA (Amendment) which the Congress supported. (AAP MP) Sanjay Singh even spoke in Parliament on how it can be used to jail innocent people," an AAP leader told The Quint.
In terms of representation too, AAP has ensured that there is always a Muslim minister in the Delhi cabinet. Even when Asim Ahmed Khan was accused of corruption, he was replaced by another Muslim MLA Imran Hussain.
It has also consistently fielded Muslim candidates from Muslim concentration seats like Seelampur, Mustafabad, Matia Mahal, Ballimaran and Okhla.
"AAP is not like BJP, it is more like Congress. It plays Muslim politics in Muslim areas and Hindu politics in Hindu areas. BJP has the same stand in all areas," a BJP functionary from East Delhi told The Quint.
The difference, however, arises in the stand of the party's top leadership. Unlike Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, AAP's top leaders like Kejriwal and Sisodia have mostly avoided taking a stand against communal issues.
"Leaders like Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak are the main faces of the party on such issues (concerning minorities)," said an AAP leader.
This was clear following the release of the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case. Manish Sisodia avoided the issue when questioned by a reporter. On the other hand, the party's stand was articulated by Durgesh Pathak in a press conference.
AAP's equation with Muslims is still a work in progress. It is neither considered a natural choice like the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, RJD in Bihar, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and Congress in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and several other states. Not is it seen as overly hostile the way BJP is.
AAP's main hope has been that welfarist politics would help it gain organic roots in Muslim areas. However, that doesn't seem to be an easy process and AAP has had to rely on leaders like Shoaib Iqbal and Imran Hussain, who originally come from other parties (Janata Dal and BSP respectively).
One thing became clear in the MCD elections, that AAP can't count on Muslim votes just by virtue of being the main challenger to BJP in Delhi. It would have to work harder to get the community's support. It remains to be seen whether this course correction post-MCD results is followed up with more measures.